Song of Solomon

Hindustan Times ST (Mumbai) - Brunch - - INDULGE -

IAM NOT sure that any­one has no­ticed, but three of the Taj’s great­est chefs have re­tired re­cently. He­mant Oberoi, who looked after the lux­ury prop­er­ties and whose many con­tri­bu­tions to the group in­cluded Wasabi, Varq and the Masala restau­rants, moved out nearly two years ago to per­form functions out­side the kitchen. Even­tu­ally, he left the Taj al­to­gether and from what I gather, his restaurant in Sin­ga­pore is the toast of the town.

Chef ‘Nat’ Natara­jan left more qui­etly – in keep­ing with his own mod­est, un­der­stated personality. I have known Nat since he was a sous chef in the kitchen of the old Bom­bay Ren­dezvous in 1982. He was, as you might ex­pect, a won­der-

The last of the great Taj chefs re­tires, leav­ing a legacy of a man whose heart lay in his restau­rants

bay find it hard to be­lieve that Ananda Solomon is fi­nally hang­ing up his toque. He is younger than Oberoi or Natara­jan and, for my money, he is un­ques­tion­ably the great­est chef of his gen­er­a­tion, mas­ter­ing a mul­ti­plic­ity of cuisines with the great­est of ease.

And yet, Solomon did not start out in­tend­ing to work for the Taj. He be­came a chef at the old Oberoi Sher­a­ton (to­day’s Tri­dent), slav­ing away in the kitchens of the nowex­tinct Sup­per Club, turn­ing out Lob­ster Ther­mi­dor and Chicken Kiev for wealthy din­ers.

He was poached by the Taj and sent off to Goa to work with the great chef, Ur­bano Rego. It was prob­a­bly around this time that he made the shift from be­ing what the trade calls a ‘Conti chef ’ to be­com­ing some­one who was much more mul­ti­fac­eted.

His big break came about al­most by ac­ci­dent. As an ex­per­i­ment, the Taj had tried run­ning a Thai pop-up in the bar at the Pres­i­dent Ho­tel. At first the restaurant met with un­prece­dented suc­cess but then, as the buzz died down, din­ers stopped turn­ing up.

But Ajit Kerkar, who ran the Taj in those days, was con­vinced that there was a mar­ket for Thai food. So, he per­sisted with the idea and planned a big­ger, grander restaurant at roughly the same lo­ca­tion. The Taj had no Thai chefs and Kerkar was re­luc­tant to base the com­pany’s foray into Thai cui­sine on ex­pat chefs. So, Solomon, who was young and seemed will­ing to learn, was dis­patched to Bangkok.

At first, he did the nor­mal cheffy things. He at­tended the Ori­en­tal Cook­ing School and trained in the kitchen of the Shangri-La. But he soon worked out that this was tourist food, meant for for­eign­ers and only dis­tantly re­lated to the food that the lo­cals ate. He asked Kerkar if he could stay on and ap­pren­tice at less fancy places.

To his sur­prise, Kerkar agreed and Solomon stayed on in Bangkok for several months, pick­ing up enough of the

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