FOOD FOR THOUGHT WITH THE MAS­TER CHEF

Mas­ter chef He­mant Oberoi dishes out a de­lec­ta­ble con­ver­sa­tion with So­ci­ety

Society - - CONTENTS - By San­deep Hat­tan­gadi

Gourmet man He­mant Oberoi dishes out a de­lec­ta­ble con­ver­sa­tion with So­ci­ety

He­mant Oberoi has been known as the Taj Group’s star chef, start­ing iconic restau­rants like Wasabi, Zo­diac Grill and Souk to name a few. He has dished out del­i­ca­cies for every­one, from the Oba­mas to the Am­ba­nis, and is now cre­at­ing rip­ples world over with his sig­na­ture restau­rant chain, He­mant Oberoi’s. You have also seen him shar­ing his Food Mem­oirs on the food show by the same name on the Liv­ing Foodz chan­nel. Here, the ‘wizard of the kitchen’ talks about the past, present and fu­ture of the coun­try’s culi­nary tale. And also about his own tryst with all things gourmet.

Your jour­ney in the ho­tel in­dus­try has been a long and il­lus­tri­ous one. What prompted you to be a chef?

I come from a mid­dle class fam­ily in Pun­jab and as is the norm, it was or­dained that I be­come an en­gi­neer, doc­tor or an army

of­fi­cer. But I couldn’t clear the ex­ams and so, when some­body sug­gested I do ho­tel man­age­ment, I opted for it and was happy to learn the ropes of the in­dus­try. But I never wanted to be a chef. In my last year, my depart­ment chief sug­gested I be­come a chef and I couldn’t imag­ine my­self as one. But then I learnt to be a chef and to­day I am a re­spected one. It’s all destiny. I ap­peared for the cam­pus in­ter­views and was selected for the Oberoi’s and the Taj Group but the Oberoi’s wanted me to drop my sur­name as they wouldn’t write the sur­name ‘Oberoi’ in my ap­point­ment let­ter. So I opted for the Taj Group and for 40 years, I was with the Taj Group. It was a won­der­ful ex­pe­ri­ence as they have ex­em­plary work ethics, hon­esty, dili­gence and re­spect for hard work. I am re­ally blessed to have worked with the Taj Group.

And you had your own epony­mous ho­tel chain since a cou­ple of years–He­mant Oberoi’s.

Yes. We have three prop­er­ties – in Ban­dra Kurla Com­plex in Mum­bai, in San Hose in the US and in Sin­ga­pore. And although we of­fer great am­bi­ence, ser­vice plays a very im­por­tant role for me. It’s a place where guests can come for a meal ex­pe­ri­ence and ex­pect smil­ing good ser­vice along with a good am­bi­ence and good food, of course. It’s a great time to have a restau­rant chain. Peo­ple are now well trav­elled and are more knowl­edge­able about dif­fer­ent cuisines and trends in food.

What have been the high­lights of your ca­reer?

I have served my del­i­ca­cies to so many in­ter­na­tion­ally renowned fig­ures. Right from Atal Bi­hari Va­j­payee to al­most all the US Pres­i­dents – Ger­ald Ford, Ron­ald Rea­gan, Jimmy Carter, Ge­orge Bush, Barack Obama, Margaret Thatcher, Fran­cois Mit­ter­rand, Pierre Trudeau and so on. They have all praised my food and I feel great about that. I have also served big in­dus­tri­al­ists like JRD Tata, Ratan Tata and Neeta and Anil Am­bani. It’s been quite a priv­i­lege.

Why, ac­cord­ing to you, is In­dian cui­sine so pop­u­lar over­seas?

It’s a mis­nomer that In­dian food is pop­u­lar be­cause most of the restau­rants in places like Lon­don are run by Pak­ista­nis and Bangladeshis. In­dian food is also gain­ing a foothold but it’s still way be­hind. There are about 900 restau­rants in Lon­don but a very small frac­tion are In­di­ans.

More and more young­sters are get­ting into the ho­tel in­dus­try now, what with so many culi­nary schools mush­room­ing ev­ery­where. Be­ing a chef is con­sid­ered as a lu­cra­tive pro­fes­sion and se­ri­ous busi­ness now.

Yes, that’s true. There has been a rise in cater­ing in­sti­tutes in the coun­try. Also, most for­eign in­sti­tutes are in queue to col­lab­o­rate with In­dia and bring their branches here. This pro­fes­sion is not looked down upon any­more. The rea­son why chefs are re­spected to­day is be­cause they come with a spe­cific skill set. They are like ar­ti­sans and their art is food. And they are also en­trepreneurs, bring­ing new food trends to the ta­ble. Many stu­dents also like the glamour and fame in­volved as chefs are fast be­com­ing stars in their own right, gain­ing pop­u­lar­ity through cook­books and tele­vi­sion.

But do you think the restau­rant busi­ness is re­ally prof­itable in In­dia?

I don’t feel so. With so many li­censes to be ac­quired, so many con­di­tions, in­fla­tion and taxes, it is hardly prof­itable. But some­how we break even. Look at the Irani and Udupi restau­rants clos­ing down reg­u­larly, de­spite be­ing a part of our cul­ture. We should have pre­served and pro­tected them. In a coun­try like Sin­ga­pore, I could open a restau­rant by sign­ing just one form.

What ad­vice would you give to bud­ding, as­pir­ing chefs?

Cook with pas­sion and don’t be over­con­fi­dent. Learn some­thing new every sin­gle day rather than feel­ing like an ex­pert.

What’s the im­por­tance of be­ing a Miche­lin chef ac­cord­ing to you?

Miche­lin is vastly re­spected as a credit rating agency for ho­tels around the world. But Miche­lin is a tyre com­pany. There are about 1000 Miche­lin restau­rants in the US alone. That doesn’t make sense to me.

You have roped in both your sons in the ho­tel busi­ness as well.

Yes. One looks af­ter my San Jose prop­erty and the other looks af­ter my Sin­ga­pore prop­erty.

Your fa­vorite dishes?

Grilled fish and spinach in any form.

And favourite cuisines?

It has been Euro­pean, French, Ja­panese, Mid­dle east­ern and East­ern cuisines from Philip­pines, In­done­sia, etc.

Any pro­fes­sional chefs who have in­spired you?

Alain Du­casse and Joel Roe­bu­chon.

...with Ran­bir Kapoor at his restau­rant in Mum­bai

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