FOOD FOR THOUGHT WITH THE MASTER CHEF
Master chef Hemant Oberoi dishes out a delectable conversation with Society
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