Turned down my first job at Oberoi; they had an issue with my surname: Chef Hemant Oberoi

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`Are you going to be a khansama?’ was his father’s response to a young Hemant Oberoi’s decision to join catering college. Chef Hemant Oberoi who stepped down this month after a star spangled 41 year career as the corporate chef of The Taj Group of Hotel’s luxury division, is perhaps among the few chefs whose retirement has been written about in the media. Chef Oberoi’s accomplishments are legion and his fame precedes his creations now. He was determined to be not just a khansama but the best in the business from his first day in the Taj kitchens. Looking at his boss Chef Satish Arora, he recalls thinking: I want his job. Working very hard, Oberoi swiftly climbed up the ladder to head the Rs 4,126-crore revenue group. Looking back on  his long stint at his first job from where he now moves out as a consultant to the Taj Group, he says,  “I am happy at the way my life has turned out.”

Excerpts from the conversation:

What is the first meal of your day?

It is egg whites and cereals every day.

Does that not get boring?

Not really. By that yardstick one should get bored with one’s spouse. But well, even if many would like to say Yes to that, for their own peace of mind, they’d say No, right?

What is your opinion of yourself?

I think I am talented but that does not mean I know everything there is to know. People who think they know and stop learning are dead. Recently I went to Peru and checked out Peruvian cuisine. There is so much to learn. I want to learn how to handle the Japanese fish Fogu. It is a delicate fish and is poisonous. How to clean it is an art by itself.

Fusion, molecular cuisine, popular food. What do you make of these fads?

I think fusion food is confusion! A chicken makhni sorbet? Have a heart. Rosemary lamb chops. Really? Don’t kill the food. Be subtle and present the food well. I feel in our hurry to learn about international cuisines we have forgotten the basics of our own. Especially the way our ancestors made it. I want to bring those foods into the limelight. A lot of research has to be done on that. I would like to put out an attawala chicken, for instance.

So many restaurants open up on a frequent basis and a lot more shut down too.

I think the only reason a restaurant fails is because you cannot always have specialized food. You cannot have molecular food on a daily basis, can you? All this can be had on the occasional day. A good restaurant is one that has just three ingredients: good food, good flavour, good presentation. That is all there is to it. Restaurants fail when the overheads are high. More importantly, if the food lacks consistency, then you have lost the plot. People will forgive you once but not more than that.

Do people come to you at parties asking for tips?

All the time. Sometimes I get asked very silly things. Once I was asked: How does one know when the oil is hot? I replied, put your finger into it. If it burns, the oil is hot!

In your busy career serving heads of state to celebrities, are there moments of pressure?

I won’t be truthful if I say that there is no pressure. Especially when the guests are heads of state and there are more concerns with regard to security, hygiene, etc. The food is first sent to our laboratory before we serve it to the guests. However, I do not let any food pass unless I have tested it.

Have there been any mishaps despite your team and your efforts?

Yes. Some years back we had temporary kitchens as were shifting and redoing the kitchens. We had cooked the food the night before for a banquet of 400 guests. When we reheated the lamb and chicken for the main course, we found it had gone bad. Luckily, I had 45 minutes before the banquet could start. I made both in a wok and send them out in batches to the guests.

What is your frame of mind when things go wrong?
The attention is on solving the issue.

My team and I will set things right first. Fixing the blame can happen later.

 Turned down my first job at Oberoi; they had an issue with my surname: Chef Hemant Oberoi

Chef Hemant Oberoi, Grand Executive Chef at The Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai

Have you had a Cheeni Kum film kind of experience where a guest gave you food better than your restaurant?

(Laughs loudly)  Never! See, we don’t have pony tails, either! There are a lot of connoisseurs. Sometimes they come and suggest as we are making the menu, ‘Temper the food in this way. This is a family secret.’ To that I tell them, ‘Let’s exchange our jobs’. On a serious note, No, I won’t try out things unless I have tested it out myself.

What is your favourite ingredient?

Truffles. I like to play around with it for an entire meal from starters to dessert. I did that with lemon grass once and it was a huge hit with my guests. I did a mushroom cuisine once, and also passion fruit. But my guests’ favourite has been temple cuisine. I visited Vaishnodevi, the Golden Temple, Dilwara, Jagannath temple, Shirdi, Tirupati and went into the kitchens to see how they made the prasad. We adapted that and served it at our restaurant for 9 days of Navratri. That went down very well with our guests and has become a yearly tradition at the Taj.

Which do you consider your signature dish?

That varies with every cuisine. My personal favourite is quinoa salad. My creation touched my heart!

Which chefs do you admire?

Chef Qureshi, Jaffar bhai of Delhi Durbar, Nelson Wang – these guys are pioneers. Among the youngsters, Gaggan (Chef Gaggan Anand) is doing well.

Which is the compliment you treasure?

There are many. But one stands out. A few years ago I met with Mr Biki Oberoi, Executive Chairman of EIH Limited (flagship company of The Oberoi Group). He said to me, `You represent our country.’ I had turned down my first job offer at The Oberoi as the management then said my surname would be shortened to Hemant O on account of having the same name as the hotel. I refused and joined the Taj. So the compliment from Mr Oberoi is all the more memorable.

What are the challenges you face in your job?

I have to think ahead of time. To be a leader, which is what I wanted to be since I joined the profession, you have to be a trendsetter. You must have a hunger to learn and improve on a daily basis. The Number One gets the gold, and that’s the only number that matters.

Did you find time to indulge in your hobbies in your high flying career for 41 years?

I am passionate about travelling and my job offers me opportunities for that. Now travelling has become a habit. I also love watching cricket. I have played in the School XI, College XI and at the district level too. Until about 5 years ago I played for the Taj team. My hectic schedule leaves me with no time for friends. My wife is my best friend and with her too I have been able to talk leisurely for only 5-10 minutes when we enjoy a cup of tea after dinner. She has put up with that with no complaints.

What are your thoughts on stepping down as Grand Executive Chef of the Taj Mahal Palace & Tower (the designation was invented for him) and corporate chef for the Taj Luxury Hotels, which includes over 200 restaurants around the world?

I am happy to have lived out my dreams. I will continue to be with the Taj Group as a consultant. So in that sense, I am still here. How will life be different now? Well, for starters I will be able to watch sunrise and sunset as I have spent my working life in my office and kitchens from morning till past midnight. I shall probably write my next book. Who knows?

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Updated Date: Apr 06, 2015 10:14:36 IST