Chef Hemant Oberoi gets nostalgic as Zodiac Grill turns 25

Twenty-five years ago, Zodiac Grill became one of the first few restaurants in the country to introduce modern French cuisine to patrons. On the eve of the fine-dining eatery’s silver jubilee celebrations, Chef Hemant Oberoi walks down memory lane with Phorum Dalal and reveals how he travelled across the globe for inspiration to offer a veritable feast to the cognoscenti

Look up and we bet you can’t take your eyes off for more than a few seconds. While you hunt for the image of your zodiac sign, the dome inside Zodiac Grill restaurant at Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, Colaba depicts an indigo blue sky filled with stars. For a minute, you actually feel as if you are sitting under the open sky.

Chef Hemant Oberoi
Chef Hemant Oberoi

That’s what interior designer Elizabeth Kerkar meant it to be, when JRD Tata shared his vision with her to create a quiet grill room, which would replace the hotel’s iconic, 14-year-old classical French restaurant, Rendezvous, in 1987.

Whatever took its place had to be larger, grander and different, and this responsibility was entrusted to Chef Hemant Oberoi. “I set out to take a look at what was being whipped up in kitchens across the world. My first stop was, of course, France,” says Oberoi, grand chef of the Taj Group of hotels and corporate chef of the Taj Group Luxury Hotels.

Chef Hemant Oberoi
Chef Hemant Oberoi, who has been working at the Taj Group for the past 41 years, strikes a pose at the 56-seater restaurant, Zodiac Grill, which will celebrate its 25th anniversary tomorrow. pics/Shadab Khan

On a balmy Tuesday morning, we are sitting in his back office, just a few steps away from the central kitchen. A placard on the wall behind his maroon chair reads: Never, but never question the chef’s judgement. Dressed in his chef’s uniform, Oberoi looks calm. But, one can guess the plethora of ideas running through his head, what with the 25th anniversary of Zodiac Grill just a few days away. But nostalgia is a powerful sentiment and his voice changes — as if changing gears, speeding into the past.

In 1987, while the French stuck to their classic foods — fois gras, baked camembert, tartars — food connoisseurs in Italy, London and New York were experimenting with modern and nouvelle versions of French cuisine. “But Getty’s in Hong Kong and Le Normandie in Bangkok were the pioneers in giving a modern twist to traditional French cuisine. I sent my chefs to these restaurants and asked them to learn the basics of French cooking while I began planning the menu back home,” says Oberoi, constantly checking his phone to keep a tab on updates from his team with preparations in full swing in the kitchen.

(Left) Chicken Zodiac and Camembert dariole
(Left) Chicken Zodiac and Camembert dariole

Back then, his first experiment was with the souffle. “My version of the lightly baked cake made with egg yolks and beaten egg whites was a steamed and double baked soufflé,” says Oberoi, who came up with 350 dishes, which were narrowed down to 100 and later to 88. The trials and errors went on for an entire year and the team was fidgety. “But we still didn’t open due to teething issues. A restaurant should open only once its initial setbacks are resolved,” he says.

While Oberoi called for Christofle plates from Paris and Riedel glassware and decanters from Austria, the first uniforms came from London’s Simon jersey. “While I ordered tomatoes from Italy and Camembert cheese from Normandy in France, the double cream came from our very own Parsi Dairy Farm,” says Oberoi.

By this time around, patrons knew what a wood steak, pepper steak, grilled fish tasted like, but their palates had not been introduced to different kinds of herbs. So the chef grew thyme, chives and basil, to name a few, in the hotel’s backyard. “We served artichokes, asparagus and broccoli whenever we could source them,” he adds.

The opening night
November 17, 1989 when the doors of Zodiac Grill were thrown open to the public was a memorable evening for Oberoi. “The who’s who of Bombay was at the opening and we decided to let the customer decide the cost of the dishes. We called it ‘Pay as you like’. Guests paid up to R3,000 at that time. We never expected that kind of response and people even waited for the second seating,” says Oberoi. From that night till today, many dishes, including 7-Camembert dariole, Chicken Grill and Kaluha Mousse, have remained Zodiac Grill’s signature dishes. A luxurious restaurant, Zodiac Grill, known for its caviar, escargos and sea food, has always attracted elite patrons looking for a fine-dining experience.

25-course meal
Today, there are files, neatly printed list of probable dishes for the special 25-course menu and loose sheets with doodles and scribbles on his desk. “While the menu is finalised, additions and subtractions happen till the very last minute. One night, I saw a tiny shovel in my drawer and I asked myself what I could do with it. That’s when I created the dish Herb Garden Soils for the 25th anniversary celebrations. We will serve salt soil, wherein salt is dehydrated and then flavoured. It is then crumbled into a powder. This will be served with organic veggies in a mini bucket,” says Oberoi.

Another interesting dish is the Duck Spaghetti with the sauce in the form of a molecular sphere. In the entire menu, Oberoi will not repeat a single ingredient, vegetable or meat. “Not even the crockery,” he quips.

With today’s well-travelled customers, Oberoi finds the need to be ahead of his competition. “One of my guests has booked a dinner the night he returns from Alba, France, which is the house of truffles. He asked me whether he should get some truffles to serve at the restaurant. My challenge is to give him something he did not try in France,” says a confident Oberoi.

On the eve of the 25th anniversary, the chef is excited. Just like every day that has made it to the Silver jubilee, he looks forward to serving with love and passion. “I trust only my own taste buds, and that has made all the difference,” he signs off.

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