Even as exit lights were blinking for the Indian cricket team at the WT20 semi-final on Thursday evening, chef Satish Arora (69) was experiencing an exit of a happier kind. The Director, Food Production, Taj SATS Air Catering Limited, received an emotional farewell from his staff after he hung up his apron following a 50-year career with the Taj group.
Satish Arora at his Colaba residence with a portrait of himself as a young Taj chef. Pic/Pradeep Dhivar
When we met him a day after, he was relaxing at his Colaba residence. “That I have retired has not quite sunk in,” he said, flashing a smile. “After all, it has not even been a day.”
After 16 years in the flight catering kitchen division, churning out 29,000 meals a day, Arora says he will finally share a home-cooked meal with his wife, Sushma. “I will not go into the kitchen, though because as they say, too many cooks spoil the broth.”
His family from Jalandhar, especial his Army officer father wasn’t in favour of his choice of career, but he went ahead and signed up for a diploma at the Institute of Hotel Management, Delhi. He joined the Taj as trainee in 1967, and at 26, became the youngest executive chef in the world. He has cooked for several global dignitaries including Prince Charles and Queen Elizabeth.
Arora prefers to push the forward button rather than rewind, and talk about where he goes from here.
For one month he will indulge in the entirely serious business of doing nothing, after which, “I have certain offers, let’s see,” he says, looking out of his window from where he can see, what else but the Taj Mahal Palace & Towers dome. “Tears were streaming down my face when I saw it go up in flames during the 26/11 terror attacks.”
Although his office was based in Andheri, in the earlier part of his career, he was stationed at the Colaba outpost. “Sometimes, I would wake up at 2.30 am, drive to Taj in third gear, reach the hotel and take a round of the kitchens, just to ensure that everything was up to the mark. People used to say, oh, that crazy chef has arrived,” he says with a laugh.
Arora’s neighbour, Gitanjali Gurbaxani, says that he introduced so many dishes to the repertoire that they would make an entire book. But the one that stands out is Cannelloni a la Arora, that, “he created for my parents’ silver anniversary celebrated at the Taj. This dish had a creamy cottage cheese filling with pineapple bits baked in a creamy white sauce. I can still remember the flavour. Every dessert I made at home had to pass chef Arora’s test.”
Sushma is happy hat she will now get to spend time with her husband. “He has sacrificed so much. It us now time for him to focus on himself and the family,” she says. Arora’s children are married overseas. He hopes to visit them soon, but for now, an activity he has decided to add to his daily routine is an evening walk — a decadent luxury for the working class. “I will also try and eat healthier,” he adds.
Reminded that he said he was a sparse eater, the ‘one chapati-veggie’ guy, Arora says, “But like all chefs, I had to taste what was cooking. Chefs must use their hands, we are not babus. We have to be present in the kitchen, not just supervise. We have to work with ingredients and know what is steaming, bubbling and braising in the pan. A chef’s tunic should never be clean. Food smears prove that he’s working hard. I don't see a lot of young professional chefs wanting to do that. After they get to a position of seniority, they prefer to supervise.”
On GenNext in the culinary world, chef Arora says, “At 69, I thought it was enough, I had to make way for younger persons. I still have the zest but I lack the energy of a youngster. The energy that made me carry a big, heavy handi and sprint with it, like I used to earlier.”
Chef Arora actually ‘retired’ 10 years ago, when he was 59. But the Taj wouldn’t let him go. So another decade was spent at the organisation that’s famed for staff loyalty. “They held me back with one extension after another,” he says.
He signs off singing the virtues of patience. “Today’s kids switch jobs quickly. They are all educated through the Internet. They want to rise fast, and loyalty isn’t in their lexicon. Be patient and give your workplace a chance to judge you,” suggests Arora, as garnishing for the salad of success.