“I MISS my whites terribly, I feel odd being photographed without them,” says the ever-smiling Chef Hemant Oberoi, whose name brings back fond memories for many Mumbaikars who have flocked to one of the city’s most iconic hotels over the last few decades. “This was my home, I would go to a hotel to sleep,” he smiles. Having worked with the hotel for nearly 41 years Oberoi will now be a consultant to the group of luxury hotels. Just about adjusting to his new office, he tells us that a change of office space is just one of the things that he has seen change during his tenure. “So much has changed in four decades — people, their tastes. My team and I try to keep up with it. I was ahead of times, I think,” he laughs.
Hemant Oberoi, Chef. Pics Bipin Kokate
“People have travelled well in the last two decades. They know a lot more. Earlier, only French, Indian and Chinese cuisines were popular. In the last two decades, there has been a dramatic shift in the scenario all over the world. Japanese food became very popular. Tokyo has become a hub. There are more than 350 Michelin star restaurants. Molecular cuisine came in. I believe food, fashion and history keep coming back in cycles. In the 1940s and 50s, India was an organic country, now it’s coming back at a higher price. We are going back to the roots — in food, we talk about slow-cooked methods, old classical dishes are coming back,” he explains.
— Amit Choudhary, Chef
The culinary legacy
Chef Amit Choudhary, the new Executive Chef — The Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai, is a familiar face too. “I have worked here for 10 years before, as well as with Chef Oberoi also. We have learnt a lot from his style of working. When I was told I was coming back here, it was a kind of homecoming.” he tells us. When we ask him about taking over the new role he says excitedly, “It is challenging because who doesn’t know Chef Oberoi; he is a legend. I would love to take his legacy forward. A lot of my chefs say that there are many things that they see in me which are like Chef Oberoi, like detailing, anticipation and innovation. He has the uncanny ability to share experiences, instances and a vast array of experiences that have prepared me to come to this place.”
After having spent two hours in a long discussion with Chef Oberoi a day prior to our meeting, Choudhary confesses that his biggest strength will be the team that he has inherited. “Chef Oberoi’s way of working is that he strengthens his team. I am trying to do that too. He has got this place to a certain level, I would like to take it a notch higher,” he says. Chef Oberoi, on the other hand, speaks as warmly of his successor. “He was in the first batch of chefs who trained with me. I have watched him grow; he is a good chef. They will carry on the legacy and take it forward,” he says confidently.
While Choudhary believes that innovation is the name of the game, Oberoi swears by the virtues of quality, consistency and patience. “Today, it is difficult to find patience. Everybody wants a curry in a hurry. Consistency will not come till you practice it many times. When we started Zodiac Grill, we were in the kitchen for a year running trials, so that the Kahlua Mousse, Zodiac Chicken, Chicken Souffle remain the same. After years, when we celebrated the 25th anniversary, they tasted the same. How many hotels can boast of that? People come and go, consistency shouldn’t,” he says.
Some things will still remain consistent for loyalists. “One thing about this place is that the Chef would meet a lot of guests. I have started that already. We have a lot of loyal guests and that loyalty comes from the comfort factor. I would like to bring different concepts and ideas from the world. Shamiana is going in for remodelling; it will be the first conceptual change. The menu, the look, the service, will change. There will be exciting new flavours, dishes and concepts, the trial has started,” promises Choudhary.