It's been a while since the top chef of the Taj Group of Hotels stepped down after spending over four decades in one of the country's most reputed kitchens. Consultancy has followed since then along with restaurant launches in Singapore and the US.
We spoke to Chef Hemant Oberoi in an interview where he shared his thoughts on fusion food, kitchen disasters and his learnings as a chef.
41 years at the Taj Group of Hotels! How did you pull that off?
In our country, most of us have one wife and one job! (chuckles) Well, Tata is a company where loyalty is in everybody's blood. They are very humane people and look after their staff. It became my family.
You joined the industry when there was no social media. What is the difference that you see today especially how food is perceived?
I believe nothing can beat the word of mouth. You please one customer and he will go and tell 10 different people. My job is then done. How many people especially businessmen have the time to go through social media? Their e-mails are usually read by their secretaries! But, it has a positive as well as a negative effect. I think even food critics don't have the power to make or break a restaurant. To me, the pan is mightier than the pen!
I once thanked a food critic for misinterpreting the food that I had served because my restaurant was housefull the next day, and there guests who were curious to know what went wrong. If I had 70 per cent occupancy at the restaurant before the review, I had 100 per cent post that.
What was the pressure working as the top chef in the Taj kitchens?
A doctor can kill only one person. Whereas, a chef can kill 200 because if that one dish goes wrong, you've had it. Negative publicity reaches faster than positive publicity. Therefore, we have to be very careful in the kitchen when it comes to quality, hygiene and consistency. It is very easy to reach the top, but difficult to sustain the position.
Were there any kitchen disasters? How did you resolve them?
Initially there were, but later I'd somehow identify the problem beforehand. I think it is a God-given quality since I could predict or see what is wrong in a dish. It is tough when something goes wrong while serving a banquet of 500 to 1000 people because you have to redo the dish in a short time.
Do you think it is very important for a chef to visit markets?
It is important. But if a chef claims to visit the fish market everyday, he is lying. It is mostly a publicity stunt. Yes, I used to visit the fish markets in Tokyo daily since I wanted to create the menus as per the season. I would speak to the suppliers about the kind of fish and produce that would be available after six months.
What is the one dish you are proud of serving to your guests?
Our cheese souffle was enjoyed by one and all. Recently I made a Martaban ka meat, which is goat meat cooked in a pickle jar with spices and simmered on fire for hours. I am quite proud of creating Nazza- naan pizza back in the 90s, and the Brie and Truffle Naan some 15 years ago. Back then I did not want to ruin the authenticity of the dishes yet innovate with them.
We live in an age where presentation and styling are very important. What is your opinion?
It is important. Over the last 20 years or so, right from Zodiac and Souk to Masala Art, our food has been served differently. We started making biryani in a glass jar (and served it in it), and while doing so, bought all the 2000 jars available so that nobody else can play with the idea.
What are your learnings as a chef?
To be a good human first. It is also important to be a keen learner and passionate about your job. If you don't have the passion, get out of it. To be a good team leader it is crucial to work as a team. It's like a pyramid - sometimes one is on top and sometimes one is at the bottom.
What is keeping you busy at the moment?
I completed my first consultancy at Singapore called Yantra by Hemant Oberoi. By the end of the month, Masala Street will be open at San Diego. The latter is a venture with my son, and will serve Indian street food with a twist. I want Americans to get a taste of quinoa chaatand Koliwada fish and chips.
What is your opinion about fusion food and molecular gastronomy?
There is no problem creating fusion food, but your roots have to be intact. You must know classical food before experimenting otherwise it is all confusion. That said, you can't eat fusion food daily. Today, a lot of chefs don't know to make basic Hollandaise sauce! They will get readymade packets and use it in their dishes.
One piece of advice for aspiring chefs.
Don't join the profession if you are not passionate about it.
Favourite Indian dish - Sukha palak
Favourite international dish - Grilled fish
Dishes you enjoy cooking the most - Chicken Zodiac, Quinoa biryani, and some creative Carpaccios
Favourite food destinations - Paris, Tokyo and Peru
Three ingredients you love - lemongrass, cumin and kaffir lime leaves
Comfort food - Dal chawal
Best meal you've eaten so far - Chef Thomas Kellar's Per Se in New York, Chef Allan Ducasse's 25th anniversary meal in Monte Carlo and Eleven Madison Park - I'd love to go back for another meal at these restaurants.