I am not sure that anyone has noticed, but three of the Taj’s greatest chefs have retired recently. Hemant Oberoi, who looked after the luxury properties and whose many contributions to the group included Wasabi, Varq and the Masala restaurants, moved out nearly two years ago to perform functions outside the kitchen. Eventually, he left the Taj altogether and from what I gather, his restaurant in Singapore is the toast of the town.
Chef ‘Nat’ Natarajan left more quietly – in keeping with his own modest, understated personality. I have known Nat since he was a sous chef in the kitchen of the old Bombay Rendezvous in 1982. He was, as you might expect, a wonderful European chef but once he moved south, he surprised us all with his mastery of south Indian cuisine.
Southern Spice at Chennai’s Taj Coromandel, remains a tribute to his legacy. It is the best south Indian restaurant at any luxury hotel in India and Nat has had the curious distinction of planning the menu twice. The first was when he was asked by Ajit Kerkar and Shankar Menon to create the restaurant in 1996. And then, more recently, RK Krishna Kumar had the vision to see that only Nat could update the food when the restaurant reopened after a glitzy refit. You won’t read much about Nat. But he is the one chef I will miss the most.
That leaves the giant of this trio. Most people in Bombay find it hard to believe that Ananda Solomon is finally hanging up his toque. He is younger than Oberoi or Natarajan and, for my money, he is unquestionably the greatest chef of his generation, mastering a multiplicity of cuisines with the greatest of ease.
And yet, Solomon did not start out intending to work for the Taj. He became a chef at the old Oberoi Sheraton (today’s Trident), slaving away in the kitchens of the now-extinct Supper Club, turning out Lobster Thermidor and Chicken Kiev for wealthy diners.
He was poached by the Taj and sent off to Goa to work with the great chef, Urbano Rego. It was probably around this time that he made the shift from being what the trade calls a ‘Conti chef’ to becoming someone who was much more multifaceted.
His big break came about almost by accident. As an experiment, the Taj had tried running a Thai pop-up in the bar at the President Hotel. At first the restaurant met with unprecedented success but then, as the buzz died down, diners stopped turning up.
But Ajit Kerkar, who ran the Taj in those days, was convinced that there was a market for Thai food. So, he persisted with the idea and planned a bigger, grander restaurant at roughly the same location. The Taj had no Thai chefs and Kerkar was reluctant to base the company’s foray into Thai cuisine on expat chefs. So, Solomon, who was young and seemed willing to learn, was dispatched to Bangkok.
At first, he did the normal cheffy things. He attended the Oriental Cooking School and trained in the kitchen of the Shangri-La. But he soon worked out that this was tourist food, meant for foreigners and only distantly related to the food that the locals ate. He asked Kerkar if he could stay on and apprentice at less fancy places.
To his surprise, Kerkar agreed and Solomon stayed on in Bangkok for several months, picking up enough of the language to get by. He cooked in small dhabas and eventually ended up in one of the small Sois that run off Sukhumvit Road. He found a street vendor who sold clams and spent a while looking after the stall. This involved cleaning the cart, setting up in the mornings and making clams to the vendor’s exacting standards.
Only when he was sure that he understood the cuisine that he returned to India. Along with a fine general manager (Ajoy Mishra), he set up the Thai Pavilion at the President Hotel. The restaurant was a success from the day it opened. And though it has been over two decades now, the Thai Pavilion still packs them in.
It wasn’t always easy. There were jealousies within the Taj Group. One senior chef told him, “Ananda, you better look for something else to do. Yeh Thai khana nahi chalega. Your restaurant will fail. Indians don’t like these thin Thai curries.” Others believed he was getting a disproportionate amount of attention from Kerkar, Camellia Panjabi and the Taj’s top brass.
But I suspect that Solomon knew that the battle was won the day Ratan Tata became a regular. Not only would he eat there every week but he also began doing his official entertaining at the Thai Pavilion, forsaking the Taj Mahal Hotel’s more glamorous restaurants. Very soon, the Thai Pavilion became a sort of canteen for the captains of industry and the A-list of Bombay society.
I have always admired Solomon for not letting all this turn his head. His aim was to create a restaurant where salaried people could bring their families and feel that they had enjoyed a satisfying night out. So, he kept the Thai Pavilion’s prices low. At any given time, they were at least 35 per cent below those of the Golden Dragon, the Taj’s Chinese restaurant. And yet, the Pavilion continued to make money because Ananda ran a long dinner service, served his food quickly and turned the tables over with remarkable speed.
I imagine that most people still think of Solomon in terms of the Thai Pavilion. But it is not my favourite of his restaurants. Given a choice, I always go to the Konkan Café over the Thai Pavilion. This is Ananda’s dream project, a restaurant that serves the cuisine of India’s west coast, starting from Maharashtra and going all the way down to Kerala.
When he first opened the restaurant, many of the Taj’s big bosses thought that he was creating a five-star version of Trishna. But Solomon resolutely refused to cater to the ‘crab in butter garlic’ crowd and served food that was entirely authentic because it had been sourced from family recipes.
Once again, he was lucky. Krishna Kumar, who had replaced Kerkar, is a Malayali and knew authentic food when he tasted it. He protected Solomon against all those with other ideas and eventually, put him in charge of the whole of the President’s food and beverage function. (For hoteliers: this means that the F&B manager reported to the chef.) Solomon then became executive chef for all Vivanta Hotels, which made him the chef for the largest single chunk of the Taj Group’s properties.
My sense, however, is that he did not enjoy being in charge of an empire. He is not a corporate chef by instinct. He has no desire to have scores of executive chefs reporting to him. His heart is in his restaurants and his kitchen. At any given night, when he was in Bombay, you would find him at the range, stepping quickly back as the giant flame enveloped his wok.
I don’t know what Solomon will do now. I would imagine that there is no shortage of offers. He is one of India’s most celebrated chefs and so, other hotel chains will queue up to try and hire him. There will also be the high net-worth individuals – many of whom have been regulars at his restaurants – who will offer to back him in any new venture he chooses.
Perhaps, he will take up some of those offers. But somehow, I doubt it. There are no second acts in the lives of most chefs. And I don’t think that Ananda will make the mistake of trying to recreate one of the restaurants he ran during his time at the Taj Group.
My sense is that he will take off somewhere quiet and do something small and not overly ambitious. He likes looking at every plate before it leaves the kitchen and he tries to cook as many of the meals himself as is humanly possible. He will open something small but perfect. And in no time at all, it will become one of India’s best restaurants.
The Taj will miss him. He leaves a void that is hard to fill. His regulars in Bombay will miss him. And I will miss him – the food at Konkan Café is still my favourite.
But I doubt if Ananda will miss any of us very much. In his mind, he has already moved on.
He is that kind of guy.
From HT Brunch, July 17, 2016
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