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Toque of the world

Priya Pathiyan chats up Mumbai-based chef Hemant Oberoi, a well-known name in the high-flying foodies' circuit.

india Updated: Jun 14, 2007 18:25 IST
Priya Pathiyan

Just back from schmoozing with Michelin chefs throughout Italy, researching his favourite cuisine, he's even more full of dimpled smiles than usual.

And as you ask after his wife Mallika – the intrepid social worker – and his two sons (Siddharth, restaurant manager at Vista, Taj Land's End, and Saransh, studying at the Culinary Institute of New York) he's visibly proud and his smile gets brighter.

For Chef Hemant Oberoi, life's like his Camembert Dariole – light and very satisfying, but the layman doesn't see all the hard work that goes into it. So we delve deeper.

Have you seen Cheeni Kum? Amitabh Bachchan plays a chef in that.
Not yet, since it released while I was away three weeks exploring the high-end cuisine in Italy. But I was at an awards function in Mumbai just the other day and everyone was asking me where my ponytail was! I think I must see the film.

Is the fact that the Big B acted as a chef, a reflection of how perceptions are changing? That chefs are not just bawarchis but more glamorous professionals?
I haven't seen the film, but yes, the perception is definitely changing. People look at us differently today.

In fact, I'm going to be talking to 100 newcomers who will be joining us at our Aurangabad training centre in the coming month and telling them what a great career this is.

It's all about creativity to the core. If you have the passion for it, the sky's the limit. Unlike other professions where you can get saturated, here the learning never ends.

What are your pet projects at the moment?
Currently, I have my hands full with growing the restaurant brands. I'm opening Masala Club in Bangalore soon, a small yet-tobe-named Italian place in Chennai and am looking to take Wasabi to other cities as well. And then there's the Chef's Studio, of course.

What exactly is the Chef's Studio?
It's a by-appointment room in the Heritage wing of the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower that I've created for very exclusive guests who can appreciate the finest things in life. It's been my dream for more than eight years and finally it's come true.

The Chef's Studio has its own attached kitchen and just one table. The kitchen has all the latest appliances and even an interactive interface so that the guests can have close-up views of how their meal is being prepared if they so choose.

While guests can choose from the Wasabi and Zodiac Grill menus, they usually leave the meal-customisation to me, as they trust me implicitly. We keep innovating and creating new dishes here.

For example, I recently did goose-liver stuffed chocolate and am now thinking of a Japanese savoury custard called Chawanmuchi topped with oysters.

Is it true that you've had all of Mumbai's top brass in already?
Yes, you can say that. The industrialists and royalty mostly. They like the thought of a place where they can enjoy their privacy and entertain lavishly .

I've hand-picked all the table accessories – navy and vermilion faceplates and long-stemmed glasses from Versace, Riedel wine goblets and Limoges porcelain.

Even Brad Pitt liked this crockery with the unique houndstooth design, when he and his family dined here.

Just how much does all this cost?
Remember, these are people who'd spend as much on a formal dinner anyway. A meal for two to six starts at Rs 75,000, inclusive of taxes and can easily go up to double that, depending on the wine chosen, but think about it, it's the only place in the country where you can even choose which salt you want in your food.

We have five different varieties – Hawaiian sea salt, black lava salt, red lava salt, bamboo salt and even a turquoise one!

In all this excitement, aren't you forgetting your firstl ove–the ZodiacGrill?
Not at all. In fact, I'm going to be announcing a radically different menu for the Grill by end-July .

It's going to be nothing like we've done in the last 18 years. It'll be the finest dining, comparable to any three Michelin starred restaurant in the world.

There will be many more dishes to choose from and although the décor will be the same, I'm going to be changing all the hardware completely .

Is the Mumbai palate ready for radical change?
Most certainly! For example, in the last few years everything new I've tried at Wasabi has been accepted so well.

Earlier, they wouldn't appreciate Oyster with Foie Gras, now they love it. All kinds of exotic vegetables, white fish carpaccio. Who'd have thought they'd accept it so wholeheartedly!

But people are well-travelled today, they have a better understanding of food, they want the best and don't mind spending for it.