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In celebrating Hemant Oberoi's legacy, let’s not forget his many culinary contributions

Hemant Oberoi, the most powerful chef India has ever seen, has just retired. In celebrating his legacy, let’s not forget his many culinary contributions.
Hindustan Times | By Vir Sanghvi
UPDATED ON APR 11, 2015 04:50 PM IST
A few weeks ago, I went to Madras to speak at the Chefs Conference, something I do every time India’s chefs gather to discuss their craft. I reminded the younger chefs, many of whom were still in short pants when the first convention was held in Bombay in 1995, of how much things had changed over the last two decades.

In 1995, liberalisation was still considered a novel phenomenon. Satellite TV had just arrived. Nobody used the Internet. The foreign hotel chains had not yet made their mark in India. India’s hotel industry was a Taj vs Oberoi battle, with ITC coming in a poor third. There were few high-quality standalone restaurants.

And chefs were the people that hotel and restaurant guests never saw. They toiled away in the kitchen, far from public view. And they were nearly always at the mercy of food and beverage managers who made the menus.

At the 1995 Chefs Conference, I lost count of the chefs who complained about how the managers would a) refuse to allow them to introduce any adventurous dishes and b) eagerly agree to "customise" dishes for favoured guests ("Arrey sir, you want a tarka for your soup? No problem. I will tell my chef to do it!") even if the chefs protested.

Two decades later, none of these complaints are to be heard. The balance of power has shifted so completely between chefs and managers that no food and beverage manager would dare tell an executive chef what to do. Most executive chefs deal only with the general managers and, in the case of the Taj, sometimes not even them.

I gave the assembled chefs the example of Hemant Oberoi, corporate chef for the Taj group’s luxury hotels. Oberoi was now so famous in Bombay (and elsewhere), I said, that if you asked the average guest who ran the Taj, he would probably say Hemant Oberoi, because his was the only name the public recognised. Certainly more people outside the business had heard of him than they had heard of the people who actually ran the Taj (RK Krishna Kumar and then Raymond Bickson).

Such is Oberoi’s stature, I said, that high-profile guests would ask to deal personally with him. And within the hotel, not only did he have more clout than any general manager or chief operating officer, but his chefs enjoyed a similar exalted status. As one Taj general manager complained to me some years ago, "If I ask my executive chef to do something, he won’t reply to me. He will go to his office and check with chef Oberoi what his answer should be!"

That’s priceless: At the old Zodiac Grill (above) guests were asked to pay what they thought the meal was worth. Oberoi also invented the restaurant’s famous onion-and-thyme croissants.

The teamwork between Oberoi and the chefs he had placed in Taj luxury hotels was legendary. On any given day, Oberoi knew how the restaurants at all his hotels had done, how many high-profile guests had eaten there and even, in some cases, exactly what they had eaten. This is not easy to do when your empire spans the country and especially if you travel as much as Oberoi does. But he managed it all the same.

Everyone at the Chefs Conference conceded that what Oberoi had achieved was unprecedented. He had redefined the power of chefs to the extent that managers had no authority over them.

The Conference coincided with the end of Oberoi’s triumphant tenure at the Taj. Within days of the Conference, articles about Oberoi’s imminent retirement began to appear. And even I, who had told the chefs how Hemant had become a legend in our lunchtimes, was staggered by the attention his exit attracted.

There were page-one articles in major dailies, flattering profiles in others and celebrity guests began tweeting their goodbyes. ("Au Revoir Hemant Oberoi, Chef de Supreme, Taj Hotels. Many a time been fed by you. Your retiring will make me lose weight….." from Rishi Kapoor for instance).

And then, three days before he retired, I bumped into Oberoi at Souk, the rooftop restaurant at the Bombay Taj. We sat down to have a coffee and he told me how Souk emerged out of his love of Middle Eastern food, developed during his stint in Muscat.

Many other Taj restaurants have their roots in Oberoi’s own experience. Masala Art and Masala Craft grew out of the Punjabi dishes he remembered from his childhood. Blue Ginger (Bangalore and Delhi) from his travels through Vietnam, and now there’s a foray into Peruvian food. The first Peruvian restaurant, inspired by Oberoi’s visits to Peru (and, let’s be honest, by the worldwide trendiness of Peruvian cuisine) will soon open at the new Taj in Dubai.

Oberoi took over the Bombay Taj in the late Eighties, but his glory days began in the Nineties with the advent of liberalisation. As laws changed, he found he could import expensive ingredients (I remember other chefs being horrified to discover that he was flying in vegetables from Amsterdam). The rich began to spend more and Oberoi became the king of the high-priced banquet, raising revenues to levels that were previously considered unimaginable.

Among his many breakthroughs was the original Zodiac Grill (located where the Shamiana now is). The Taj had long planned to open a grill room because foreign guests wanted somewhere where they could go for a steak and a glass of wine.

Silver lining: The highly regarded Delhi restaurant, Varq (above), was Hemant Oberoi’s pet project. Its signature dish remains the Varqi Crab (below)

But Ajit Kerkar, who ran the Taj in that era, and Oberoi planned a much grander version of a grill room, hoping to create a celebration restaurant which would be the natural choice for birthdays, anniversaries etc. Because India was still not used to high-priced dining, they hit upon an ingenious plan.

There would be no prices and no bills. Each guest paid what he or she thought the meal was worth. It worked because for every person who underpaid, there were two who overpaid. When the restaurant was firmly established, Kerkar and Oberoi began putting prices on the menu.

When the Tatas ousted Kerkar, the new regime regarded many of his favourites with suspicion. But Oberoi effortlessly straddled both regimes and under RK Krishna Kumar, he soon became one of the most powerful people in the Taj. Krishna Kumar let him open his pet project, the highly regarded Varq in Delhi, and allowed him to put his own stamp on Wasabi, which was intended to be the Japanese chef Masaharu Morimoto’s signature restaurant. (These days, Morimoto hardly ever bothers to visit India).

Oberoi put his own stamp on Wasabi, which was intended to be the Japanese chef Masahiro Morimoto’s signature restaurant (left); The new Taj in Dubai (right).

The Masala restaurants (in Bombay, Delhi and Bangalore) opened on Krishna Kumar’s watch and by the time Krishna Kumar handed over executive responsibilities to Raymond Bickson, Oberoi was so big that he was untouchable. It was accepted within the Taj that Oberoi was second only to the company’s chief executive.

But two points need to be made. Because Oberoi grew to become the most powerful chef India has ever seen, we sometimes focus on the aura and forget his culinary contributions. He is, as far as, I know, the first chef to start making pizzas with naan dough. (He called them naazzas).

The vodka golgappa, now widely copied, was invented by him 25 years ago. In fact, he is the first chef who started treating golgappa puris as vol-au-vents and stuffing them with a variety of interesting fillings. The tiny onion-and-thyme croissants that the Zodiac Grill is famous for were created by Hemant. And Masala Craft refined and rediscovered many of the great dishes of Punjabi cuisine.

But even if Hemant had not been such a talented chef, one achievement would have been enough to ensure that he will be remembered. On 26/11, when terrorists attacked the Taj, it was Oberoi who took over, offering shelter and food to guests who were trapped inside the hotel.

Eventually when it seemed like they could escape, Oberoi got his chefs to form a human barrier to escort guests out through the kitchen. As we know now, a TV channel broadcast where the guests were. The Pakistani handlers of the terror attack monitored the broadcast and sent their terrorists to open fire on the guests. Oberoi’s chefs bore the brunt of the attack. Some were killed and many were injured.

I know of no other hotel where chefs have actually put their lives on the line to protect guests.

Will there ever be another Hemant Oberoi? I doubt it. I see him as a defining figure who changed the balance between chefs and managers forever. Now that a new, more reasonable equation between the two has been established. Hemant can retire, knowing that he has elevated the status of India’s chefs forever.

From HT Brunch, April 12
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