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Monday, Oct 21, 2019

The Taste with Vir Sanghvi: Chef Hemant Oberoi and service beyond the line of duty

Chef Hemant Oberoi and other chefs had displayed exemplary courage during the 26/11 Mumbai attacks, something which is depicted in Hotel Mumbai, the new film based on the attacks which took place in the Taj Mahal hotel.

more-lifestyle Updated: Oct 22, 2018 16:30 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times, Delhi
Chef Hemant Oberoi along with his other chefs risked their lives to save the guests in the Taj Mahal hotel.
Chef Hemant Oberoi along with his other chefs risked their lives to save the guests in the Taj Mahal hotel.

Over the next couple of months you will be hearing a lot about Chef Hemant Oberoi. Much of this will have to do with Hotel Mumbai, the new film on the 26/11 Mumbai attacks, which has been premiered to much acclaim in Toronto and will soon be releasing all over the world.

The film’s hero is a waiter, caught up in the chaos that ensued when Pakistani terrorists attacked Mumbai’s Taj Mahal Hotel. He is a composite based on the real waiters who were on duty that night. But one of the main characters is not a composite; he is the real life Hemant Oberoi who (along with his chefs) demonstrated exemplary courage during the siege of the hotel. Anupam Kher plays Hemant and, on the night of the premiere, was gracious enough to point to the real Hemant in the audience and say “I am just a reel hero. That is the real hero.”

Memories can be short so, in case you have forgotten the events of that terrible night, let me briefly remind you of what happened.

Four Pakistani terrorists entered the hotel and began hurling grenades and shooting guests at random. As panic spread throughout the hotel, Hemant who was then the Taj group’s Corporate Chef, based in the Mumbai Taj, worked with the F&B team to protect the hotel’s guests.

They locked the doors to some restaurants (the old Zodiac Grill, The Sea Lounge etc.) and used the room service routes to evacuate other guests to the Chambers, a club on the first floor of the new wing of the Taj.

As the sound of the shots reverberated and as the hotel was rocked by explosions, guests cowered in fear inside the Chambers. Hemant’s hospitality training kicked in and he re-assured the guests that they had nothing to worry about and that they would soon be escorted off the premises. (He had no reason to believe this but thought it best to avoid panic by not telling the truth: the Mumbai police were unwilling to do very much and said that they needed military or paramilitary commandos to flush the terrorists out.)

To convey the illusion of normalcy he ordered coffee for the frightened guests. When some began shivering out of shock, he organized blankets for them. When others said that they were hungry he went to the Chambers kitchen to help the chef on duty to make sandwiches for them.

Dev Patel in a still from Hotel Mumbai.
Dev Patel in a still from Hotel Mumbai.

As word spread in the kitchens that guests were being sheltered at the Chambers, other chefs rushed there to help Hemant look after the guests. The Chambers is an unusually located club. Though it is in the tower wing, its kitchen is connected to the main kitchen in the old wing: one of the few points of contact between the new and old Taj buildings.

As the night went on with no hope of any rescue, Hemant and his chefs told the waiting and watching Mumbai police that they would organize a rescue themselves. The guests would be led through the kitchens to the staff entrance/exit (the so-called ‘Time Office’) which would land them safely at the back of the Taj.

The guests were understandably nervous but were re-assured because, by then, the terrorists seemed to be in another part of the buildings (no shots were heard) and the chefs said they would link arms and form a human corridor to allow the guests to get away.

“Don’t worry ma’am,” one of the chefs told a guest, “if somebody fires at us, the bullet will hit me first. You will be all right.”

Why did the chefs offer this unusual kind of assurance? Why were they willing to put their lives on the line for the sake of people they did not know?

It was service beyond the line of duty. I can think of no hotel anywhere in the world where chefs would do this. And I can think of no other Corporate Chef, let alone one with Hemant’s fame and stature who would take charge, turn his kitchen brigade into a life-saving force and risk his own life organizing this escape.

It would have worked but for news TV.

Late in the night an irresponsible TV reporter announced that guests were being sheltered in the Chambers. The reporter said she had spoken on the phone to one of the guests and had been assured that they were safe.

We now know, from the tapes that have since been released, that the Pakistani handlers who were watching Indian news TV called the terrorists and told them to rush to the Chambers and find the guests.

Anupam Kher and the cast of Hotel Mumbai during a discussion about the movie.
Anupam Kher and the cast of Hotel Mumbai during a discussion about the movie. ( TIFF Talks Youtube channel )

The terrorists did not know where the Chambers was so they pulled a gun on a waiter they had held hostage and prised the location out of him. Once they worked out that they could access the Chambers kitchen through the old Taj, where they were, they shot at the kitchen door in the Crystal Room (a banquet hall) which led to the main kitchen. Hemant had secured the door to the kitchen from the inside but the terrorists blasted their way in. They then tried to find the Chambers kitchen.

All this happened just as the guests had begun to walk through the human cordon the chefs had provided for them. The terrorists reached the Chambers and opened fire at random. Seven chefs lost their lives and three more were injured.

The remark about the bullets hitting the chefs first had been meant as re-assurance. But it came horribly true.

I haven’t seen Hotel Mumbai but I gather it focuses on such events and on the way in which Hemant took charge that night.

It has been seven years now and Hemant has retired from the Taj but he is unable to talk about that night and the loss of his chefs without getting tearful. And I can understand that.

I can’t think of many other chefs who have been through this sort of terror. And as the film is released around the world, I imagine that more and more people will laud Hemant’s bravery as well as the enormous (in some cases, ultimate) sacrifices made by the Taj’s chefs.

It is a measure, however of all the things that Hemant has achieved in his remarkable career that, in the world of chefs, his role on the night of 26/11 is just one of the many things that make him special.

In terms of his historical importance as a chef, his achievements are too numerous to recount. Long before the idea of a celebrity chef took hold in India, Hemant was a celebrity in Mumbai. The Taj has a tradition of projecting its chefs but till Hemant took over at the end of the 1980s, most chefs had been self-effacing guys eager only to serve and to please.

Hemant was the first Indian chef who took the line --- through his manner, at least, if not consciously --- that guests were privileged to be able to eat his food and to meet him. Now, celebrity chefs all behave like that. But three decades ago, no Indian chef had the chutzpah to carry himself with such confidence.

He got away with its because a) he didn’t really care if hotel managers thought he was arrogant (which he probably was) and b) because he delivered results for the Taj.

In that era, we didn’t have much food journalism so nobody has recorded Hemant ‘s many achievements and creations. He was the first chef that I know of to use golgappas as a vehicle for a multiplicity of flavours and stuffings: he invented the vodka golgappa at least thirty years ago. He was also the first to treat naans and kulchas as bases for pizza-like toppings, a trend that took off a few years later when everybody started doing it. The taco with an Indian filling (spiced aloo, chicken tikka etc.) is his original idea.


I could go on about his food creations but almost as significant are his generic contributions. Until Hemant took over, most banquet menus were mid-priced and boring. He invented the high-priced banquet and made it work because he taught his team how to turn out high-quality banquet food for hundreds of people in a very short space of time. At one party to celebrate a Taj anniversary, his chefs made 1400 cheese soufflés and served them at roughly the same time; a feat that I have never seen replicated.

Hemant was also the first chef to open the restaurant world up to vegetarians. Until he came along, vegetarians went to Indian restaurants, ate pizzas at Italian restaurants and survived on Gobhi Manchurian at Chinese restaurants. Hemant created vegetarian menus at Wasabi (modern Japanese), The Zodiac Grill (classic French) and told vegetarians that they could go to any Taj restaurant across cuisines and find dozens of fancy menu options. No longer would they be treated like second class citizens or have to scour the menu for things they could eat.

I don’t know how many of these achievements are recognised by the new generation of I-saw-it-on-Youtube-so-I-can-cook-it chefs but anyone with any experience of the profession will tell you that few people have had as much impact on the dignity of chefs as Hemant has.

With the release of Hotel Mumbai, you will hear about his valour. But don’t forget a lifetime of achievements that predate the night of terror.

And I guess you will now hear even more about Hemant because in November, he opens a restaurant in Delhi.

But more about that when it happens!

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First Published: Sep 26, 2018 10:20 IST

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