The Taste by Vir Sanghvi: Chefs deserve to be honoured and remembered - Hindustan Times

The Taste by Vir Sanghvi: Chefs deserve to be honoured and remembered

By, Delhi
Mar 05, 2024 11:47 AM IST

There were chefs in India but mostly, there were cooks. Very few standalone restaurants had proper chefs till the 1980s.

These days, chefs are ubiquitous. They have become celebrities. They are recognised on the streets. They pose for selfies with fans. They are mobbed at functions. They appear regularly on TV.

The Taste by Vir Sanghvi: Chefs deserve to be honoured and remembered(Unsplash)
The Taste by Vir Sanghvi: Chefs deserve to be honoured and remembered(Unsplash)

But there have always been hotels and restaurants. So, there must also always have been chefs. And yet, we never heard of them. Most of us have no idea of what chefs used to be like till, let’s say, the 1990s, when they became page 3 figures and then later, when TV shows and the internet turned them into household names.

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The truth is that, yes, there were chefs in India but mostly, there were cooks. Very few standalone restaurants had proper chefs till the 1980s. Cooks were given recipes by the owners and told to reproduce them in the kitchen. At some restaurants, even the standard recipes did not exist. Hence, the food changed as cooks came and went.

Hotels did have chefs. But there weren't many hotels in those days, at least not modern hotels of the kind we would recognise today. At the Taj in Mumbai, the kitchen was run by cooks overseen by the legendary Chef Masci who had himself started out as a cook and worked his way up.

At the Oberoi Intercontinental, which was India’s first modern hotel when it opened in Delhi in 1965, the Intercontinental connection made it simpler to import expatriate general managers and expatriate chefs rather than look for Indian executive chefs. The same happened at the Oberoi Sheraton which opened in Mumbai in 1973.

While hotels in other Asian countries now have some good local chefs, the executive chefs still tend to be expatriates. India is the only Asian country that went from kitchens dominated by cooks to world class kitchens run by our own executive chefs. Though we have nothing against expatriate chefs — and indeed some very good expatriates have run Indian kitchens — most hotels and restaurants in India are proud that their kitchens are managed by Indian chefs.

It could easily have gone the other way. We could have, like the rest of Asia and the Middle East, made it clear to our chefs that the highest rank they would ever reach was sous chef. The executive chef would always be a white man either Swiss-German or (increasingly) Australian.

I reckon that one decision taken by the Taj group in the early 1970s, turned the tide. When Masci retired and the kitchens of the Mumbai Taj needed to be professionalised, the hotel (which had tied up with Intercontinental in those days) had the option of hiring expat chefs. Certainly, there were very few Indian chefs who had the experience necessary to run two large hotels (the old Taj and the tower block next door) with a dozen restaurants and bars.

To everyone’s surprise, the Taj decided to take a chance. It appointed Satish Arora who was then in his twenties, to be the Executive Chef. Arora, quite frankly, did not have the experience that the job required. He also faced massive internal aggravation from the Goan cooks and the Parsi managers who were leery of this young Delhi Punjabi’s ability to do the job.

Against the odds, Arora succeeded and went on to become the first successful Indian executive chef of such a large hotel.

I often wonder: what would have happened if Arora had failed — as he might well have. Would the Taj have tried again with another young Indian chef? I doubt it. I suspect that an expat chef would have been appointed and India would have followed the rest of Asia in relying on executive chefs from Europe.

But Arora did not fail and the Taj decided to stick with Indian executive chefs. Arvind Saraswat, who used to run the kitchen at Mumbai’s Rendezvous, became the executive chef of the Delhi Taj when it opened. This had far-reaching implications. It soon became the norm for most Indian hotels to follow the Taj’s lead and hire Indian executive chefs and we remain one of the few countries in Asia to have chefs who are world class.

Arora has just published a memoir, Sweets and Bitters, wherein I have written the foreword, is being released by culinary superstar Sanjeev Kapoor at a function organised by Rashmi Uday Singh’s Hospitality Hope in Mumbai. Though Arora retired from the Taj decades ago, the hotel is hosting the event as a mark of respect for the chef and his contributions.

It is the sort of recognition that makes one very happy. When Arora was at his peak, nobody wrote about chefs so he was famous only within a small community of chefs and hoteliers. Page 3 had not yet been invented, Sanjeev Kapoor was the only chef who had mastered TV and as for the internet, that was still a distant dream.

And so, Arora never got the fame and recognition that are his due. Even now, only few people (including those in the industry) know that he was the first chef to make a Chicken Tikka sandwich, years before it became a staple of British sandwich shops. Or that he invented the Chilli Cheese Toast that all of us now make at home. Or that, despite his Punjabi origins, he travelled to Goa and the south of India and put the cuisines of these regions on the menu. At a time when we talk about promoting regional Indian cuisines, it is worth remembering that Arora had gotten there decades ago.

So yes, there were chefs in the 1970s and 1980s long before we got accustomed to celebrity chefs. Admittedly there were not a lot of them. But those like Arora (and Arvind Saraswat and Bukhara’s Madan Jaiswal) who ran the best kitchens changed Indian food and the destiny of Indian chefs forever.
They deserve to be honoured and remembered.

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