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Indian chefs are finally getting the recognition they deserve

A few weeks ago, the Saturday magazine of Business Standard ran a perceptive story on India’s best chefs. It also asked top chefs to pick their own favourites. And while the usual suspects came up  again and again (Hemant Oberoi, Imtiaz Qureshi and Ananda Solomon), there was, I thought, a certain generosity about the choices the chefs made. Oberoi and Solomon both picked each other --- a nice touch as they are the two best-known chefs in the country. But Oberoi also picked the Land’s End’s brilliant but very young pastry chef Rohit Sangwan and the legendary Urbano de Rego of Goa. (Ananda picked Rego too).


   There was one curious omission from the list. The Taj and ITC groups had the most chefs (along with chefs from such stand-alone as Diva, Olive, etc.)  but I couldn’t find a single Oberoi chef.


   This was odd. It is not as though the Oberoi chain does not run good restaurants. And many of the world’s best-known Indian chefs (Michelin-starred Vineet Bhatia and Atul Kochar for instance) came up though the Oberoi group. So why should none of the chefs admire anybody from the Oberoi chain?


   I could come up with three explanations. The first is that no matter how good Indian chefs may be at re-interpreting foreign cuisines, they are eventually judged on their ability to cook Indian food. Ananda Solomon’s crowning achievement will be the Konkan Café even if the Thai Pavilion does better. And I imagine that Hemant Oberoi will be remembered more for Varq and the Masala series of restaurants than the Zodiac Grill.


   The Oberois,  however have downgraded Indian food to the extent that some of their  top properties (the Delhi Oberoi, for instance) have no Indian restaurants at all. (That said, I had great Indian food at 360 a couple of Sundays ago.) And so Oberoi chefs suffer from a lack of opportunity to show off their skills.


   The second is the old business of expat versus local.  At many chains, expat chefs are the exception rather than the rule. ITC, for instance, will spend money on Chinese, Thai and Japanese chefs but you won’t find many white men in their kitchens. At the Taj, the chefs systematically gang up on expats (except for those from the East) and few Europeans and Americans can flourish in that environment. (There are notable exceptions, of course: at Prego in Madras, the Orient Express in Delhi and a few others but these are relatively rare.)


   The Oberoi chain however knows how to handle expats and get the best out of them; one reason why their European food can often be excellent. The problem with this however is that if the Italian restaurant is run by a European and the Chinese by a Chinese person, then where is the Indian chef going to shine? That only leaves the coffee shop. (The Delhi Oberoi recently lost its excellent pastry chef, Avijit Ghosh who baked the best bread in Delhi.)


   In contrast, the Taj allows Indians to master foreign cuisines. Its chefs learnt Sichuan food  in the Seventies and the standards at such restaurant at Wasabi are monitored by Indians. So it is with ITC where Indians are given a free run.


   A third reason --- and perhaps the most important ---- is that the Taj and ITC actively push their chefs into the public eye. Think about it. Can you name a single Oberoi chef? Why is it that all the ones you have heard of tend to be Taj or ITC employees?


"The Master Chef programme breaks every rule of corporate management but it emerges from ITC’s belief that great chefs are artists and must be treated as such."

   This is a question of philosophy. The modern Taj inherited the tradition of the celebrity chef from the legendary Maskie who oversaw the kitchens at the Bombay Taj for decades till the early Seventies. When  Maskie retired, Ajit Kerkar, who then ran the Taj, gambled on Satish Arora, then in his twenties, as Maskie’s replacement. Arora proved more than equal to the task and set the trend for a whole new breed of Punjabi master-chefs who ran Taj kitchens with iron fists: Arvind Saraswat and now, Hemant Oberoi whose fame exceeds either Arora’s or Saraswat’s.


   The Taj was the only chain which, when it launched a restaurant, asked the chef to explain to the press what it was about. Thus no General Manager dare take credit for any of Hemant’s concepts. The Thai Pavilion will always be known as Ananda’s restaurant.  In Delhi, the excellent Machan is run by Tapas Bhattacharya, a chef-manager who is the public face of the restaurant, knows all his regulars and is responsible for the high standard of the food. (Sadly this means that Tapas who is a brilliant French chef does not cook as often as I would like.)


   At ITC, there is a chef-based kitchen philosophy but it differs from the Taj’s. Ever since Ajit Haksar hired Imtiaz Quereshi and launched ITC’s Indian food, the chain has always recognized that north Indian cuisine is best made by traditional chefs and not by catering college graduates.


   So it has set up a Master Chef programme, hiring India’s finest cooks and their families and persuading them to both, part with traditional recipes and to invent new dishes. ITC takes its Master Chef programme so seriously that the top chefs receive huge salaries and the programme is administered by a very senior person. Till recently it was Habib Rehman and now it is Gautam Anand.


    The Master Chef programme breaks every rule of corporate management but it emerges from ITC’s belief that great chefs are artists and must be treated as such.  The proof of its success lies in the quality of the Indian food at ITC hotels. When Bukhara appears on lists of the world’s best restaurants or when Dum Pukht is hailed as the sort of restaurant that deserves three Michelin stars, this is not an accident or a fluke. It emerges from the care and attention paid to chefs.


   One of the most heartening things about the new breed of stand-alones ---- Smokehouse Grill, Olive, Aurus, Caperberry etc. -- is that they are all chef-based restaurants, (even Olive in Bangalore).


   This is a huge breakthrough for Indian dining made possible I suspect because of the early success of such chefs as Diva’s Ritu Dalmia whose popularity now stretches all over India. (I had dinner with her in Goa and found that she was recognized there too.)


   And while the celebrity chef cult can have its downside --- look at the mess poor Gordon Ramsay is in now --- there is a happy balance to be struck between the tyranny of the branded chef and the respect that a great artist deserves.


   Speaking for myself, I am on the side of the chefs. They are finally getting the recognition they deserve. And I hope they get lots more.


(Image attributed to Wikimedia Commons)



  • Sweettooth 2 24 Mar 2010

    Vir ,
    Fact is that Oberoi as Hotel chain ( specially the Vilas Properties ) as well as OCLD produces the best chefs of India.
    Hemant oberoi ,Ananda solomon and every top class chef in India knows but , Cant admit it. Group Loyalty you know.
    Its your forum , you are free to have your own set of people and take their view.
    but every chefs passing from Taj and ITC chefs programme wish to be part Oberoi school of learning and development. why?
    Not much space elaborate it further though.

  • sweetooth 20 Aug 2009

    fantastic insight by a man who knows the trade. i'm in the kitchen and can relate and connect to this frustration.sans oppertunity no shining star wil appear !
    bravo vir sanghvi

Posted On: 18 Jul 2009 12:12 PM
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