After 25 years in the business, Hemant Oberoi, is still a man with an irrepressible talent for surprise, finds Antoine Lewis.
Setting up an interview with Hemant Oberoi needs deft planning. There’s only a brief window between his return from Leeds, UK where he was one of the star attractions at the World Curry Festival and his departure to Singapore as part of an international panel of chefs invited by the Singapore government to create a special dish for them. But when we finally meet, he’s all there. Only once through the interview does he interrupt to attend to a call despite his Blackberry constantly flashing.
Oberoi is Grand Executive Chef of the Taj Mahal Palace & Tower (a designation invented especially for him) and corporate chef for the Taj Luxury Hotels, which includes over 200 restaurants around the world. So there’s always a lot on his plate. Right now, though, things are especially hectic. His new restaurant Riva, specialising in cuisine from the Italian and French Riviera has just opened at the Taj Lands End, he’s just about finished approving new menus for all the Taj restaurants, and his first cookbook The Masala Art: Indian Haute Cuisine will be out shortly.
From a trainee chef with a salary of Rs 150 in 1974 to a man whose uniforms are tailored in France from Egyptian cotton, Oberoi’s journey is remarkable. Particularly considering he actually wanted to become a doctor. Chefs at the time were considered no better than bawarchis, so even after getting admission into New Delhi’s prestigious Pusa Institute of Hotel Management Oberoi confesses he wasn’t keen on cooking. Once he joined the Taj, however, things changed. Determined to become the executive chef, he spent every waking hour in the hotel. He’d start at 7am in the soup kitchen, moving to the main banquets kitchen, training with the halwais, and finishing after washing up the dishes only at 1.30am. He was executive chef 12 years later.
Today, after 25 years of deciding what the Taj should serve, Oberoi exudes confidence that comes from knowing that when the country’s most important people want to throw a party, he’s their first port of call. He’s been around long enough to see three generations of India’s wealthiest families order from his menus. He’s been recognised on the street, way before India had celebrity chefs. And all this time, he’s been following, intently, the way we eat.
Oberoi has an unerring ability to identify successful concepts and cuisines before anyone else. When other restaurants were riding the Thai curry wave over the last decade, Oberoi swam in a different direction – he opened Blue Ginger, the first Vietnamese restaurant at the Taj West End, Bangalore. Why? “You could get Thai curry even on the street,” he says. Vietnam’s flavours, however, were just right for the Indian palate; he just needed to develop more vegetarian options. Blue Ginger proved to be such a critical and commercial success, that the Taj opened a second one, this time in New Delhi.
Oberoi’s last gamble was Prego, at Chennai’s Taj Coromandel. In a city not known to have adventurous tastes, his restaurant is an Italian one that does not serve pizza, and while the flavours are traditional, the presentation is influenced by a minimalist Japanese aesthetic. Contrary to public perception, Oberoi sensed that Chennai was ready to transition from casual Italian to a more refined version. The restaurant’s sales have proved him right.
Oberoi’s prescience and research are matched with an astute understanding of his diners. He knows that Indians are travelling around the world and he’s figured out that the competition is not local but international. On foreign visits, he uses local sources to find out which restaurants are popular, and makes sure to dine there. In Leeds, he ate at a different place every night. Shepherd’s Pie at a bistro set him thinking about a version he could do with a boti masala. Before he opened Prego, he spent a month travelling across Italy, eating at Michelin-starred restaurants to understand what contemporary Italian chefs were cooking. And he probably wouldn’t bet on French, since he hasn’t “seen any Indians at Alain Ducasse’s restaurants”.
It’s explains why the Taj was the first hotel in the country to serve contemporary Japanese. Oberoi had convinced them to open a Japanese restaurant around 2002, but after visiting Tokyo, New York and London, and noticing that most Indians preferred the more contemporary menus of Nobu and Zuma, he knew the traditional cuisine wasn’t the way forward. He was also acutely aware that South Mumbai’s millionaires and the clients who’d be interested in a trendy new restaurant were staunchly vegetarian; there was no way it could succeed without their patronage. Wasabi by Morimotoat the Taj Mahal Palace turned out to be a raging success, as much for its creation in collaboration with chef Masaharu Morimoto as the vegetarian menu created completely by Oberoi. Dishes like edamame soufflé, corn tempura and asparagus, and tomato carpaccio had never been seen on a Japanese menu before. The carpaccio is genius: thinly-sliced green tomatoes are bathed in a dressing of yuzu (a mandarin-like citrus fruit) and soy, and topped with minced seaweed, chives and diced Japanese pickles. In the centre sits a dollop of wasabi and yuzu gelato. Every bite juxtaposes flavours and textures – the crispness of tomato, the softness of gelato, the pungency of wasabi, the sweetness of soy and the interplay of three types of tartness from tomato, yuzu and pickles.
“First I choose the plate then I decide what I’m going to serve in it,” Oberoi jokes. He knows that diners are not just particular, they also check. “When Hilary Clinton dined at the Zodiac Grill in August 2009 she lifted the plate and remarked to her companion, ‘Do you know how much this plate costs?’” he recalls. She was probably looking at a piece of Bernardaud Limoges porcelain, one of the most exclusive tableware brands. The Zodiac Grill is one of only eight restaurants in the world to use it. He knows what it takes to transform a great meal into a memorable one. When Brad Pitt dined at the Chef’s Studio in Mumbai, Oberoi’s team offered him his favourite fresh white truffles with his pasta. It blew the actor’s mind.
Oberoi’s frenetic travel schedule is his most fertile period of creativity. Not only does it let him stay abreast of the latest trends and explore new tastes, but his best ideas come when he site undisturbed mid-flight. A tinkerer at heart, Oberoi will dissect, analyse and re-present idea in unexpected ways. At Sea Lounge, he wasn’t content with doing a conventional high tea, so he introduced an Asian one. Now, along with brews and cupcakes, guests can opt for a kheema gotala toastie, bhajiyas, samosas or a prawn or avocado chaat from the chaat trolley.
Oberoi’s singleminded insistence on quality is legendary amongst the kitchen and service staff. A former manager of the Zodiac Grill once recounted how a guest wasn’t happy with the quality of the lobster bisque. Chef Oberoi happened to be in the restaurant at the time and when he heard what happened, he personally cooked bisque after bisque until the customer was satisfied. “Awards are important,” Oberoi maintains, “but nothing matters to me as much as seeing a guest happy.”
Published Vogue December 2011