For 60-year-old Hemant Oberoi, who just retired as the grand executive chef of The Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai, and corporate chef for the Taj Luxury division, food and life are inextricably linked. “Life is food, after all, with all its sights, sounds, colours and tastes.” Extending on this, life and food alike might not always be great but as long as they are there, we want both in big portions. In his last few days on the job, Oberoi introduces us to the world of food at Taj, reminiscing on the moments that made his 41-year career at the hotel so rewarding. His stint established him as one of the finest chefs not just in India but abroad as well, with the Hall of Fame, Chaîne des Rôtisseurs, deeming him to be a masterchef who has redefined all that’s good and new about Indian cuisine.
Both in India and overseas (mainly Dubai), Oberoi has served the high and mighty, including JRD Tata, Ratan Tata, Ronald Reagan, Henry Kissinger, Prince Charles, Hosni Mubarak, John Major and Bill Clinton. “Gastronomy is one of the best weapons of diplomacy. It is also the best gift from India to the world,” he says. Oberoi recounts an occasion when John Major, ex-PM of the UK, was a guest at the Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai, and was being served several Mughlai dishes, including dum ka gosht. Gleefully, Oberoi narrates how Major polished off the plate and told the waiter to “keep serving till I ask you to stop”. Oberoi ensured that the same curry was served at the Taj, London, as well.
On another instance, former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee had hosted lunch for his Pakistani counterpart Pervez Musharraf at the Taj Palace, Delhi. But to the host’s consternation, Musharraf did not touch his food. Oberoi intervened and convinced Musharraf that the entire food was 100% halal. Assured, Musharraf polished off the entire spread. Oberoi used to regularly accompany Vajpayee — himself a foodie — across the world. On flights, he would dish out the PM’s favourites such as lobsters and prawns, puri and aloo curry. For breakfast, he ensured that he served native UP food. “You see, politicians get easily bored. You need to charge them up with good food,” chuckles Oberoi.
And then there was his experience with Barack and Michelle Obama at the Taj, Mumbai. They were served shell crab, galawati kebab, biryani and lamb shanks. The first lady was so pleased that she presented Oberoi with a token of appreciation and went against protocol to take a picture with the US president and Oberoi. The chef also remembers the time when Mukesh Ambani hosted a private dinner for Bill Clinton at his residence, where Oberoi was the only professional from outside who was present.
He crafted a seven-course dinner over two-and-a-half hours, which was enjoyed by all. With a glint in his eyes, he recounts how Ratan Tata relishes French, Japanese and Chinese cuisine. “He is a small eater but has highly evolved taste buds,” he adds. Despite the talk about the greatness of Indian cuisine, Oberoi says, it is still not served in an authentic manner. “In India, there is a lot of mediocrity when it comes to food. At some places, the chef just tosses fish with salt, pepper and garam masala — and I’ve seen people applaud it. So is the usage of thyme and rosemary — most cooks just don’t know how to use it,” he says.
So, will Oberoi now help raise awareness about authentic Indian food? Though he has hung up his boots at the Taj, he will continue to be associated with the hospitality chain as a consultant for its new hotel and restaurant concepts. Right now he is focusing on the launch of a restaurant in Peru. That done, he will leave for the Taj, Dubai, to set up a unit there. According to Oberoi, fashion and food trends are cyclical. While 30 years ago, people were not aware of different cuisines, now, with rising disposable incomes and travel budgets, they are demanding more global cuisines. “The food revolution is set to solve a lot of our problems and change the world,” he says. Well, then, all we need is more food on our plates, with a dose of love.