OT: What was your first job as a chef?
Hemant Oberoi: Four days after I finished my final exams in college, I took a train to Mumbai and joined Taj Hotels, and I’ve been here ever since. It’s been 39 years since the day! One wife, one job: that’s my motto (laughs)!
OT: What challenged you the most when you were young and looking to make your mark in the industry?
Hemant Oberoi: In the 1960s and 70s, everything was a secret. When I started working as a young chef, none of the old and experienced chefs were willing to part with their recipes. But once I won their confidence, it was easy.
OT: What have been the greatest milestones in your culinary journey?
Hemant Oberoi: I’ve never looked back. I have always wanted to do better with every new endeavour. I’m never completely satisfied. I’m proud to say that I’ve always been a trendsetter, especially with the Taj and its restaurants. We recently opened St Lorenzo, a rustic Italian restaurant. People seem to have forgotten simple cuisine and always want fancy, contemporary food. My personal belief, however, is that history, food and fashion always repeat themselves!
OT: Interesting. And what is your take on food trends today?
Hemant Oberoi: If you look at world cuisine, especially French food, you’ll notice that classics like roasts, grills and pies are back in vogue. I haven’t forgotten to delve into the roots of Indian cuisine. To get something unique, you have to get into the skin of a cuisine. For instance, about three years back, during Navratras, I started serving temple cuisine in Masala (the Taj restaurant chain). I travelled from Shirdi to the Golden Temple to Vaishno Devi to Tirupati and even Puri. I worked closely with the cooks there, watched them. The simplicity of that food never comes out when we cook at home. I also fly down the prasadam from four temples and give every table a portion after every meal! If you can’t go to God, then God sometimes comes to you in the form of food!
OT: What is your favourite ingredient to cook with?
Hemant Oberoi: Personally, I enjoy cooking with lemon grass, because of its flavours and aroma: it’s so refreshing!
OT: What’s in the offing for Varq (the restaurant at Taj Mahal), now that it’s completed five years?
Hemant Oberoi: The idea is to change the menu every seven to eight months. Besides that, I plan to create a degustation menu for Varq. That’s what I’m working on now.
OT: I’d like to know about your role in Taj and about your chef studio as well.
Hemant Oberoi: I look after 27 luxury hotels—right from Sydney to San Francisco. I travel for at least four-five months in a year. When I finish with that, I focus on big-ticket weddings and functions. I also focus on creating new concepts, upgrading equipment. For instance, in Mumbai we’ve introduced tiffin boxes in silver for our single travellers. As for my chef studio, I wanted to create a place where I could experiment. I have always worked in the luxury industry and my take is that if I don’t experience luxury, how will I give luxury? My chef studio is luxury unlimited! I have a table for eight people: it’s an invite-only, exclusive space. I do about 40-45 dinners a year there. Sachin Tendulkar was there recently. I’ve also served the likes of Mr (Amitabh) Bachchan, the Ambanis, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.
OT: I believe you’ve cooked for several heads of state. What do you keep in mind while cooking for them?
Hemant Oberoi: I recently entertained President Obama in my chef studio. I also travel with the PM on all his state visits. It definitely gives me an adrenalin rush to cook for the heads of state and dignitaries. My team and I research their food habits and allergies and make sure we represent Indian cuisine in the best fashion. There are myths in the minds of foreigners that Indian food is spicy; they forget that we have flavours. My aim is to shatter that myth!