Leaving a legacy

A name that is synonymous with the Taj group of hotels, Chef Hemant Oberoi’s four decades with the brand is a story of grit and determination that has put India on the world culinary map

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A name that is synonymous with the Taj group of hotels, Chef Hemant Oberoi’s four decades with the brand is a story of grit and determination that has put India on the world culinary map

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Chef Hemant Oberoi

A perfectionist, a friend, a mentor and a culinary prodigy, Chef Hemant Oberoi’s name will continue to remain synonymous with the Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces for he has left behind him an unmatched culinary legacy. A specialist in contemporary Indian and Western cuisine, Chef Oberoi has developed and presented many innovative concepts to the culinary world including Cal-Indian cuisine, lemon grass cuisine among others. Though his innings with the Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces has come to an end after retiring from the position of the grand executive chef at The Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai, and corporate chef for the entire luxury division of the Taj chain of hotels, his name will continue to remain associated with the brand as a consultant for a year. “I am still getting used to this change. The Taj has been the first and only company I served in my entire culinary career,” opines Chef Hemant Oberoi sitting inside his Colaba apartment located opposite the The Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai. After working for 16 to 18 hours a day or even longer without taking a single leave in the past four decades of his tenure with the Taj, his retirement has indeed brought an unexpected change to his daily rigorous routine. But this is perhaps the beginning of another exciting journey, he chuckles, for he is flying to Melbourne, Australia to organise a sit-down dinner for 250 people and is thereafter flying to Hannover, Germany for another occasion. Also in the pipeline, is his life-long dream to open his own restaurant along with his sons.

Looking back

Chef Oberoi’s journey into the culinary field is quite remarkable, like the man himself, considering that he never aspired to become a chef but a doctor or an army officer. Even after his admission to the prestigious Institute of Hotel Management Catering & Nutrition, Pusa, New Delhi, he was reluctant to choose this career path. He carried this reluctant attitude to his interviews and much to his surprise, was appointed as a trainee chef of The Taj in 1974. “I never wanted to become a chef in my life. But the moment I wore the apron and stepped into the kitchen, I was determined to become the executive chef of The Taj one day,” adds Chef Oberoi. His determination bore fruit. It took him 12 years to climb up the kitchen ladder and become the executive chef of The Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai and much later the corporate chef for the entire luxury division of the Taj chain of hotels.

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Chef Hemant Oberoi (right) with his son, Chef Saransh Oberoi

He was the brain behind launching a series of notable and award-winning restaurant brands of Taj including Zodiac Grill, the Masala series, Blue Ginger, Souk, Wasabi by Morimoto and Varq. “I always try out different cuisines during my travels and if that cuisine leaves a lasting impression on me, I know that will become the cuisine of the future. I wanted the cuisines at The Taj to stay 10-15 years ahead of its time,” opines Chef Hemant Oberoi adding that, “When I decided to launch Souk at The Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai specialising in Mediterranean cuisine, everyone suggested that it wasn’t going to work, but it went onto establish its name and recently celebrated its 12th anniversary.” The story is similar with Wasabi by Morimoto as well. “When I went to Japan to understand its cuisine I realised it was not going to work in India for a significant number of my Indian guests were vegetarians. So I had to undertake extensive research and made it vegetarian,” reveals Chef Oberoi.

The chef’s table at Chef Studio which he created in Mumbai is a culinary joint of the who’s who in India and also those visiting the country. His popularity can be gauged by the host of dignitaries, businessmen and celebrities he served including the Clintons, Obamas, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, Bachchans, Ambanis, Tom Cruise, Laxmi Mittal, amongst others. Along with these fond memories, also embedded in his mind is the 26/11 terror attack at the The Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai. A constant reminded of this tragedy are some bullet shells that he found in his office. “That event made me a firm believer of destiny,” rues Chef Oberoi.

Following his footsteps

He is an ideal mentor and a disciplined chef. This is how his sons describe him as. Following their father’s footsteps, both his sons are employed with the Taj. While his elder son Sidhartha Oberoi is the F&B manager at St James’ Court London, A Taj Hotel, his younger son, Chef Saransh Oberoi, is a sous chef with Taj Campton Place San Francisco. He completed his graduation from The Culinary Institute of America in New York. “I decided not to study and work in India because the pressure would have been more to perform since I was Chef Hemant Oberoi’s son and also I wanted to grow and San Francisco was a familiar market for me,” opines Chef Saransh Oberoi adding, “I look up to him as a father and secondly as a celebrated chef. His guidance is backed up by a lot of love and mutual understanding.” Being Chef Oberoi’s son has been a defining factor for him, he believes, for he is constantly pushed to know his own strengths and limits. But ask him what his dream is, he quickly adds, “I want to be bigger and better than him. This is a big thing to do.” Resonating the same feeling, Chef Oberoi states, “My son has to be better than me for in this business you need to be the best. Being on top for decades is not an easy feat.”

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