Taj Palace Hotel’s Kafe Fontana, which shut recently, was fertile learning ground for young chefs
IT WAS always a discreet little dining establishment dwarfed by loftier neighbours like Orient Express and Masala Art, but when Kafe Fontana, the all-day dining restaurant at New Delhi’s Taj Palace Hotel, shut its doors two weeks ago, it was a poignant moment for me. Smaller than other ‘coffee shops’, Fontana buzzed steadily through its many years of operation, parked next to the busy escalator that ferried important guests to and fro from large banquet halls to the floor below. Through its glass doors, one could see presidents, prime ministers, sporting legends and controversial figures of the day saunter by without throwing a glance its way. But it was this unobtrusive charm that made it a staple for those who were keen on an experience of a quick meal and quiet service. Somehow, Fontana side-stepped the bustle of hotel coffee shops—activity and noise all seemed to retreat from this comfortable enclave. In the earlier years, it boasted of an interesting Lebanese food display—quite unique from what was to be found elsewhere—and a chocolate fountain. On its last Sunday brunch, there was a variation of the famed hummus—the chocolate fountain was long gone.
My experience at Fontana comes from the time I was employed at Taj Palace as faculty for its management training programme. I was a regular patron at the café, arranging my work lunch meetings there, escaping caféteria fare for the day and scoring points with my invitees. My guests would wonder aloud why they had never thought of visiting Fontana despite coming to the hotel on numerous occasions. The neighbouring tea lounge in the lobby, with its impressive selection of teas, had eaten into some of its ‘let’s grab a coffee/tea’ clientele, but Fontana hummed along discreetly. There was another side to it, which the outside world wasn’t privy to: it was fertile learning ground for young chefs. Here was a restaurant so comfortable in its identity that it opened its kitchen and restaurant to those on the cusp of a career in the kitchen. Many of my trainees (I was once assigned, somewhat incongruously, a batch of new chefs) were upbeat about getting trained at Fontana. Hotels can be brutal to the young ones, demanding, unforgiving and exacting. Hours upon hours—even days—are spent peeling onions, potatoes and tomatoes. Often, any dream of mastering a cuisine is dashed within five minutes of entering a kitchen when a senior commie acknowledges your presence by directing you to the onions. For those who join hotels to work in the kitchen, this can be a big let-down. In this scenario, Fontana, led by executive chef Rajesh Wadhwa, always made space for them. It was no wonder then that young trainee chefs would jostle for a spot here, passing up fancier signature restaurants in other hotels. That was because at Fontana, they could actually engage with cuisine in a way that no other restaurant would permit. It was a restaurant with a heart. I went to its last Sunday brunch and was regaled with tales by a server, who introduced himself as ‘Chota Bhai’. Later, his senior came and told me that he is known by this nickname because, a few years ago, he and his elder brother were in an accident. The brother, also an employee of the hotel, died. Since then, he is called Chota Bhai by everyone.
Fontana reminds me of another young man, a trainee of mine who lost his life in the 26/11 attacks. A young chef from Goa, he had been assigned to the restaurant for a part of his training. I remember him pursuing me delightedly down the marble lobby, calling out, “Ma’am, I have been allowed to be a part of the seafood festival at Kafe Fontana. You have to visit… let me cook for you.” “But I don’t eat seafood,” I told him hurriedly, adding, “Now, get back to work.” Even though I sampled enough of his creations in the training kitchen, I never ate what he cooked at Fontana. An invitation I regret not accepting.
Advaita Kala is a writer, most recently of the film Kahaani. She is also a former hotelier having worked in restaurants in India and abroad