Chit Chat: Hemant Oberoi

He’s cooked for the Clintons, Margaret Thatcher and prepared Liz Hurley’s wedding buffet. FARRAH FRANCIS caught up with the executive chef of the Taj Group as the SA-India Food Week draws to a close.

How did you become a chef?
I always wanted to be a doctor but when it came to studying I didn’t do that well.

Catering ­college was one of those “let’s see what happens” situations. I never really had any passion for cooking until I got to college.

What is the biggest misconception about Indian cuisine?
That it is oily, spicy and heavy.

Over the last few years I have tried to reinvent the way Indian food is prepared and consumed.

I introduced a trolley concept at my restaurant where you can choose what heat (how strong) you would like your food, and what type of breads you would like to eat with it.

This is so the customer can have a choice in how to eat their cuisine.

Do you think you have succeeded?
Yes, I think I am changing ­perceptions.

Generally people tend to eat everything on one plate.

Even when we cook, everything is cooked together.

Take a bryani for example – everything is in one pot.

I am trying to get Indian cuisine to be served in courses and not all in one go.

I think people are ­beginning to respond to that.

What’s the difference between being a good restaurateur and being a good chef?
When opening and running a restaurant you need to be ­creative in coming up with new, good recipes instead of simply following an old recipe.

Everyone could be a chef if they ­simply followed a recipe, but ­being a good restaurateur means being able to create something for the customer from scratch.

You were at the Taj Hotel in Mumbai when the terrorist ­attacks took place two years ago. How has that changed you?
It changed my outlook on life – that as humans we need to help each other.

Some of my closest colleagues died that day and I have put a humanitarian spin on it: when situations arise where people need help, it is our duty as humans to help.

How do you deal with the pressure of cooking for high-profile people?
I don’t feel pressure. I am ­confident in my cooking but not complacent. It comes from the heart no matter who I cook for.
You have over 750 recipes for chicken dishes alone, how do you go about setting a menu?
Sometimes I go on my gut feel. I think intuition is ­important.

I often prepare ­menus while travelling by ­scribbling on a piece of paper, but mostly I invent new menus.

How do you balance work and family?
I must admit, I don’t think I have been a very good husband! I give my wife (of 30 years) a lot of credit for the way she has raised our children.

But I also think I must be ­doing something right as one of my sons runs a restaurant while the other has just graduated from the Culinary Institute of America.

If you weren’t a chef, what would you be doing?
Nothing. I love being a chef, every day I get to think “what can I create today?” and I love it.

What advice would you offer to ­budding chefs?
You must have passion. In this industry, be prepared to work 10-14 hours a day for the first five years.

In fact, I am still ­doing that!

Make sure you don’t follow, rather let others follow you.

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