Taj’s Grand Master, Hemant Oberoi, Unveils his First Book and a Tempting New Menu at Masala Art
ONE OF the biggest mistakes The Oberoi group made was not to hire Hemant Oberoi. He was asked to tweak his surname because there could be only one Oberoi in the group. The young man destined to become the country’s most accomplished chef of his generation refused to relent. Instead, he joined the Taj, and the rest, as they say, is history.
I met the Corporate Chef of the Taj Hotels at Masala Art, where he was celebrating the launch of his debut book, The Masala Art: Indian Haute Cuisine (Roli Books), 12 years after the restaurant, one of his three famous babies, opened at the Taj Palace in New Delhi and revolutionised the way people looked at our country’s gastronomic heritage. It made good old-fashioned ganne ka ras (sugarcane juice) sexy. It gave a new spin to the everyday phulka by getting it made a la minute on a trolley by the table. It introduced the fashion of cooking in olive oil and pairing kebabs and curries with wine. Its menu carried art by Paresh Maity and Prabhakar Kolte, and on its walls hung the works of Jitish Kallat — that was when nobody knew him. It did away with live ghazals in favour of contemporary piped music.
In other words, it did what no Indian restaurant had dared to do before. Since Masala Art, as Oberoi said with his characteristic blunt wit, there have been many CCPs (cut, copy and paste restaurants), but the original has stood its ground and spread to Mumbai — Masala Kraft at the Taj Mahal Palace & Tower and the more seafood-driven Masala Bay at Taj Land’s End — as well as Bangalore in the avatar of Masala Klub.
Oberoi subsequently developed two stellar new concepts — Blue Ginger, the country’s first Vietnamese restaurant (first in Bangalore and then in Delhi), and thereafter Varq at the Taj Mahal Hotel, New Delhi, which introduced the city to Oberoi’s Indian take on haute cuisine — but Masala Art remains his most definitive contribution. It is only appropriate therefore that he has chosen to name his first book after the restaurant.
“What next?” I asked the grand master. “Wait till next year,” he replied. “I am presenting a concept that I have been working on for seven years. The restaurant will be the first of its kind in India.” Oberoi did not elaborate, but he did rev up my imagination.
The first thing that struck me as I leafed through the lavishly illustrated book is the work schedule he still follows. He may have served presidents and prime ministers (in fact, if he writes a book on the dignitaries he has fed, it will be a runaway best-seller), but his working day still stretches from 9 in the morning to 11:30 at night, when he returns home to a cup of tea. It reminded me of the early days of Masala Art.
In the course of an interview, I asked him whether he ever gets family time. He narrated a very funny story. He said that people he knew described their growing children in terms of their height, but he could only talk about his two sons in terms of their length, because he always saw them sleeping. It’s surprising that the two boys have followed in their father’s footsteps, but they must have been fired by the awards and accolades he has earned in his crowded life.
That was also the time when the then prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, insisted on taking Oberoi around the world so that he could showcase the best of Indian cuisine in official banquets. I asked Oberoi how it was to live out of travel bags, hotel rooms and airport lounges. He said he works on restaurant concepts on flights because he gets uncluttered time only when he’s flying! Unsurprisingly, he doesn’t let his mind rest even after he launches a new restaurant.
At Masala Art, for instance, he has launched a new menu, which is more national in character. It has beauties such as the broccoli and kaffir lime shorba, crab masaledar (or peppered edamame for the vegetarians) in filo, balchao seabass, bhatti ke asparagus, haleemi gilawati (a refreshing departure from the standard gilawati kebab), ghee roast chicken (Oberoi has retrieved an original recipe of this favourite dish of Aishwarya Rai’s community, the Bunts of Kundapura in Karnataka’s famed Udupi district, dating back to the 19th century), bharwan guchchi with malai ki sabzi (stuffed king-size morels with a curry made with cream), and an amazing gajar ka halwa filo cigar with rabdi, fresh strawberry elaneer payasam and malt kulfi, which must rank as one of the chef’s most striking innovations.
His proverbial rabbits from the magician’s hat, though, were the see-through glass mini-handis for the dum ki biryani, which the renowned German glassware makers, Schott Zwiesel, took two years to develop. Oberoi’s brief to them was that they should produce a glass handi so that each portion of biryani is cooked individually in the oven and the chefs are able to see it rise. It takes a grand master to visualise a product that turns a meal into a gastronomic journey.