Ronnie Lobo: Gentleman Hotelier, Passionate Professional and Delightful Raconteur who Defined the Early Years of the Taj New Delhi
RONNIE LOBO may not have become the chief executive of a hotel chain, but he was in his lifetime (it’s so difficult to speak of him in the past tense) a legend in the hospitality industry, a trend-setter of his time, an inspiration for the next generation, a delightful raconteur of stories gifted with a musical voice and readiness to play the acoustic guitar at short notice, and for his awe-smitten guests, a trigger of great memories.
It was under his leadership in the early 1990s that the Taj Mahal Hotel in New Delhi savoured its best times and loftiest reputation. With Ajit Kerkar, another visionary who left the Taj under a cloud, and Camellia Panjabi, who re-defined, once and for all, Indian food served in five-star hotels, to mentor him, Lobo, whose father, too, had served the Taj in Mumbai for 40 years since 1946, was the general manager of the landmark hotel, the inspiring Patu Keswani, founder of the Lemon Tree hotels, was the resident manager, and the duty managers were Gaurav Pokhriyal and Taljinder Singh, who are now area directors of the Taj hotels in Delhi and Mumbai, respectively. Which other hotel could line up a team that could match up to this formidable quartet?
Sadly, Ronnie was sidelined in the purge that followed the ousting of Kerkar as Chairman and Managing Director of the Indian Hotels Company Limited in 1997 (he was the third Tata satrap to be shown the door, after Russi Mody and Darbari Sethi, by Ratan Tata in the early years of his leadership), and after cooling his heels for two years, he quietly moved as General Manager and Vice President of the Radisson New Delhi (it is now the Radisson Blu Plaza Mahipalpur) in 2000, led the hotel for five years and was eventually elevated as Carlson Rezidor’s Vice President (Operations) for India.
At the Radisson, he was uncharacteristically low-key, building hotels and managing acquisitions. The only time he made news was when he got his old Casa Medici mate, Giovanni Leopardi, to relocate briefly from America and open the short-lived Italian (with Moroccan touches) restaurant, Med. When Lobo was General Manager, The Taj Mahal Hotel, Leopardi introduced Modern Italian cuisine to Delhi at Casa Medici in 1991. Giving his steady back-end support was Tapas Bhattacharya, a Lobo acolyte, the creator of the Machan Club Sandwich, and now the Chef Manager of the restaurant he has given his life to.
During Lobo’s tenure as GM, Machan was the unchallenged No. 1 among ‘coffee shops’ (the restaurant, incidentally, was under his charge in the early 1980s and it was then that it acquired its personality and fan following), Captain’s Cabin, designed by Ajit Kerkar’s wife, Elizabeth, was the Capital’s favourite watering hole, the House of Ming was the most favoured Chinese restaurant and Casa Medici was the go-to Italian eatery.
Lobo was also responsible for helping Panjabi draw up, for the first time in the Indian hospitality industry, a national wine list for the Taj, introducing names such as Burgundy’s bulk wine producer, Georges Debouef, also known as the ‘King of Beaujolais’, or the region Chateauneuf du Pape, which was better known by its acronym, CDP, or labels from regions that even the most well-travelled Indians did not know produced wines, one example being Chile’s Montes Alpha. Back in 1991, the Taj Mahal Hotel on Mansingh Road was serving Argentine and Chilean wines, much before the world had warmed up to Malbec and Carmenere.
Few people knew more about wine than Lobo, and for him it was not just another fad — he had picked wine grapes during harvest time in Spain, for instance, to understand wines better. Unsurprisingly, the wine museum at Cos de Estournel, a respected Bordeaux wine producer with a long association with India, has a wall dedicated to Lobo. That’s indeed a rarest of rare honour.
Under Lobo’s charge, the Taj New Delhi was the first in India to get a ‘Five Star Diamond’ rating from the American Academy of Hospitality Sciences, to introduce cable TV so that guests could follow the First Gulf War in 1991, and to hire a Michelin-starred chef, Richard Neat, who opened and ran the Longchamp restaurant on the Taj rooftop. It was also under Lobo that the Taj New Delhi underwent its first renovation in 1996 since it opened in 1978 — the luxury rooms conceived by Lobo became the benchmark for the group.
Lobo’s most endearing talent, though, was his ability to narrate stories archived in his memory. I had often pleaded with him to write his memoir — it would have been a best-seller. Alas, he never found the time to write one, so busy he was scripting the Carlson Rezidor growth story in India. But let me recount some of the stories he had narrated to me when we last me about a year ago.
During our meeting, Lobo recalled how he had once run into Mick Jagger, who had come unannounced to watch an India versus Pakistan cricket match, and discovered to his horror that he had been assigned an ordinary room (The Rolling Stones lead singer had checked in under an assumed name). And how he pinched David Lean from the Maurya (the director went on to write A Passage to India, his last film based on E.M. Foster’s novel, in the two years he spent at the Taj). And how he got John Cleese of Fawlty Towers to do a little gig behind the reception counter for the now-famous television mogul Raghav Bahl, who had just launched his company, TV18. And how he saw Ben Kingsley walk into the Taj reception and knew at once that he was going to play Mahatma Gandhi – the actor, who became famous after Sir Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi, had not yet been introduced to the media. Sir Richard invited David Lean to watch the film’s inaugural screening in New Delhi, but the veteran director opted out. “What if I don’t like the film!” he confided to Lobo.
Two of Lobo’s stories were absolute standouts. He remembered the time when George Harrison, the lead guitarist of The Beatles, asked for a pot of tea and Shalimar biscuits. Lobo sent his staff all over Khan Market looking for Shalimar biscuits, but they couldn’t find the brand. With much anxiety, Lobo called up Harrison and asked where he had seen the biscuits, and he was informed that the ex-Beatle had seen it on a neon sign atop the “mosque on the sea” (Haji Ali) in Mumbai. Harrison had no option but to have other biscuits with his tea.
The funniest was the story about getting Helmut Kohl, one of Germany’s most outstanding chancellors and international statesman, to stay at the Taj. The German Titan was to check in at the Rashtrapati Bhawan, so Lobo got his good friend, the then German ambassador, to float the story that Kohl had this bad habit of waking up at 4 a.m. and demanding pasta. That unnerved the Rashtrapati Bhawan staff and they asked the ambassador to suggest an alternative. The ambassador dutifully recommended the Taj and that was the beginning of a series of VVIP stays at the hotel.
Interestingly, Kohl caught a cold in the Taj and the man who came to his rescue was none other than Tapas Bhattacharya, who was then on the Casa Medici staff. Bhattacharya fixed Kohl a hot toddy and the German Chancellor was so relieved that he insisted on getting his photograph taken with the chef.
Lobo was a repository of many such stories. With his passing away, the industry has not only lost a visionary, but also a virtual museum of experiences that makes a hotelier’s life worthwhile. The museum, sadly, will no longer be there, but the inspiration will forever be around.