After a sparkling career as the head of the kitchen brigade for globally recognized chains Marriott and Starwood, and after successfully hosting food shows on two of India's leading television channels Chef Ajay Chopra has reinvented himself. He is now taking on the role of entrepreneur in the brick and mortar world and is building his personal brand in the digital space. Ajay is greatly committed to taking Indian cuisine into new and uncharted areas and constantly experiments with new ingredients and flavours. Chef Ajay Chopra shares his dreams with Better Kitchen.
What made you come into this profession? Your early inspiration in life, well beyond your mother.
To be very honest, I did not aspire being a Chef at the start of my career, however I was very sure of pursuing a career in hotels. While studying, I developed my passion for food and realized that food was the tune I would like to play. My first job was not the best paying ones, but I was dedicated to learn and perform, and the same thought has led me to where I am today.
Please brief us about your career growth/graph.
I began my career with the Cecil (Oberoi Hotel) in Shimla & later went on to complete a management-training program at the Oberoi Center for Learning and Development (OCLD) where I was a gold medalist. I was assigned in an Indian specialty restaurant – Kandahar at the Oberoi New Delhi for 2 years where I assisted the hotel's large banqueting operations as well as the coffee shop. After that I moved to the JW Marriott in Mumbai as the chef de cuisine of Lotus Cafe, the busiest and the largest coffee shop of Mumbai. Later moved to United Kingdom where I became the Executive Head Chef of the acclaimed Mint Leaf chain of restaurants, which specialized in Indian cuisine.
Apart from accomplishments I also hosted many television shows amongst which is the popular reality show Masterchef India where I co-hosted and judged the first two seasons of the shows along with fellow celebrity judges. I also hosted Veggistan at NDTV Times, Northern Flavors at Living Foodz, Chop Chop Chopra and his current ongoing series Hi Tea on FoodFood. I am passionate about experimenting with new ingredients and inventing mouthwatering delicacies.
I loves travelling and listening to music, also an enticing singer and has a bent towards photography. Being a God loving individual, I believes in honesty, integrity and goodness in people.
What are the unique achievements in your career?
By God's grace and his strength, I have had the opportunity to lead the finest kitchens in the country as well as abroad.
Your contribution to the culinary world.
Indian food has gone in the deep freezer and Indian restaurants have not changed their menus in years. The same old names are repeated typically everywhere. With my experience and creativity, I have twisted Indian flavours in a modern way, with international and local ingredients.
What is the future of the Indian culinary world? What changes would you like to see in this profession?
The future is definitely going to go more regional and local, with international and local ingredients. But the biggest challenge happens to be the right talent. With the hospitality industry not being as organized as it is in the developed countries, the quality of talent is very poor as a very small population choses to be in this profession. An organized industry would definitely attract more talent, and I am working towards it in whatever ways I can contribute.
How much focus do you give to the health part of cooking in your day to day cooking?
Eating healthy is very important. Eating healthy is not about eating exotic vegetables like broccoli and pak choy. Healthy food is just about substituting your ingredients and eating in the right proportion. Simple examples would be replacing refined flour to whole wheat/ millets etc. or replacing fried foods to stir frying or pan frying them.
Do you still use some traditional methods of cooking in your kitchen and what are they?
Yes, absolutely. I use many methods like spit roasting or braising while cooking meats as slow cooking definitely gives out robust flavours. Making chutneys in a traditional silbatta or cooking kebabs in a tandoor instead of an oven definitely has an edge over the other methods.
Do you encourage regional cuisines?
Absolutely, my last show Northern Flavours on Living Foodz exactly promotes local cuisines.
Which is your favorite cuisine and why?
Throughout my career, I have learnt practiced and mastered many cuisines, with different restaurants and hotels, but something that i am very excited about is Modern Indian food. Globally, Indian food is known to be typically only Butter Chicken or Chicken Tikka, but now, with so many ingredients and flavours, Indian food can be taken to the global platform.
Who is the current favourite chef and why?
It would be difficult to choose one, but I look upto Rene Redzepi and Jamie Oliver. Rene Redzepi always stretches himself to redefine the trend of cooking, which is why he has sustained to hold up to the best chef in the world title whereas Jamie Oliver is so traditional with his tricks and tips, but still manages to get out such creative recipes.
What is your dream job/project?
My dream project is to have something on the lines of an El Bulli in India.
Would you encourage your children to pursue a career in food or cooking?
Absolutely, but I would like to be more cautious and give them the freedom to choose their ambition. I actually happened to ask my elder son, while I answer this interview, and he does choose to be a chef, over all the options. So let us hope for a great legacy of knowledge.
How do you maintain work life balance?
Maintaining a balance is very important. I make sure I strike a balance between work and family. Work cannot surpass family whereas family cannot surpass work, to ensure positive success and joy of life.
What is your goal in the next five years?
My vision is to redefine Indian food and flavours, with the help of local talent available in the country.
How do you like to spend your free time?
I generally go out with my wife and kids in my free time.
What is your hobby?
Playing the guitar.
Do you eat out quite often? Which places do you prefer?
Yes I do. I love Asian food personally, and my preferred place to eat out is Yauatcha.
What's your dream kitchen?
My dream kitchen would clearly be a comparison to a child in a toy shop. The kitchen would have the ample equipment, books, internet and most importantly, the ingredients I would redefine food with.
Your message to readers.
Love. Pray. Cook. I completely live by this statement.