India's Celebrated Master Chef Amit Chowdhury is currently the Executive Chef at the iconic, The Taj Mahal Hotel and Towers, Mumbai, with a grand portfolio of 10 of the city's most popular restaurants nestling in the prestigious property. In an exclusive interview with BETTER KITCHEN, Amit takes the readers on an unforgettable journey of culinary tastes and thrills sharing with them priceless tips and thoughts that only a Chef of his global standing and vast experience could offer.
Your Down Memory Lane
I did my graduation as well as my post graduation from Dadar Catering College. Around that time in 1985, there were only two well-known hotel brands - The Taj and The Oberoi. But somehow, the Taj, being a TATA brand, really appealed to me. So I always wanted to get into this property. Fortunately, Hotel President was taking a batch of trainees and I applied there and passed all the tests. Mr. Shashank Warty, General Manager at The Taj, whom I met many times in Delhi, told me that I had cleared the tests. But then I told him that the reason why I had come to Mumbai was that I wanted him to help me to get into The Taj. I was so desperate to work there. 'Why don't you want to work here, this is a sister concern as well', Mr. Awasthi suggested. To which I said 'The Taj is Taj', it's such an iconic place; it was my dream. To reach here, a lot of hard work had to be done. Obviously I had very good mentors throughout my career. They gave me an opportunity not just to see what is happening within the Taj chain but also to go abroad and see the competition there. Those days we had this tradition of sending the chefs abroad. So, once I finished my training here. At the Taj, we have this 'Zodiac Grill', the most popular European restaurant, where I was the second chef. For Zodiac Grill, it was very important for the chefs to learn about what is happening in different parts of the world. The basic trend was to train with lot of good chefs, at certain iconic hotels such as Dorchester and Connaught Grill in London, since we had European restaurants like Rendezvous & Menage a Trois The concept of Menage a trios was –small portions of three different elements; Menage means mixture and a trios means three. So if you have a starter it is a mixture of three items, or if you have a soup it has to be a blend of three soups; so it was all very unique. I had worked with all of them and that really broadened my horizon. After coming back to Mumbai, I was sent to train with the professors from The Culinary Institute of America (CIA). The Taj group had brought the professors from CIA to Delhi and they selected people from all over the Taj chain and I was fortunate to get selected. I was the youngest in the group. Usually such training was meant for the senior chefs who had put in a certain number of years of experience. At that time chef Satish Arora was there and he had nominated my name because he noticed my passion for European /continental food. I somehow I think that also helped. So it has been a lot of hard work.
At the Taj, we have Chambers. It is an exclusive club wherein you get invited by the Managing Director of this company to his peers and counterparts in various companies, so we have around (two thousand) members now. I was in-charge of the Chambers and Zodiac Grill, then after 10-11 years I was getting restless, because I was just an outlet chef and I wanted to grow. So luckily, my then Executive Chef, Mr. Hemant Oberoi, who was my predecessor then, selected me to become an Executive Chef myself. At that time, Taj was expanding and opening a small boutique hotel in Dubai. I ran that hotel as an Executive Chef for four years, then I got transferred to Maldives; it was a pre-opening. Taj had two properties there in 2000 - The Taj Lagoon and The Coral Reef. They sent me there as a chef to handle both the properties. Immediately The Taj Lagoon went under hammer for upgradation. So I worked there for two years, meanwhile Chef Oberoi became a corporate chef and he wanted me back. So for six years I was abroad and when called back I sought a good, challenging property. I was offered the Taj Mahal, in Delhi. That was in 2002. So I went there, I opened two new restaurants; one was Wasabi and the other the Varq, a very nice concept, which Chef Oberoi and myself conceptualised. It is a modernistic, fine dining restaurant of Indian food and Indian flavours but presented through the chefs eyes. The perception and presentation were important. Ever since I was in Europe, I had that in mind that the food needs to be presented well, because there is a saying that you first feast with your eyes and then you taste it. So if the look is appealing, its taste also will be equally good. So we opened Varq and it was listed in San Pelligrino Asia's best 50 restaurants, which is actually the Oscar of the food industry and they have the annual ceremony in Singapore. I was very much surprised when chef Oberoi called me up and said 'you have to come with me to Singapore, Varq has won an award', and I was thrilled as it was a recognition on an international level.
In the meantime, there was this celebrity lady from USA, Ms Mellini Dunia, she wanted a coffee table book of most celebrated chefs, top 50 chefs, from around the world. She had a topic - 'The Last Supper'. So she gave me a call when I was in Delhi, this was around five years back. So I was a part of it and I felt very good to know that people do appreciate what I do and hard work definitely pays and in our profession it is definitely the hard work that matters, its absolutely in the kitchen, the amount of planning and so on. So now when you called I was actually busy, I have a very big function of Mrs. Jindal. It was their youngest daughter's wedding; we had around eight meetings, of which I could not attend two. She was really upset about that, so this time she said 'I want the chef to come, even if he is busy at least for 10 minutes, sit with me and I just want to run the whole thing and then he can go wherever he wants'. So again in today's day and age the chef dons many a hat, it is not just the backstage. There was a time when I was always in the kitchen but now it is more of planning and more of thought process and how can I earn more revenue for my property, although I keep trying something or the other in the kitchen. We have a huge budget for this property, so it is a big challenge. There is lot of innovation that a chef can do. I always say that in the 12-inch plate space a chef has to canvas his food, his thoughts and so on. So what I do is, I keep on drawing, I tell my chefs that this is what it is, this is the plate, this is what I am thinking of the foundation on the plate, then on that we will draw this particular item, then we need to look at the texture, colour and so on. So I draw it out first and then go ahead. It is also the way the chef has enhanced or he wants to show certain ingredients of that plate to a guest, may be very miniscule, but they try to change the state of the food; It is also that, like perfumes, the concept of aroma has also come in. So there is a lot of experimentation that keeps on happening. Again every six months we change the menu, like now we have to change in October and for that I have to plan four months in advance for each restaurant. So lots of trials keeps happening, we cannot sit idle saying that, ok we have reached and we are here. No, we have to keep on going.
If you can see the education system in India, it is always there, there is a vast gap between what you learn and what you are going to do in the practical life.
Absolutely, just last week we also incidentally trained our chefs, so when we selected them there is a process in this hotel, it is called as HOMT, Hotel Operation Management Trainees, when they come fresh from the college, to minimize that gap of what they have learned over there and what they will learn over here, we make them through a two-year training. I have a dedicated chef trainer; she is here from morning till night. She draws up their syllabus, trains them and guides them so that they understand that this transition cannot happen overnight. We take them through a period of two years. In the first six months we try and understand what is their expertise, like for example women are very neat and particular and so I always encourage them to go to the bakery or garde manger; then you have certain chefs who are very innovative, they will come up with ideas, but they will not know how to use them. So in these two years we make them understand & help them acquire a strong foundation. Once they come out of the training, when they are in the field, in the food production areas, it helps them to understand exactly what is happening. I remember when we were trainees we directly came into the kitchen, we didn't have this training programme. So today's chefs have evolved a lot, during my time it was like from the college directly to the kitchen. I remember we were a batch of 22 and in just one year's time we shrunk to 16, so it's hard work and during the first 6-8 months some come to know that, ok this is not their profession and out they go. This profession needs a lot of hard work, but at the end of the day it gives you a satisfaction, if you are really passionate about what you do. It is again an art, it's a field where you visualise, where you think, you taste, so all your senses are active and then you come out with a dish and its such a unique profession where your raw material and the finished product is done under one roof. It is not like some tooth-paste which is manufactured at a particular place and used by the end-user at some other place and the feedback goes somewhere else. Here it is so unique, in the morning you will get your raw-materials, by evening you process and make your product, then serve your guest and immediately after that you get the feedback of your work. Its live, 24/7, so it's a very unique job wherein the chef has to make, think, cook, go back to the customer, understand, take the feedback, evolve himself and again come back. So that is a challenge. I also tell today's chefs during my time the chefs hardly used to go in the front to meet guests, but now since last 8-10 years the chefs are the important part of the success of any establishment. They have to be visible and customers feel more comfortable when the chefs come out, talk to them, understand and also as a chef you feel comfortable when you get the feed back and feel satisfied. At the end of the day what happens is your business prospers. So this is the biggest challenge that I keep on telling my chefs.
Would like to know about the open kitchen concept, how it has come up and what are your comments on that?
The open kitchen that you are talking about is a proper kitchen. In an Open kitchen, the chefs do come in, display their own thought process; they are there for a shorter time and they go off; but there is no continuity. So what happens is that though you are in touch with your guests you are giving them the feel and taste of what you want and when the customers yearn for more you are not there. This pop-up kitchen is good for experimentation and to understand their palette. It is a good thing if you understand the palette and convert the pop-up kitchen to a permanent one where they know exactly what is to be done. Taste and flavours evolve, I always say that the life of restaurants is maximum six to seven years, not more than that; you have to evolve, the restaurant, the décor, the design. There are iconic restaurants, I know of, in Delhi which are 20-22 years old, but the food also has to evolve and such iconic restaurants are very few, majority of the restaurants can go on up to six to seven years after which they have to come up with ideas and concepts and décor as a whole package, so that the customers can also feel the freshness. In today's day and age, compared to previous times, people travel a lot, experience variety of food and when they come back they expect exactly the same that they had during the time they travel. So it becomes a challenge, it tests the talent of the chef and hence the chef has to know about what is happening outside.
So do you have had any such inspiration or ideas from the guests regarding some recipes?
Yes, we have a dish called Martban meat and Martban ke Chole that is introduced in Varq and also in Masala Kraft. Martbans are jars generally used for pickles during the olden days. In North of India customers wants their food to be tangy and chatpata, so it was a challenge for me. Once I understood what the guest wants, I had to re-do my recipes a little and innovate a little. So we made this recipe of Marthban ke chhole / meat with pickling the elements in that. We marinate the meat with the pickle and we cook that inside the Marthban on a hot plate, with its lid on so that all the juices remains inside. That was the culmination of two things; one is the old style, what my grandmother used to do and secondly what the guest wants that he wants something pickled and chatpata. So there it was, a new dish. Again pani-puri. Chef Oberoi had started with Vodka pani puri shot, it was something unique, it was like you have your Vodka shots in the puri. So these are the things which are practical, elementary ideas that you get form your guests which you try and convert them to give a new look and taste. Moreover, when the guests come and say that 'okay, give me something new,' we have to be on our toes always. My chefs will always keep on trying something new and show it to me. So we try things which are off the menu and get our regular guest's feedback on it and when we change our menu we incorporate these dishes. So we are giving the guests what they want. Usually what happens, this is my personal view, the chefs from Europe, France and other places, they innovate and they are held in high esteem; so when they make and give any dish, even if you like it or not, you have to give a positive feedback. So there the chef keeps in mind what he has to give, but I feel that a good chef has to keep in mind what the guests want and what he can give to 'Woo' & “Wow” the guests. If a guest wants something a chef should add his thoughts and inputs in that and give him a better thing and that is where the success of the chef is. I always tell that guests are God, you have to listen to your guests and please don't interrupt when they are talking; you just keep listening to what they have to say.
Do you suggest some recipes or ingredients in your regular menus to your guests according to their age group or their health problems?
We don't do it actively because many chefs only go into the restaurants when either the meal is done, then he will go and take the feedback from the guest or as a courtesy. If he goes around and sees if the guests have any dietary requirements, only then the chef goes and takes the order. On the menu we have the health section, in the breakfast menu we even have the calories written in certain health section. In our menu we have a special section where we do health food. I am making a menu now, I will call it as a lifestyle cuisine, wherein we are only promoting health foods which are processed, whether it is through heat or any other mechanical process, for example - if I have to cook meat, I will try to retain the juices, there is a process called
Sous-vide, where you thermetically seal marinated meat, you have a water bath, you put that meat in the water bath and then you cook it, so it retains all its juices and it becomes very soft, now that is a healthy cooking as it helps to retain all its juice though meat is not healthy. For vegetarians we suggest the sprouts or tofu which is high in protein or Any specific diet of their choice.. We have come up with really nice salads and soups and few main courses which I want to promote, because in today's day & age everyone has health issues with either BP or sugar or cholesterol. So keeping this in mind we have the health section and cater to such guests. On top of that if you are glucose intolerant, or if you have any other dietary requirements, my chefs are equipped and trained to tell the guests what they can have and can suggest the menu to the guests We also have a Hidden menu. It is something wherein you plan with whatever ingredients you have, if the guest has some dietary requirements and you have to go and meet the guest and you have to be ready with other options.
Please explain the modern commercial kitchen. Earlier we only had gas burners and Chulha but now we have lot of technologies coming up, so how you manage and plan the modern kitchen?
The modern kitchen has helped us in the cooking process to a very great extent and for cutting and processing also. In previous days if you had taken X time in cooking a particular dish, now it has reduced directly to half of that. The plus point is that in a modern kitchen the chefs don't sweat, you have air-conditioning. In olden days we never had even a vent which was aircooled. In my main kitchen we have air condition, air coolers, treated air is thrown into the kitchen to reduce the temperature. It sucks out the hot air. Then we have these induction plates, so you don't feel the heat. There are more of plus in a modern kitchen and less of negative. One of the things is that in the olden days when you used to cook, whether it was gas or chulha. There were certain brass utensils called deghs, those were heavy but the flavour of the food coming out form them was different. While the modern kitchen and equipments have definitely helped the chef to cut down the cooking time, but the flavour is compromised. . Even the food trend is changing, if you see what is happening now is that it is going through a circle, whatever I read, I understand, talk and communicate with my fraternity, there is definitely a change. The guests now want food from their childhood Which is called comfort food I will shortly introduce the comfort food in my menu, Also to make comfort food you will require those equipment & utensils…. hence that takes us back to previous era, so that is again a full circle. Take for example, when you are cooking biryani you would require a degh and not a a modern vessel. But that requires a little practice. So yes, there are advantages as well as disadvantages of the modern kitchen.
Now in modern kitchen which is fully equipped, is there any disaster management plan?
Yes, we have sprinklers which are automated and set at a particular temperature, and if there is a leakage of gas we have gas detectors as well. The sprinklers are on the top of the hood and these are not ordinary water sprinklers, we have chemical sprinklers, what happens is it has got a glass tube which is resistant to heat to a certain degree above which the glass tube bursts and disperses the chemical onto the fire source. I will give you a very classic anecdote, around five years back I wanted to fix, the same in my Chinese kitchen and the company had come from outside to fix it. We wanted to do a trial run of it. Now the thing is, what we did not take into account was, even the person from the company had also suggested this, the high flame of the gas and in Chinese you cook in very high flame, so the Chinese chef, he was new, was not aware that this sprinklers were there, so I said now let us give it a try and see. So the chef started and within 45 minutes the sprinklers got activated and dispersed the chemical. So I thought this is not the right thing, so we have challenges with the sprinklers as well. We also have water cooled hoods; it cools you and it gives fresh air and it also has this water sprinkler system, so both water and chemical sprinklers are there here. We also have fire extinguishers which are labelled, so for us safety is very important in the kitchen and this company has taken safety to a different level all together, so whether it is the safety shoes also we have it. I have a programme where handling of the equipment is also taught, if there is a new person, even though he has many years of experience, but still he is new to the organisation and the first week he will only learn the handling of the equipment under close supervision so that he understands how to handle a particular equipment, it can be a slicing machine or a chopper or anything else. So safety is of utmost importance. We also have fire blankets because if for any reason if the sprinklers are not able to detect the temperature because of some fault then we need thermal blankets in case of a fire. We also have fire safety training, every week I have to send people and it is mandatory that they certify a certain number of my team through training sessions, both classroom and practical demonstration, to get a certificate and only then can they enter the kitchen. We do it for the safety of the people working in the kitchen as well as for the hotel as a whole. Safety has gone to a different level with the advent of so many gadgets and equipment. Even in the tandoor the live coal that is leftover, we have a process wherein we take out all the coal, after the restaurant is closed, it is taken separately to an open area and doused off. So you also don't have live coal lying in the Tandoor, because in the night when people go, the kitchen is shut and since there are hoods in the kitchen in the morning when people start the exhaust the hoods may suck the dust of the live coal if not taken out and it may catch fire, so all that has to be kept in mind.
Earlier most of the kitchens were designed by the architects and the owners. Nowadays the chef involvement is there. I would like to know your comments on the planning of commercial kitchen.
It is very important for a chef to co-ordinate with the project co-ordinator / facility planner. I have developed and planned my previous kitchens, before I came over here. There are kitchen developers and co-ordinators and you have to work actively with them. I feel the chef should know where his kitchen equipment are and how they are placed because the end-user is the chef. The classic example is where you are keeping the combi oven. It is a steamer, when the door has to open you cannot open it because there is something that is slightly jutting out and when you open the door it is hitting something. There is no other place because most often you will see that the kitchen is cramped and the pace is less. But you are expected to give a better output. So it has to be well planned taking into account the hygiene process also, we have a certificate from ISO 22K-hotels, wherein one of the basic requirements is that your raw food should only move in one direction, when it is processing it cannot come back again, so if you are buying raw vegetables from the bazaar, it is coming to your particular area; it is getting processed, it then goes into the walk-in. Walk-in is a place where we store things in a controlled temperature, then you cut/marinate, then you cook it and then it is dished and passed on to the guest and then it goes into the garbage. So the whole process flow has to be planned first, like where would be my receiving area, from there where would me my walkin in the kitchen, from the walkin where is my pre-processing area wherein I process the food, like cutting of vegetables or butchering of the meat, that has to be sorted out and post that the thermal cooking, the transition wherein I am processing the meat and vegetables, that area has to be there, post that if I am going to hold something, the holding area should be there, like Indian gravy needs to cool down, so that area should also be there and then we have blast chillers, where we cool down rapidly because we cannot cool under normal manner. So you have to explain this kitchen layout and design to the kitchen facility planner, you cannot leave that to him or to the owner, you have to specifically give your inputs, it all depends upon the menu that you are planning. If it is Indian food you got to have tandoor or bhattis and for European where will be the cold kitchen placed, the cold kitchen has to be away from the hot area or well insulated, so all that has to be kept in mind. The placement of the pot-washer and the dish-washer also has to be planned. The pot-washer cannot be at the entrance of your kitchen, it has to be at the exit area, where after cooking the food all the utensils have to go. After cooking the food is plated and it goes to the restaurant and after it comes back the dishes has to go the dishwasher, hence the dishwasher area also has to be earmarked, so more often the kitchen and the back area is integrated, it has to be absolutely well planned and only when it is well planned will you have a smooth flow of things and less complaints. There is lot of hard work that you have to do, when you do bulk cooking you need low flame, like when you are cooking rice or dal in big quantity, so I order burners that are not too low so that you don't have to bend, in olden days even I have done it, you had to bend and then they get back pain and other problems. So to avoid all such problems it is the chefs experience that helps to plan the kitchen. There are many other things like the height of the hotplate, the Combi oven where it should be placed, should it be close to the hot ranges or close to the place where you pickup the food, where will it help more. It all depends on the menu type, what kind of menu you are planning, is there fried items or baked items. Again for in-house dairy products you need a separate walk-in and cooking area. So it is all scientifically laid, the chef has to be well versed, educated, well informed and also he should understand the scientific cooking methods and that is why I say chefs cannot be made overnight, you can build a Manager by giving him a coat and training him to say few sentences and he can stand in front of the guests, but chef cannot be made overnight.
What is your opinion about green kitchen, the concept of less carbon emission?
Carbon footprint, I definitely agree, I am vocal and I am for it and that is what I try in this place. I was discussing with my chefs that I wanted to do a Mile concept, which means that I will get my produce from a radius of one mile, whether it is your vegetables or any other stuff. You can do that abroad because there are lot of affiliated farms and places over there, but here, being a congested city, it is a challenge. Also regarding the English vegetables, we have to fly them down, so again that is also a challenge. As per usage of organic things, I want the organic food to be certified, I do not vouch for genetically grown things. Organic food is healthy to a certain extent. I would also support the chains which are shifting their cultivation from fertilizers to organic. I have done functions where I have got only organic food, but I unfortunately have to pay a higher price to the vendor.
How did you come into this Chef line?
My father wanted me to be a doctor, I couldn't be a doctor but the closest I got into was dentistry. I like cooking, my father was a Sunday cook, an excellent cook, I got into dentistry but at the same time without informing my father I went to my friend's uncle who was working with the Oberoi hotel and he brainwashed me to join the hotel industry. But still I continued to go with the dentistry line and then, may be it was God's wish, I got a letter from the Catering college saying there is an interview and after clearing, the fees had to be paid and you can get the admission. So I asked my dad 'What do you want me to do?' and he said 'Do what you want' and so immediately I applied for this course and got selected and paid the fees and sealed that. I Sot was during the training period I realised that I loved cooking though the entire family back in Kolkata did not like the idea of my dad spending money on me to learn cooking, but I was persistent and it was a long struggle. After my graduation I also did the fourth year diploma to understand the scientific methods of cooking & everything to do with maintenance and running of a commercial kitchen. I wanted to understand the elements of cooking which has really helped me now. When I am cooking, I also understand what are the stages that are there; how does eating affect your combination, what are the things that you need to do, so all that helps in making you a wholesome chef.
What is your message for the inspiring chefs and chefs who have just entered the industry?
Work hard and cook with your heart, these are the two things that you have to do and believe in yourself. Whatever you do, do it with confidence, convince your guests and yourself that what you are giving is the right thing. Only then will you succeed. There is no shortcut to become a good chef.
What is your dream kitchen?
My dream kitchen will be the one where I will have all the gadgets, where I can do my own cooking. There are lot of thoughts that keep running in my mind, where I can invent, do certain things that are different from the routine, lot of new elements and ingredients can be incorporated and that is one type of kitchen that I am looking forward to. Commercial dream kitchen needs all types of gadgets and air controlled area where you can work because more often the kitchen is very hot and it really saps your energy in the kitchen. A right talent who has a vision and a goal that the guest is God and target every guest so that he comes as a repeat customer for you is also very important in a kitchen. So if I get a kitchen with the right talent and right equipment and environment, then nothing like it.