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October 2018, Issue"Gourmet Guests Are my Muse"

Chef Robin Batra Executive Chef The Oberoi, Bengaluru

With both Robin Batra's parents working, he was often left to his own devices post school hours. The consequent improvisation Robin indulged in while drumming up a snack for himself each day, made him realize, early on, his passion for cooking. It also helped that his entire family had roots in Pakistan and he grew up steeped in inspiration derived from his grandmother's traditional recipes.

Robin began his career at the Wildflower Hall, Shimla. Thereafter his hunger for knowledge and love for food took him to the prestigious Oberoi Centre of Learning & Development (OCLD), from where he graduated with a gold medal in 2008. In late 2009, he moved as a pre-opening Kitchen Executive at Trident, Bandra Kurla, Mumbai. Under his leadership the culinary prowess of the hotel strengthened alongside his journey as a chef in the city that never sleeps! In his previous capacity as Senior Executive Sous Chef at Trident, Bandra Kurla he played a critical role in the culinary success of the hotel, especially with restaurants like their all day diningO22, Maya, fine dining modern Indian restaurant and the well-loved Italian restaurant Botticino.

Robin's mantra as a kitchen professional is to learn with keenness, observe with an open mind and cook with all your heart! In an exclusive interview with Ekta Bhargava, Robin talks about his professional journey and kitchen.

Tell us about your background and how you stepped into the hotel industry, especially into your chosen line of cooking.
I come from a Commerce background. Both my parents were working and so I had no option but to get hands on in the kitchen as a young adult. My parents had desired me to pursue Information Technology as a career and I did get a good opportunity to take up the subject as well.

But, a few of my cousins were in the culinary industry. Through them I visited hotels and commercial kitchens too. I realized this, indeed, was my calling. My childhood was spent being self-sufficient in the kitchen and that truly sowed the seeds of me wanting to be a professional chef.

I thus gave up the idea of being a software engineer and joined hotel management and never looked back.I wanted to do something different from the family trade of bankers and IT professionals.

Where did you do your training?
Was in IHM Shimla for hotel management degree and stood first in the batch.

I was an all India topper in hotel accounts / food production examinations.

Later, I got enrolled in the prestigious Oberoi Centre of Learning and Development (OCLD)

During my post-graduation at OCLD I received a gold medal.

I also won numerous chef competitions during my learning years.

I have also trained with Michelin starred Chef Georges Blanc at Vonnes in France.

Coming to the kitchen side of the hotel industry, how did you plan and visualize it?
Post IHM the plan was to join an international hotel chain gain experience and then travel or immigrate abroad and earn good money like all aspirational young chefs of our time. But, whilst contemplating the same, I got through OCLD and everything changed. My vision towards culinary arts was shaped at OCLD where the focus was on being a perfectionist, endless learning and delighting customers.

With regard to kitchen planning, in most of the cases it is done by architects and designers in consultation with Chefs.But from your experience, you talk about accessibility. Please comment on that.
Plans and designs are done on paper. One can be technically very sound on the same but the concerns of an actual, live and thriving kitchen can only come from chefs who work in that space. Thus, not only senior chefs but all team members need to be consulted whilst designing a kitchen. As real time experience and dealing with different and demanding situations are the greatest influencers of designing a smart, ergonomically efficient kitchen.

How do you rate the food which is going to be cooked in the kitchen and served at the table?How much weightage do you to give to both cooking and serving?
The journey of a great food experience starts from the menu design itself. The way the menu looks, feels and the description of each dish determines the first hook for a diner. Then comes training the serving staff to assist the diner in making the right choice in terms of his / her preference and mood. Then only does the kitchen take over in both the preparation and plating of the food. Post this the finishing touch comes in the server presenting the food with the right panache. Thus, this is a well thought out and well-orchestrated journey that each dish needs to follow. We at The Oberoi take pride in such detailing.

When you are cooking the food, when the guest is a senior citizen, can you suggest something more suitable to his palate?
The first step for a chef is to meet and interact with such a guest. Have a conversation and create a human connect and element of trust. The chef needs to then exercise his experience and creativity both to make something suitable. The concerns can range from low fat, balanced protein, and light on spices to even diners who are lactose intolerant and diabetic.

When you are talking about 10 guests or a thousand guests, the preparation is going to be different. In that case what is your preference for the cookware and the cooking pots?

The approach to such a situation would first vary dependent on the cuisine being cooked. Traditionally in India when we cater to large banquet events cooking mainly Indian food, then we prefer using traditional utensils and cookware as the method of cooking which can be done on these enhances the authenticity of the taste. The same is hard to replicate in automated cookware which may save time but may compromise on taste. But, this may be tweaked dependent on the cuisine being cooked.

What about the technology. Like when you are talking about gas, or induction cooking, are you going to use the same thing or it is going to be different?
Traditionally all kitchens used LPG but now most kitchens are moving to PNG and induction. We surely support the cause of technology which makes cooking more seamless and environment friendly but not at the cost of taste. Thus, I recommend a mix of grills, hot griddles, steamers, sous-vid cooking and use of combination oven that should be looked at. But for example whilst doing a tandoori chicken, having a nice clay tandoor adds best to its taste and authenticity.

Tell us about the Green Practices you follow in your kitchen.
We have an organic waste converter which converts organic waste to manure which we use in our gardens.

Our hotel uses electricity generated from renewable wind energy.

All our walk ins have air curtains to minimize temp loss.

We have CFL power saving lights across the kitchen.

We also use a lot of local produce from small to mid-size farms, thus supporting the local agro-economy and giving fresh food to our diners including indigenous cheese of international quality.

How do you rate the importance of fuel while in the kitchen? What are the hazards of using different fuels?
Most kitchens including ours are moving towards energy efficient fuels but the most important thing is to train the team in using them correctly and with due safety mechanism. Any technique of cooking whether using fuel or not, needs to be handled with due care and caution. This awareness and training needs to be coupled with proper cleaning methods and maintenance of equipment.

With more and more technologies coming up, do you think cooking is going to be more advanced?
Yes, technology will certainly help in making food quick, consistent and of high quality. One can use elements like chicken and turkey timer for a perfect roast or grill. Smart microwaves which work on USB and can be used for elements like on the spot reheating etc. Micro-evaporators which can distill juices from vegetables and fruits which can be used in sauces, dressings and even curries. Smarty pants and smarty grills are connected to an in built app which autocorrects the measurement of ingredients and cooking temperature and length of time too.

Now the concept of cooking kitchen and serving kitchen has become a vogue.How you differentiate the appliances and the technology in these kitchens?
When you have a display or serving kitchen, equipments need to be modern, aesthetically nice looking and easy to use and clean. This is mainly because the interactive element of these kitchens with diners are high and thus, elements need to be controlled and the look and feel matter. Whereas a hard core internal kitchen is more industrial and heavy duty and highly charged too! In certain kinds of culinary output you have to have a solid backend kitchen which can be aesthetically paired with a daintier serving one.

Do you have a Disaster Plan in place in case of an emergency?
Being a part of a 5 star deluxe chain and establishment, we have a well-entrenched and fortified crisis management program with due and regular training conducted on the same as well due support in terms of modern equipment and technology.

Earlier you people were saying that Chefs don't disclose their recipes.Now a days with an open kitchen everybody is seeing what you are mixing. So how do you think the Chefs can keep their recipe a secret?
The whole role and dynamism of chefs have changed. Today's chefs are more interactive with diners, they like speaking to them and even creating dining experiences based on their preferences. Coupled with this is the public side of each chef and his or her talent. With the digital and social media taking on so much importance and influence, chefs are very confident and open in showcasing their talent through visual representation including recipes.

Also, in India specifically, our rich and varied culinary heritage in some parts are under threat if we do not resort to documenting them and sharing them for the next generation to take them through. Thus, this sharing of recipes and knowledge, both are critical to certain wonderful techniques and traditions of Indian cooking being kept alive.

Have you ever got any ideas or inspiration from your guests?
This process starts with interaction. I love speaking and having conversations with my diners. Some of them are vastly traveled and extremely erudite on food. It is such a wonderful exposure to not only cook for them but learn from them. We not only act upon their feedback and create dishes based on them but sometimes we have incorporated dishes in our menu which have been shared by our guests. This is the true joy of being a chef.

What is the message you are going to give to our readers, as a Chef, about the kitchen? How people can plan their kitchen. Whether it's a domestic kitchen or a commercial kitchen. What points they can keep in mind while designing it, etc.?
Think practically, plan efficiently and use your budget to the optimum.

For the home, always start with the budget and cost parameter first. Then evaluate how to optimize the actual space you have for this project. Then, do your research on the optimization end. Today, there are many websites run by professional kitchen equipment companies which give brilliant tips and ideas to make a functional, efficient yet beautiful home kitchen.

Tell us briefly about your concept of an Ideal Commercial Kitchen.
In a commercial establishment, the flow from receipt of ingredients, to processing them and then cooking with them and finallyserving,should have clear demarcations and planned in a strategic way to make it scientific and easy. The equipment also need to be planned as per the space available and the kind of cuisines that need to be catered to.

In the logistical area, working stations should be clearly defined with enough aisle space in between. Storage too is key. Designing modern and multifaceted storage spaces are critical. Physical properties like flooring / cabinets / counter tops / drainage and exhaust come next. These, coupled with waste management system, garbage collection and grease traps. Proper and commercially aided ventilation, air circulation are important to make the space happier to work in. Being aware of local laws. Lastly, always design kitchens which can have scalability and adaptability at a later date.

Please share some of your fun moments in the Kitchen.
Kitchen teams are like family. Each member perhaps spends more time with each other than with their actual families. We start with each member having a 'kitchen-name' which makes it fun and more like family. We crack jokes, listen to music whilst working, go for tea breaks, team outings, picnics and make sure we always support each other both in moments of joy and stress.

Do you help your better half when she is in the kitchen?
We are both working individuals thus we complement each other in terms of kitchen duty. The days we are both off we explore the local culinary landscape and discover new places to eat.

How do you maintain a proper work life balance?
Early is on time, on time is late and late is unacceptable. You need to learn to manage and optimize your professional time better in order to make more time for your personal life. Also, training and mentoring an efficient team that supports you, helps.

Who is Current favourite chef and why?
I follow a lot of chefs across the globe. They are all pioneers in their own ways. In today's digital age, it is easy to learn, study and evolve with the world. But, personally, I have been deeply influenced and inspired by the Chefs I have worked with. My true mentors are them. I would particularly like to mention Chef Rohit Gambhir who is the Executive Chef at The Oberoi, New Delhi and Chef Ashish Bhasin who is the Executive Chef at The Leela, Gurgaon (Ambiance Mall).

Do you eat out quite often? Which places do you prefer?
Whenever I do get time, I definitely travel for food. My preference is discovering local eateries which service indigenous cuisine. Having recently moved to Bangalore, I am slowly discovering the local restaurants serving a myriad of South Indian food and my trip to Mangalore was a culinary delight. But, this attempt is always not easy as my better half prefers European food and likes to dine at establishments which serve such cuisine. You then win some and loose some

Any message you want to give to our readers about the kitchen. How can they make their dream kitchen?
Thumb rule is 10-15% is space to be utilized for the kitchen, the rest is to be support space for the cooking. It should look and feel like a welcome space. Do not clutter the same with too many elements.

Work areas to be plenty. Use of built in and pull put chopping boards with trash bin below is great, all storage area to be smartly designed visa vis the actual cooking area. Some kind of dry store is important. Use of integrated appliances, induction cook tops and a refrigerator are also good. Use energy saving, yet warm lighting to set the mood and ensure there is good ventilation including a proper kitchen chimney and exhaust. Last but not the least, don't forget to create the Chef's secret spice draw.