Toiling away in professional kitchens, long hours, monotony, pressures of running top-class kitchens takes a toll on chefs, what could be assumed as occupational hazards. Being inspired from so many champions and my heroes, I persevered, I stuck it out, and I lasted and won!
I was born in a typical Punjabi family. The youngest of three siblings, my parents were working class citizens who taught us values and most importantly to have fun and an optimistic attitude towards life. I took those value systems to heart and sought fun. Studies, they were just another chore to be done because you don't have other choices. You might have come across child prodigies - children from a tender age knowing what they want to become when they grow up or even parents narrating with pride how their son/daughter will grow up to become a (choose your profession here). I never displayed a remote liking to food or like some Michelin-starred French chef started cooking at 5 or 6. I was busy harangued by my older brothers. Yes I do remember helping my mother with the occasional jobs in the kitchen but then that was it.
My mother was a school teacher who was away during lunchtime with her classes and students. Naturally, she cooked for us before she left for work. Piping-hot food was like a fantasy, I dreamt of with the same intensity as many children my age then would dream of being, say a superman. I began spending more and more time in the kitchen and before I realized it, it was my hobby. To my horror, I soon learnt my brothers would be happy letting me cook for them over time as they found a convenient way to get hot food during those wretched lunch hours. I didn't protest.
As I got older, I realized I was drawn to smells and sights of people cooking. I remember with clarity when I picked-up Chinese take-away food from carts, what a typical sight it used to be. The Eureka Moment came when I was watching a TV program extolling (but needlessly) the benefits and the future of Hotel Management institutes. There was a time (you would relate to me if you're from my generation) where every youth wanted to be only a doctor or engineer or maybe a CA or a lawyer. That was it! Of course there were government and defence jobs for some but it didn't matter to me. I applied for a medical entrance exam and was rejected. The next year I applied for an all-India level entrance exam conducted by the National Council for Hotel Management. I was on another galaxy altogether when I found my name and roll number printed in the newspapers in a list of confirmed attendees taking the test. The selection process was successful and I got a place in IHM, Goa. I had the flair and I had focus. I knew I wanted to become a chef right in the first year itself. Food production as a subject became a favorite than other subjects like hotel law or front office.
The three years of college were modestly successful. I won trophies and awards at cooking
competitions, yet I never excelled as a student.But I wanted to badly ask any student
from an institute worth its salt, what is the ultimate aspiration? The answer you most likely might
get is getting into a management program. And the best program? OCLD Oberoi Centre of Learning
and Development, the finest training program conducted in Delhi by Oberoi Hotels. OCLD- the four
alphabets within them held the ultimate promise stellar achievement in itself. It was like getting
selected for NASA. You would be in a different trajectory that would catapult you to unheard of positions, salaries and places to work back then. Of course, the selection to this program was and is even now,
extremely stressful and competitive by most standards. You didnt need 99% marks or a pedigree or a reference. It was purely something the selection committee knew whether you had it in you to succeed or not. The year I graduated from college, I could not get through the programme. After a 55 minute long interview, I was told I did not make the cut.
My First Job
As badly as I wanted to be there, life definitely had a plan for me. The plan started with my first job at TGIF. I waited patiently all those months working as a drone in the basement kitchens, working in night shifts and chopping veggies. From an aspiring chef to a fast food restaurant, at least a hotel kitchen is what I thought I was worth of and I often questioned Why? The next pit stop was a hotel interview. The interviews were taking place in Shimla at The Cecil at 8pm the next day (a day prior is when I got to know.) But it was my chance to be in a 5 star hotel so I didn't want to miss it. I left for Shimla from Delhi with a 35 rupee bus ticket, forgetting in my excitement that I had to wear shoes for the interview. I found a hospital nearby the hotel where I asked them if I could wash and change, luckily they agreed. At 7 am, I stood in front of the HR office where I was told the interviews were postponed. Major Chauhan who was the HR manager explained the circumstances in the hotel were stressful as the mentor and founder of Oberoi hotels was in-house and all managers, needless to say, were on their toes that day. I told Major Chauhan that I would leave only on two conditions; either I get selected or rejected that day itself. He asked me to wait and finally at 11.30 am he came to me, woke me up (I had fallen asleep on a warm couch in the office) and asked me if I was ready for the interview. I was. He agreed and soon enough I learnt I had gotten through. OCLD did not hire anybody that year. So after spending almost two years in the Cecil Kitchen, I was ready for the battle. The year 2000 was the year for a remarkable change. And since then I have never looked back. The two years at OCLD made me discover what food really is in all its forms as ingredients, as a support system, as a business, as history and culture and many more things. It was an assault on my senses. The training was almost bordering on a military-like precision. Long, hard working hours, on-the job trainings, presentations, assignments and projects. At the end, the program in its inherent design ensured you became a culinarian who knows food and has mastered it well. We were sought-after commodities in the culinary world. My first job was The Oberoi, New Delhi where I worked for exactly one year and left. The disillusionment of trying to relate what was taught in the school versus what happens in the hotel was a little too much for me to handle.
Hotel JW Marriott
I moved to JW Marriott in Mumbai where I truly understood food as a business. It wasn't only about
cooking but also about owning your tasks and seeking its fruition, re-innovating and taking a second look
on first impressions. I worked here for four years and under the tutelage of some the most
phenomenal chefs, I gained a vision and a working style that cemented further growth and
ambitions in me. A new sense of responsibility got into me when I fell in love and got married.
I left for foreign shores soon enough. London was the Mecca, the holy grail of
chefs who specialized in Indian cuisine. I landed up a job with a (now)
prestigious chain of restaurants. At first I served Indian food how we are
accustomed to seeing and eating it in India. The locals (read Indians
settled in Britain but could never be Britainized) just rejected it as not
being flavorful and cool enough. It took me about five months to
sense what was required. The food that we crafted was nothing
short of food porn. Mint leaf quickly expanded into several
locations. Amidst all this, we planned to have a child.
Fearing my child would be deprived of cultural freedom
and traditional Indian values, we decided to move back