It’s reasonable to expect that expat chefs are essential if the quality of five-star cuisine is to remain international
When chef Gabriele Montevechhio of Hyatt Regency’s La Piazza is called out of the kitchen by guests, he generally knows what is ,in store for him. “I get so many puzzled enquiries from guests wanting to know why their pasta or rice is uncooked,” says the chef with a weary sigh. At the other end of the city in Park Royal Hotel, Chinese chef Thomas Wee faces much the same problem. “Some guests don’t know how to manage a Chinese meal which is not awash with gravy. I guess they are disappointed at the kind of food we do.”
The problem is Indianisation, which we, as a nation, are superb at. We’ve been at it for centuries if not millennia. First, we turned our attention to the sculptures of Gandhara and Pratihara, adding in: the process our distinctive Indian touch to them. In the course of history we did the same thing to Persian painting, Mughal architecture, even English food. We’re such past-masters at it that although it’s now a half century that the last Britisher went back to Old Blighty, we’ve made sure that he still misses spicy chutneys and country captains.
Looked at in the larger perspective, the cuisines of China, America and Italy were child’s play for us. We instructed our cooks to turn Chinese food into easily identifiable bytes so that sweet and sour metamorphosed into kofta in tomato gravy, squid in hot garlic sauce is indistinguishable from jhalfrezi, and there’s no discernible difference between vegetable fried rice and pea pulao. Hamburgers too were a pushover. Once chilli sauce and an aloo tikki were slapped between a pao, only by the cabbage leaf which substituted for a lettuce could the uninitiated tell that it was not pao bhaji. It was arguably in Italian food —read pasta and pizza, for isn’t that all Italians ever eat? — that our cooks really came into their own. Between the United States of America and the united states of India, both dishes were completely reinvented.
Into this rich history of cultural regurgitation comes the trend of expatriate chefs. Bound increasingly by expediency, most luxury hotels in the metros boast of at least one — the executive chef. By definition, executive chefs spend at least as much time in their offices negotiating with suppliers of silverware and seafood as they do at the range. Even then, training a battalion of executive sous chefs invariably takes precedence over slaving over the cooking pot as a means of self-actualisation. By the end of a typically three-year contract, the executive chef is presumed to have made his mark in the kitchen.
The current head of the kitchen at Park Royal, Chef Uwe Lohage has a discerning eye for detail. Petit fours and dainty open sandwiches are better here than anywhere else in the city. “It’s all because I have a very good pastry chef,” claims chef Lohage modestly, but the spread in the hotel’s tea lounge has obviously been put together by someone with international exposure.
“It is international exposure which is the key factor here,” is the comment of Oberoi’s communications manager Aruna Dhir. The Oberoi has as many expatriates on their staff as the rest of the city’s hotels do, put together. Besides the corporate chef, an executive chef and an F&B director, there’s the pastry chef, Chinese and dimsum chefs and a Thai chef.
In comparison, Le Meridien has an expatriate F&B director, Taj Mahal Hotel has an expatriate F&B director and a Chinese chef, Surya Hotel and ITC Maurya one Chinese chef each, and the Hyatt Regency one executive chef and one chef de cuisine. The two new kids on the block — Nikko and Grand Hyatt — each have expatriates who are here for the launch. Their numbers are expected to be lower once operations are underway. The Radisson and the Park have no expatriate staff.
Is it mere coincidence that The Oberoi’s food is described by foodies as being the best in the city? Says Dilip Cherian of Perfect Relations, “I lunch out virtually everyday all over the city, but the place I frequent is The Oberoi.” And Cherian, a one-time restaurateur himself, feels that it is only an expatriate who can do full justice to the cuisine of his region.” Just as a Scandinavian in a Bukhara would be a misfit, so would an Indian in a western kitchen.”
Cherian’s point is that it takes a Chinese chef to know what shortcuts are acceptable in a Chinese kitchen. Say the staff at the Taj Mahal Hotel, “When Sundy Ding, our Chinese chef goes to the market, he occasionally picks up vegetables that surprise us.” The House of Ming is perhaps the only Chinese eatery in the city where Kashmiri spinach greens are served, because of its affinity to a type of bok choy available in China. Now, it would take someone from the region to know that.
Chef Thomas Wee of Park Royal, arguably the most talented of all the Chinese chefs in Delhi at the current time, raises Chinese food to an art form. Not only is the Peking duck smoked to perfection, the crispy skin contrasts masterfully with the bok choy braised with black mushrooms and the merest hint of oyster sauce. Wee not only knows the intricacies of Chinese food supremely well, he is aware of current trends in cooking so that his food is recognizably trendy.
The problem arises over the conflict between authenticity and Indianisation. For, the bottom line of any hotel must be to keep the customer happy. And the customer is often not happy being made to pay five-star sums for what he perceives as uncooked pasta, but which is in reality al dente — the only acceptable was to Italians. The answer to that has to be to let quality be an end in itself. A hotel which pays expatriate staff five times as much as local staff of the same designation almost certainly does so to raise its standard to international levels.
Put another way, if La Piazza was headed by someone other than Montevecchio, maybe the pasta and risotto would be well done as opposed to being al dente, but it’s a moot point if the standard of the restaurant would be as high as it is now. Montevecchio’s signature dish — strawberries with reduced aceto balsamico — would not exist because few non-Italian chefs would have the courage — or the familiarity with the ingredients — to create such an innovation.
To quote Dilip Cherian, “At any given time, half the people dining in a five-star restaurant are travellers from overseas who expect a certain standard, and the other half are Indians who are presumably well-travelled.”
The minority who are locals with no particular discernment or adventurous appetites would do well to take their custom elsewhere. As Cherian says, “If all they want is dalia let them go where dalia is cooked.”