They don’t have leisurely evenings and spend the first few years of their professional lives washing pans and peeling potatoes. They rarely manage to taste most of the delicacies they whip up, and most often are cooking against deadlines, and with a lot of money at stake. Yet, if you ask them, no chef would change any of that for the world.
Ananda Solomon, 53
Executive chef, Vivanta President, Mumbai, and corporate chef for all business hotels, Taj group
How he got here: There might not be an obvious correlation between the strict medical requirements of the Indian defence services and the food and hospitality industry, but in the case of Ananda Solomon, it was a clear case of one’s loss being the other’s gain. The Pune-born Mangalorean couldn’t join the defence services because of weak eyesight. In the decades since, he has gone on to become one of the biggest names in the food and hospitality business, a stand-alone brand who has trained several chefs.
“In 1975, when I enrolled for a degree in hotel management from the Institute of Hotel Management, Catering Technology and Applied Nutrition, Mumbai, my friends, they laughed; my relatives wondered what my parents were making me do. I wondered if I was doing the right thing,” he says.
The maestro: Even now, Ananda Solomon is happiest when he is hands-on in the kitchen. Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
After the course, the 20-year-old Solomon went on to work at The Oberoi, Mumbai, as a trainee chef (“I hadn’t even started shaving then”) and went through the drill of carrying trolleys, arranging the stores and making sure all pots and pans were clean. “This initial year or so, as an assistant to a chef, is a stepping stone to understanding everything there is to understand about the industry,” he says. He finally settled into the French kitchen as a specialist saucier. He left in 1984 for a five-year stint at the Hilton, Riyadh. The specialist saucier came to be greatly respected by his contemporaries, soon becoming a “Mr Fix-it” of sorts. “Indian chefs are trained to do things from scratch. I, for instance, could make mayonnaise, and other ready-to-eat sauces, by hand,” he says.
In 1989, Solomon returned to India for a brief stint at Hotel Blue Diamond, Mumbai. In 1991, he joined the Taj President as sous chef. By 1992, he had created his first “concept” restaurant at the Thai Pavilion, Taj.
By 1996, he was corporate chef, the highest designation for a chef. In the last 15 years, the number of people reporting to him has only increased; as has the number of restaurants, across cities, he supervises. “The latter stages of being a chef are all about writing food and creating concepts,” he says.
A day in the life of: There cannot be a bigger example of his hands-on style than his early morning recces to the fish and vegetable markets, which he undertakes alone. Solomon goes to the fish market at 5am and the vegetable market 6.30am. He also visits the spice and grain markets once a month. “This is to keep up with what is available in the market, how they’re looking and how they can be used,” he says. At 6.30-7am, he has a proper “south Indian breakfast” and then goes to office. “The first thing I do as soon as I enter office is pray; soon after I head to Trattoria to supervise breakfast. After that I go to the supplying and receiving area to look at the ingredients, and ensure quality checks. I go to Thai Pavilion at noon, get the pastes in order, and then to Konkan Café. “I come back to my office by 3-3.30pm, meet chefs at that time. I brief them about the meals, and address any problems that need to be dealt with. Evenings (5-7pm) are usually for planning menus. That’s when new concepts are also planned.”
What I love about my job: “That it’s not monotonous or boring.”
What I would change: “That I had 26 hours in a day instead of 24. I have late nights (come home by 1am) and early mornings, it’s tough.”
Education: Catering college. “There was also a fourth-year in the course, a specialized degree that I didn’t do, because usually when you do you end up becoming a teacher!”
On setting up his own eatery: “I always consider all the restaurants I set up as my own. I’ve never given a serious thought to an independent venture because it can be difficult and will mean getting involved with the business aspect of it; my creativity and cooking skills will be diminished. For me food is an experience, not a PowerPoint presentation.”
Salary range: At this level, Rs 1.5-3.5 lakh a month.
Ho Thi Ngoc Thao, aka Hana, 28
Master cuisine chef, Blue Ginger, Taj Palace, New Delhi
How she got here: Almost two years into her Delhi stint, Ho Thi Ngoc Thao, or Hana, ends every sentence with an assurance-seeking “theek hai?”. But that’s perhaps one of the rare dilutions of Vietnamese culture in the young chef, proud ambassador of her country’s cuisine at Taj Palace’s Blue Ginger. Hana’s career began somewhat unconventionally. Instead of enrolling for a hotel management course, she joined her family restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, in 2004. She was 21.
“My training happened by watching my mother and grandmother, both experts, who ran our family restaurant and taught me everything about Vietnamese cuisine,” she says. Although it was her family restaurant, Hana’s work in the initial days was not unlike that of any trainee chef. “I had to do a lot of chopping and cleaning and basic cooking like soups, salads,” she says.
The ambassador: Hana’s dream is to start her own restaurant in India. Pradeep Gaur/Mint
The training proved handy and by 2006, Hana had a job at a Vietnamese fine-dining restaurant, where she learnt to present Vietnamese food with a Western touch. A year later, she moved to the Marriott in Ho Chi Minh City for a two-and-a-half-year stint, for Western food, and then to InterContinental hotel, for eight months. In January, she got the job at Blue Ginger and moved to Delhi.
A day in the life of: Hana heads to work by 10.30am. “I first examine the ingredients, clean the station and do a lot of preparatory work for the day, like preparing pastes. Till 3pm, I am cooking in the kitchen,” she says. At 3pm, she takes a 4-hour break and goes home. “I then come back by 7pm, back into the kitchen, and start making preparations for dinner. I am in the kitchen till 12am at night,” she says. “I also prepare menus when there are banquets and other special occasions with the Vietnamese embassy, as well as the a la carte menu. This is done in the evenings,” she says.
What I love about my job: “I love that I am bringing my country’s cuisine to everybody in Delhi.”
What I would change: “My shift timings. That rest timing is awkward and gets difficult at times.”
Education: “I didn’t receive any formal training but I learnt the basics of the kitchen in my family kitchen. It’s worked out well for me, although I do think a formal degree is important.”
On setting up her own eatery: “It’s my dream to open a Vietnamese restaurant probably in Delhi or Mumbai. I’d probably think about it in the next couple of years.”
Salary range: At this level, Rs 60,000-70,000 a month.
Manish Mehrotra, 37
Executive chef, pan Asian cuisine, Old World Hospitality, New Delhi
How he got here: One can’t be sure if it was the rigorous grind during training, or the hard stint in London, but Manish Mehrotra—who manages to wrap up lunch duties, pose for the camera and tell funny stories, all on a hot summer afternoon—obviously knows how to keep his sense of humour. Mehrotra, known for the innovation he brings to food, finished his hotel management in Mumbai and started his career in 1996 as a trainee at Thai Pavilion, Taj President, Mumbai, as part of chef Ananda Solomon’s team.
“There were two of us trainees and between us, among other things, we had to grate 140 coconuts, morning and evening. I got so good at it that even today, I can challenge any of the chefs working under me to who can grate coconuts faster and I’ll win,” he says. “Those early days of training are important because you can’t respect someone who grates coconuts if you’ve never grated coconuts yourself.”
The innovator: Manish Mehrotra loves creating new recipes and menus most of the time. Priyanka Parashar/Mint
In 2001, he moved on to head the pan Asian kitchen at Old World Hospitality. “I was in charge of preparing menus, dealing with staff, keeping a quality check over food in all our outlets, opened Chor Bizarre, Noida, and Oriental Octopus in Noida, and didn’t have to do day-to-day chopping-onion work.” In 2006, as part of the same chain, he moved to Tamarai in London for four years, “where I was back to chopping onions”, he says. This was an important learning experience for Mehrotra; it taught him to “respect everyone and be nice to people in the kitchen”. “Unlike India, there in the UK, if you shout at someone, they’d leave and you’d have to do all their work. It was critical, therefore, to be nice to people working under me, especially the guy washing utensils,” he says.
In 2009 Mehrotra returned to India, and wanting to steer clear of the usual rogan josh fare, went on to set up the critically acclaimed fine-dining restaurant, Indian Accent, at the Manor which marries Indian food with Western presentation.
A day in the life of: Mehrotra gets in to work at the Manor at 11am. The initial couple of hours go into checking how things are in the kitchen. Afternoons are for lunch, cooking and supervision, and post-lunch, around 3pm, Mehrotra sits down to plan menus and new projects for Old World Hospitality’s projects. “We meet with all the chefs and discuss things like the presentation, what plates to use, and so on,” he says.
The latest of these plating innovations is a tiny Hawkins Pressure Cooker being used to serve amuse-bouche. He gets involved with the dinner activity around 7pm and stays there till nearly midnight. His job involves a fair amount of travelling—he goes on special catering projects for 15 days every two-three months. His most memorable trip was to the World Economic Forum in Davos in January. “When someone’s paying thousands of dollars to fly you out, they make sure they’ll extract every last ounce from you,” he says.
What I love about my job: “I love being around food, creating new things all the time.”
What I would change: “Meals! Chefs eat the worst food in the world, tasting and pecking at whatever there is. Once you’ve been in the kitchen all day, you don’t feel like eating properly.”
Education: A three-year course from the Institute of Hotel Management, Catering Technology and Applied Nutrition, Mumbai.
On setting up his own eatery: “Having your own restaurant is a completely different ball game from running a kitchen. Especially in India, where there are thousands of licences to be acquired; you end up getting involved more with the administrative, business and finance side of it; you can’t concentrate on food. Plus, it’s not necessary that a good chef makes a good businessman.”
Salary range: At this level, Rs 1.5-2 lakh a month
THE KITCHEN BRIGADE
A look at who does what behind the stove
The commis or apprentice: This may be a youngster who has recently completed training. He works under the chef de partie, understanding the station’s responsibilities and operation.
The chef de partie: Also known as a ”station chef”, he is in charge of a particular area of production. In large kitchens, each station chef might have several cooks and/or assistants. In most kitchens, however, the station chef is the only worker in that department. Station chef titles, which are part of the “brigade system” aimed
at streamlining hotel kitchen systems, include pastry chef and saucier.
The sous chef: He is usually the second in command, in charge when the executive chef is off duty. Smaller kitchens may not have a sous chef, while a large kitchen may have several.
The executive chef: He is the one in charge; the one who makes the bigger executive decisions on the menu, staff management, etc. He often oversees several restaurants.
The corporate chef: In addition to the duties of an executive chef, the corporate chef stands for the brand, usually when one hotel has several chains, and is responsible for maintaining quality in each restaurant. He also designs menus for all the restaurants.
Every month, we explore a profession through the lives of three executives at different stages in their careers.
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