There’s no perfect recipe for being heroic was our prime take away after meeting celebrated Indian chef Hemant Oberoi at his new restaurant Martabaan in Abu Dhabi’s Emirates Palace Hotel.
He should know.
Oberoi became emblematic of humanity and compassion worldwide when he helped dozens of hotel guests to safety during the November 2008 Mumbai terror attacks at the iconic Taj Palace Hotel.
A group of gunmen stormed the Taj and chef Oberoi — who was the then-head chef — had kept his guests safe by shepherding them to a secluded restaurant within the hotel and out of gunmen’s sight. Oberoi — who has cooked for political leaders including Barack Obama, Tony Blair and Bollywood superstars like The Bachchans — was like a superhero without a cape, but an apron and a chef hat.
“The only thing we learnt is ‘guest is God’ and that he has come to your house. So you have to save those lives,” said Oberoi in an interview with Gulf News tabloid!
“Nobody teaches you anything else. It’s your presence of mind in those situations … It’s your instinct that says it’s your duty as a human to save lives.”
Recalling the terrifying incident that claimed more than 30 lives at the hotel alone, Oberoi claims he has come out much stronger after that horrifying episode.
“After the attacks, we had decided that we would one day reopen the 9 restaurants. We wanted to send a message loud and clear that we won’t be cowed down by terrorist activities … In fact my son’s wedding banquet was the first function that took place after the attack,” said Oberoi. His selfless act has also spawned a critically-acclaimed Hollywood film ‘Hotel Mumbai’ in which the award-winning actor Anupama Kher played his role.
“He [Anupam Kher] was not allowed to meet me, but the producers and directors met me. He met all my colleagues because he wanted to understand the way I would act in the kitchen, the way I would behave and talk in the kitchen and my staff… He is a very good actor and did a fantastic job,” said Oberoi, adding that Kher called him the real-life hero on the Toronto International Film Festival red carpet.
Kher wasn’t far from the mark. He’s equally in charge in his kitchen that has served the who’s who around the globe. To put it simply, Oberoi is a force of nature in the culinary world. His food is fantastically and authentically Indian. At the Martabaan launch on Wednesday night, we got a taste of his wild, experimental streak as he served delicacies including tiny naan discs with truffle oil drizzle and hummus with pickle.
“Martabaan is my first concept in refined fine dining. We will serve authentic India food and dig up forgotten recipes dating back to an era 100 years ago. Martabaan means a pickling jar that our grandmothers would ferment things in,” Oberoi explained.
The swanky restaurant, done up in vibrant colours like green and orange couches, prides itself in serving Indian dishes with an innovative twist. Think Rasam (a spicy vegetable broth) served in a coffee percolator with sea food and chocolate shawarma. He also famously served US former president George Bush a biryani in a glass jar. The same culinary export will be available in Martabaan too.
“I wanted him to see the layers of lamb and rice and flavours that go into it. When you serve it an copper utensil or a porcelain one, the ingredients get buried.”
He famously asked a glassware company to create 2000 jars that could withstand the heat of 400 degrees.
“What’s life without some risks? I am not a follower. I have always wanted to be a leader and ahead of people. I don’t want to stand in the queue and say me too,” said Oberoi.
He doesn’t lose his cool in the kitchen either.
Oberoi — who has cooked for the likes of Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie and Rishi Kapoor — will never pull a knife-throwing stunt like the famously acidid Gordon Ramsay.
“Shouting doesn’t help… If they don’t understand your silence, they won’t understand your words. When I look at a dish, my eyes says a lot.”
His recipe for success is simple. “If you make food with passion then everybody is going to like it.”
RAPID FIRE WITH HEMANT OBEROI:
Q: What did you eat for dinner last night?
A: We had to make dinner for the King Of Malaysia, so were making some trials for that.
Q: What is the most expensive ingredient in the Martabaan kitchen?
A: We use truffle in Indian food and everything good in life is expensive.
Q: Which Indian dish is the most diluted?
A: Chicken Tikka Masala served in London. It has no relevance to India.
Q: What’s a dish that’s still a work-in-progress for you?
A: Life is about learning and it’s a never ending process. I see all these youngsters do molecular gastronomy now. I did that 20 years ago and let me tell you, liquid nitrogen doesn’t cook food. There’s nothing in there. Why the hell do we do still use it?
Q: What is your favourite Indian spice?
Q: What’s the one thing you would never eat?
A: I will never eat monkey brains or grass hoppers.
Q: What’s the craziest food that you have ever had?
A: I have eaten crispy friend black ants.
Q: What was it like cooking for former US President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama?
A: They were very gracious and it was a seven-course meal. They loved the crab with curry base and balsamic and cumin reduction.
Q: What’s your take on dish de-construction?
A: Before molecular gastronomy and de-constructing a dish, they should know how to construct the dish well first. It’s like demolishing a building before you know how to mix brick and cement.
“It has been 10 years… Sometimes the pain come back because they died while on duty. We lost more staff than the guests. Out of the 31 people, 18 were our staff. They took the bullet because they were protecting their guests,” said Oberoi on the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks at his former workplace The Taj Palace Hotel.
What will you cook for Rishi Kapoor, your best friend?
“He loves his lamb.”