Midway through our interview, Chef Satish Arora fishes a spoon out of his apron pocket. ‘I always have a spoon on my person,’ he says, straight-faced. ‘You never know what and when you might have to taste something.’
Over a near 50-year tasting spree, what he’s certainly sampled is liberal amounts of success. After all, this man has amassed awards as much as he’s accumulated praise; served royalty, heads of state, celebrities and luminaries. A German food magazine declared him one among the world’s 20 best chefs in 1991. The Curry Club of England gave him a lifetime achievement award in 2007.
When he took over The Taj’s flagship hotel in Mumbai in 1973, he was, at 26, the youngest executive chef in a five-star hotel. Recently, he was given the Living Legend Award by the Indian Purchase Managers Forum. The 69-year-old wanted to retire a few years ago, but then Taj told him they didn’t want to let him go. So he continued as director of food production at the flight catering branch Taj SATS, where he dished out about 56,000 meals a day to delicious standards.
Over 43 years, Satish has whipped up delicacies for some of the world’s most prominent people such as Prince Charles and former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher.
We meet at Mahec at Le Méridien Village, Garhoud, where Chef Satish, along with two chefs from Hyderabad House, formerly the Palace of the Nizam of Hyderabad, is hosting a menu for the restaurant’s Hyderabad Food Festival that ends today. Straightaway, I launch into the question I’ve been dying to ask: What was it like cooking for late Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi, who, to put it mildly, wasn’t the easiest of persons to please.
It is clearly a matter close to his heart, for the chef walks me through the two days in 1983 when 48 Commonwealth heads of government converged in Goa, India, for a summit. ‘I was representing my country, so I had to be very, very careful,’ he says. ‘All these dignitaries, my bosses, all the breakfasts, lunches and dinner – I had sleepless nights. And it was in the middle of nowhere, at a time when it was difficult to get most supplies. Plus the VIPs had brought their inspectors along, and they were constantly on the prowl.
‘For dinner, I did a culinary states menu with 200-plus dishes. I set up live cooking stations. I made an Indian flag butter sculpture. And, I saw Margaret Thatcher admiring the lobster.’
Then Indira Gandhi came over and said she wanted to speak to his top boss, JRD Tata. ‘She walked fast, me rushing behind her, wondering what I’d done wrong. But she told him on the phone: “These boys have made the country proud”. I allowed myself to cry.’
Back to my question. ‘Well, she was a true gourmet. Very, very tough but a nice lady.
‘The day after dinner, as everyone was leaving, [Margaret] Thatcher came to me and said, ‘Could you remove your chef’s cap for me?’ I did, and she signed it. I’ll never forget it.’
From Neil Armstrong to Elizabeth II – he served her wild mushroom and lobster dosa once – and Prince Charles, Satish has cooked for them all. His signature Cannelloni a la Arora is on Taj’s banquet menu, and former French president François Mitterrand gave his personal chef days off so Satish could cook for him. But his favourite remains Bill Clinton.
‘He was in Ahmedabad, and he’s very fond of kebabs, so I made some raan [marinated leg of lamb],’ says Satish. ‘I asked his protocol guys, took the food up to his presidential suite, and told him his food was getting cold.
‘Then I saw him about to cut into it with a knife, and said that I was sure I’d cooked the meat so well that it would fall apart at a touch. So he put the knife down, and I saw pure elation on his face after a bite.’
Retaining flavour is what he hopes young chefs will focus on. ‘Cooking is a science as much as it’s an art,’ he says. ‘Around 90 per cent people will eat something and say it’s good, but… I never want to hear “but”.
Yet, there was a possibility that Satish would never have achieved all this. ‘My family was orthodox Punjabi, and preferred an engineer, a doctor,’ he says. ‘In fact, I wasn’t interested in becoming a chef. I was only interested in eating. But I was lucky, because I wasn’t good in academics. My father’s first reaction when I told him was, “What, you want to become a waiter?” But I managed to convince him, and passed with honours.’
It was a gradual rise to the top for him. ‘I slogged away as a trainee at the Taj.’ He worked so hard though, that he was sent for a year’s training in Germany. ‘I was so determined to make it.’
When he became executive chef at the Taj, he had the unpleasant task of heading a team of people who were much older than him. ‘It was difficult to get through,’ he says with a shrug. ‘But now I realise, they were probably just trying to test me, to gauge whether their boss could cook with his own hands. That was a valuable lesson for me; it’s why I always cooked. I can’t allow these hands to rust.’
Satish has been credited with helping Indian cuisine move away from greasy curries. ‘I only tried to retain texture, flavour and authenticity,’ he says. ‘Take the tandoori chicken, for example. It’s very common, but Indian chefs worldwide stick to authentic marination for it – and that’s a no.’
Satish (seated left) cooked up a storm for a party to toast Amitabh Bachchan’s superhit film, Muqaddar Ka Sikander, at the Taj Mumbai.
He’s been known to drive down to the Taj kitchen in the middle of the night to check on things. Was he a chef from hell, I ask. He’s quick to clarify that he was never rude to his staff. ‘I don’t throw things,’ he says. ‘I don’t believe in ridiculing people in public. Yes, I’m disciplined. I hate late-comers, people spoiling ingredients, shortcuts... But I never threw tantrums.
‘Having said that, if I ever see a chef taste food with his finger, I will chop off said finger.’
A result of all his success was that it became difficult for him to find a bride. ‘Women used to ask my father-in-law, “Are you crazy, getting your daughter [Sushma] married to a cook?” We had a big flat in 1973, and just one person to fill the space in that flat most of the time – Sushma. She didn’t even have a fridge in there, and had to cook on a stove.
‘I think she used to cry a lot. I was always working. So I give her credit for everything – if not for her, I wouldn’t be sitting here.’
In light of French-Swiss chef Benoît Violier’s recent suicide, does he think the pressures on a chef today are too much to handle? ‘A chef has to please everybody,’ he says. ‘We have to keep experimenting, plus make money and keep food costs in check. If we don’t, there are four people queued up to take our place.’
In 2013, Chef Satish Arora was given the Lifetime Achievement Award by Dr Shashi Tharoor at India’s Annual Metro Chef Awards.
Satish has always said Indian food is a game of spices, and it he sticks by this. ‘It’s so important to get the sequence of adding spices right. You have to let them breathe’.
He’s always ready to share his knowledge and passion with junior chefs, and mentions that this wasn’t the case when he started off. ‘Chefs used to hide packets of spices in their pockets and add them while cooking, so no one would know what was in it,’ he reveals.
‘When I train new chefs, the first thing I do is scrawl a big NO on the board. And I tell them, that’s the word they’re never allowed to use. We are here for our guests, and we’ll give them whatever they ask for.’
He has had his share of reality-TV-style adventures in the kitchen, some downright hilarious. ‘I once ran short of tandoori chicken at a party because I was given the wrong number of people to cook for. It was a party of truck operators, and I heard the six-foot-tall organiser making his way in a rage to speak to me. So I hid in the cold storage for a while.
‘Another time, I slipped, fell face-down on a bratt pan, and lost both my eyebrows!’
He’s not too fond of current food fads. ‘Especially molecular,’ he says. ‘I want food to be authentic. Maybe I’m just old-school.
‘I’m OK with fusion food, as long as it doesn’t turn into confusion, as it happens a lot,’ he says, chuckling.
Satish admires chefs like Sanjeev Kapoor, who’ve brought chefs a new kind of popularity. He also has immense respect for Vineet Bhatia, while his son Puneet carves his culinary pathway as executive chef with Emirates Flight catering. And Satish couldn’t be happier for him.
‘I don’t help him with anything, he has made his own career. I want the Arora name to be carried forward in kitchens worldwide. And I know he can do it.’
The doyen retired last month, and it’s been difficult for him to cope with all the free time. But while he’s contemplating various offers, and has accepted the position of culinary director with Mahec, he’s quite glad to be able to spend time with his wife now and make up for all the lost years. He’s also relinquished the reins in the kitchen to her.
As I bite into some flavourful lamb, chicken and shrimp kebabs, with haleem, lamb biryani and paneer curry, and end with one of the best desserts I’ve ever had – kulfi with rose syrup and sweet milk sauce – I catch him watching me beady-eyed. He waves away the waiter who brings him his food. ‘I prefer observing people’s expressions when they eat, it tells me a lot,’ he says. He’s obviously pleased by what he sees on my face, because he soon sits back and relaxes. ‘I’m a bit crazy,’ he says.
With so much toil and triumph to his credit, he could call himself anything he wants, really.