Indian cuisine arguably has an even stronger fan following across the globe than does the glitzy world of Bollywood. Butter Chicken has also been considered the national dish of the UK, and Indian Chefs today are enjoying celebrity status thanks to the reach of social media.
Well before the likes of Zee TV star Chef Sanjeev Kapoor and Master Chef stars Vikas Khanna and Kunal Kapoor, Chef Satish Arora took humble Indian dishes to fine-dining status. With a career expanding 50 years which was catapulted by his success as the world’s youngest Executive Chef of a five-star kitchen at a mere 26 years of age, he has been the inspiration for many in his industry, and has also been a role model for his kin.
I had the immense pleasure of meeting the legend in person at Mahec (Le Meridian, Airport Road Dubai) which he has recently taken over. Here is an except on Chef Arora’s trailblazing career, his undying passion for food, and advice for the next generation.
What is your earliest memory of food, and when did you realize the culinary world was your calling?
My mother was a brilliant cook. I truly believe that I have been blessed with her cooking skills. I started helping her in the kitchen at a very early age whilst I was in school. This further led to a confidence boost when my cooking was appreciated by my siblings when I would take charge of the kitchen and cook in my mother’s absence. I had never imagined to pursue being a chef as a career. As luck would have it for me The Institute of Hotel Management opened its doors soon after I completed my schooling and I was provided with the brochure from a friend. The rest is history.
Indian society tends to have very ridged notions on what a man should pursue as an occupation. Did you face any barriers with your choice of career?
My father was in the defense services he always desired for me to be either a doctor or an engineer. He was very unhappy with my decision, but I had full support of my mother. By saying that my father did not take time to change his way of thinking and supported me through my years at the catering college as he saw that I was thoroughly enjoying my chosen career path.
You started your career with the Taj Group and went on to open over 70 of their hotels. What are the challenges in opening a new venture in a completely new market?
The biggest challenge one faces is to gain the confidence of the team you are leading as they expect to look up to you and learn from you. I was 26 years old when I took over the reins of The Taj Mahal Hotel Mumbai from an Executive Chef who had put in over 60 years of service. This in itself was a challenge to fit in the shoes of such a senior and experienced chef. The only way I could overcome any of the challenges was with sheer determination to achieve success, I am a strong believer that God put in a situation only when he knows that you can manage it.
I travelled the length and breadth of the country to learn regional recipes. A lot of research went into opening different specialty restaurants across these 70 hotels. I have always been a patient listener and encourage my team to come up with ideas this too eased many scenarios as the best ideas come from the actual operators it’s a matter to executing them efficiently.
Establishing a good supply chain of raw material was the only other major challenge that I would mention.
I was blessed with a great team and support of the senior management of The Taj Group especially the then MD. Mr. Ajit Kerkar.
Have you been associated with the Dubai market before? How does the culinary scene here differ from India?
Yes, I have been associated with the Dubai market and this goes back to the year 1986 when I opened the first Taj group property in Dubai called the Princeton hotel.
India carries a vast culinary heritage, in true sense it is an amalgamation of various cultures, traditions and influence of different ethnic communities found within its boundaries. It has a plethora of fresh herbs, spices, fresh produce. Over the years the local food has ruled the cuisine scene, it’s been a decade since we have seen a major shift in this demand where Indians are open to exploring new cuisines other than the local offering. A big contributing factor has been the ease to travel to different corners of the world and appreciate authentic flavours of international cuisines, some of the most popular being Italian, Chinese & Thai.
Dubai on the other hand for me is a melting pot for multiple cuisines from around the globe. There are close to 200 different nationalities living in Dubai this in itself gives Dubai prominence in the World Cuisine Scene.
What innovations have you added to Mahec?
Mahec by Satish Arora is a reflection of my journey as a Chef for the past 50 years. Innovation could be a new method of cooking, an idea or a new product. My menu features elements across all. Unique cooking method is for our specialty Patthar Gosht which is thin slices of delicately seasoned lamb cooked on a seasoned slab of smooth stone. This style of cooking did exist in the past but has been refined with a modern twist. Boondi Brûlée ia an East meets West creation. Chatekedar Jhinga gets its lip smacking flavour from slow roasted peppers cooked overnight.
Please tell us the names of some well-known celebrities who have had the pleasure of tasting your cooking, and which dishes they recommend.
I have had the privilege of catering to many celebrities & dignitaries across five decades of being in this profession. Being the Executive Chef of Taj Mahal Hotel Mumbai India gave me the privilege to cook and interact with many known names who stayed at The Taj either visiting India for holidays or on official state visits. I have travelled extensively representing the Taj Group as their culinary ambassador giving me the opportunity to cook for British Royalty on multiple occasions. The names that come to my mind are:
- Queen Elizabeth II
- S President bill Clinton
- British Prime Minister Margret Thatcher
- Bill Gates
- Prince Aga Khan
- Mohammed Ali (World renowned boxer)
- Astronaut Major Yuri Gagarin
- Queen Beatrix of Netherlands
- Neil Armstrong (American Astronaut)
- Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi
- Sachin Tendulkar (Legendry Indian Cricketer)
My menu has some of the signature dishes that I have created for these celebrities.
Your Butter Chicken for Queen Elizabeth II is now a patented recipe. Did you create this recipe specifically for Her Majesty? What did have to say about it?
This recipe was specially created for a banquet function hosted by the President of India for the Queen at The St. James Court Hotel in London which is a Taj Group property. Yes, it is my patented recipe which features on the menu of Mahec by Satish Arora.
I personally feel the uniqueness of this recipe is that it tingles all taste buds having elements of sweet, sour, salt and caters to wider spectrum of guest from children to adults.
When starting out your career, who was your role model?
In my initial days of being in the catering college I was inspired by French Chef Roger Moncort who worked as Executive Chef at the Ashoka hotel New Delhi. He taught me the basics of French Cooking. Another name I would like to mention is of Mr. Ajit Kerkar ( MD & Chairman. Taj Group of Hotels 1970-1997 ) he has been my role model and inspiration. I owe my success to him.
What are your 5 ‘can’t live without’ spices?
Green Cardamom, Yellow Mustard Seeds, Coriander Seeds, Mathania red chillies from Rajasthan & Star Anise.
Who cooks at home?
I am not allowed to enter our kitchen at home and I enjoy having that luxury. My wife Sushma has a flare for cooking great food. Inspite of being a vegetarian she cooks some amazing chicken dishes. She cooks from her heart which makes every dish very special.
Have you inspired anyone else in the family to follow your career path?
There are a few of my family members who I would like to mention in particular. Puneet my son is a known name in the industry today, he started his career with the Taj and moved on working with the Jumeirah Group in Dubai followed by Noon Products in London, Sats Catering in Singapore, Executive Chef of Emirates Flight catering Dubai and presently manages a successful Airline Catering business in London ( DSI Foods ).
My Nephew Rahul Khurana runs a very successful chain of casual dining Indian Restaurant called Tamatanga in Nottingham & Birmingham.
My Cousin brother Kiran Arora is Executive Chef in Sydney.
All of them claim that I have been a source of inspiration for them. I must admit that they have worked very hard and their success is purely based on their merit. They make me proud.
Have you ever considered starting an Arora chain of your own?
Not at the moment but I am confident that Mahec by Satish Arora could be a stepping stone to think in that direction.
If you have one advice to give to budding chefs, what would it be?
Do not take shortcuts, follow sequence whilst cooking, take notes as the human mind is not a computer, cook with passion these are key elements according to me to become a good skilled chef.
Please tell us the secret behind your undying energy!
My family is the key behind my undying energy especially my son Puneet. I don’t take any decision without consulting him. They keep me motivated and have supported me through this journey. The young chefs of today Chefs Sanjeev Kapoor, Vikas Khanna, Vineet Bhatia, Manish Mehrotra are a major source of inspiration. I am amazed at the adrenalin with which they travel and manage multiple restaurants across the world. Seeing them motivates me to pursue more and be more energetic.
*Image sourced from Friday Magazine.