When Satish Arora was named executive chef of the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai at the age of 26, he became one of the youngest cooks in the world to be heading the kitchen of a five-star hotel. It was one of many firsts in his career and, as his collaboration with the recently renamed Mahec by Satish Arora restaurant proves, the septuagenarian chef is showing no signs of slowing down.
“This is the first restaurant that my name will be associated with. Keeping that in mind, I decided to update the menu to reflect the dishes I have formulated over the years for the legions of dignitaries who have visited Taj group properties in India and abroad,” the twinkly-eyed Arora tells me when we meet at the eatery located in Le Méridien Dubai Hotel & Conference Centre. What follows is a culinary treasure trove of anecdotes outlining his experiences over the years – from preparing Queen Elizabeth-approved butter chicken and revelling in Bill Clinton’s love for food, to getting the better of François Mitterrand’s personal chef.
Impressing Indira Gandhi
“The occasion was the Common Wealth Heads of Government retreat, in 1983, in Goa. The boss I was dealing with was then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who was known to be a tough taskmaster. Two months before the event, I went to her office in Delhi to hear her expectations for the gala dinner. Let’s just say the words ‘country’s prestige’ came up,” Arora recalls. “Soon after, I received the list of likes and dislikes of 40 heads of states. Six sent over their hygiene inspectors, who landed up at the venue two days before to inspect every corner of the kitchen. Finally, the day arrived. I’m a great believer of live cooking, because I feel you can win over a person by doing so. When someone’s making hot jalebis right before you, why would you look at the cheese cake? So about 60 per cent of the food served at the event was cooked live. We even imported big-sized oysters, took the meat out of the shells, mixed it with herbs, sauces and cheese, put it back in the shell, and baked it live for the guests. At the end of the evening, Ms Gandhi suddenly announced to my managing director, ‘I want to talk to J’ – J being JRD Tata, chairman of the Taj group at the time. We were a bit apprehensive, hoping we had not messed up somehow, because she didn’t say anything else. Anyway, we rang him up, and she took and phone and said: ‘Hi, J. This is Indira. I am so sorry to call you at this time, but I wanted to tell you that tonight your team has made my country proud.’ I don’t have any recollection of the rest of that evening because I was not walking, I was flying. The next morning, the guests were all leaving for the airport in their private helicopters, and Indira Gandhi and Margaret Thatcher were seeing everyone off. When just the two of them were left, I turned to Ms Thatcher, and asked her: ‘Ma’am, was everything OK?’ And she said: ‘Chef, can you remove your cap?’ She then took a marker and signed her name on that white piece of cloth, and handed it back to me with a quiet ‘well done’.”
Cooking for the Queen
"After Goa, at my second run-in with Margaret Thatcher in India, I decided to prepare a Goan-style prawn curry. She appreciated it so much that she recommended my name for an event that was happening in London a few months later – the then president of India, R Venkataraman, was hosting a banquet for the royal family and the who's who of the British Parliament at St James' Court. I was flown in and, cooking aside, I was given an etiquette lesson in the actions one must observe if I were to meet the Queen [Elizabeth II]. In India, we are used to vigorously shaking hands when introduced to someone, but here I was told you have to lightly hold two of her fingers, bow down and call her Your Majesty, and no ma'am or anything else like that. At the end of the meal, the Queen and the Duke approached us, and I was introduced. I was not expecting either of them to say anything, thinking the proceedings would be quite stiff and formal. But to my delight, she stopped in her step, looked at me, and exclaimed loud and clear: 'Well done, chef. That butter chicken was just superb.' The Duke of Edinburgh, meanwhile, asked me if I was from the south of India, because his favourite dish was the dosa I had made, stuffed with wild mushrooms and lobsters. The same butter chicken will now be served at Mahec by Satish Arora, as will the Goan prawn curry that Thatcher enjoyed," says Arora.
Catering to the king of Bollywood
"Amitabh Bachchan has been a regular at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai for years. In the late 1980s, one of his most famous films Shahenshah, which means king of kings, was up for release. He's a pure vegetarian, though, and hence a bit more difficult to please, so I decided to come up with a rich vegetable kofta, which I named the Shahenshahi kofta. When I served it to him that first time, he sought me out to express his admiration. A kofta is usually meat-based, but for Mr Bachchan, I made one by mixing paneer and vegetables such as broccoli, zucchini, potato and carrot. To make it as soft and juicy as possible, the koftas were marinated for 12 hours, and they can now be found, as is, in the new Mahec menu."
Breaking bread with Bill Clinton
"The former US president was travelling through four cities in India, staying at Taj properties. I was commissioned to fly with him, and we became quite close. Bill's a complete foodie – he doesn't even mind eating with his hands. When he was in Ahmedabad, I prepared a buffet for him and the 10 people who were with him. One of the dishes I made was a lamb chop, which was a bit of a risk, because in India, lamb is tough and requires extra effort for something that is quite small, and has more bone and less meat. I marinated the lamb for 10 hours and beat it to soften it further. And he was so delighted with that particular dish that he ate at least four chops, along with every other dish served. Watching him, the word that came to mind was 'sikandar' – a larger-than-life leader – surrounded as he was by a coterie of admirers as he owned the room from the head of the table. So I named the dish sikandari chop, which will be on the menu with the same marination that I prepared for Clinton," says Arora.
Finding flavour with François Mitterrand
"When the former president of France visited India for two days, we were told he's so particular about food that he's bringing his own chef. The Consulate also sent a list of ingredients in advance, which we were asked to source for this trusted cook. I was quite keen to show our calibre, and the only window available was the first evening that he landed, for which we were initially informed that he will bring his own food from home. Somehow I managed to convince the Consulate to allow me to serve him that first night. I did not want to risk serving him Indian food from the get-go, so I called upon my training in French cuisine and came up with a Continental menu. At that time, smoked salmon and pâté de foie gras were considered to be the finest delicacies. For the first course, I mixed the two by making a smoked salmon cigar filled with pâté. For the second course, I made a corn-fed chicken breast, with a stuffing made with onion, garlic, herbs, mushrooms, cream cheese, spinach and nutmeg – sautéed till it started flavouring. The aroma was divine. I stuffed the chicken, wrapped it in silver foil and baked it in the oven to cook in its own juices. Once it was cooked, I poured the juices in the pan, added some white wine and cream, and reduced it to make a sauce to pour over the chicken, which was served with fresh vegetables. For dessert, I went Indian but in a baked Alaska way. In a ramekin, I mixed sponge cake with pistachios, crushed praline, kulfi ice cream and berries, and covered the whole thing with meringue, and then baked it. After that meal, the accompanying French chef spent the other two days of his trip in the swimming pool – on Mitterrand's request, of course," Arora concludes with a shy smile.