Cooking for presidents, prime ministers and Hollywood stars

During my decades as head chef at the Taj, I had the privilege of cooking for some of the most powerful men and women in the world: presidents, prime ministers, Hollywood stars and industrialists who have been nation builders in our time.

When Dhirubhai Ambani’s elder son Mukesh, now one of the richest men in the world, got married at the Cooperage, I was in charge of the banquet, which served hundreds of guests. It was a traditional affair with a rich vegetarian spread and I was responsible for creating imaginative and delicious vegetarian dishes to appeal to his eclectic guest list.

SIMILAR STORIES

I created fusion cannelloni with a creamy cottage cheese filling and delicate pieces of pineapple to add a delicate flavor to the dish. I made a stuffing of onions, garlic, celery, chopped spinach, grated cottage cheese, black pepper, herbs and white sauce. I stuffed it into cannelloni rolls, put it on a serving plate, spread it with cream sauce and tomato sauce and baked it with cheese. Mr. Ambani’s younger son Anil was in charge of the banquet and was so pleased with this particular dish that he suggested I call it Cannelloni Arora. The same dish was later served at other high-level banquets. It was part of Taj’s classic menu for two decades, along with twenty-six other signature dishes I created over time.

Some of the most challenging tasks for me as an executive chef were creating meals for heads of state.

When former French President Francois Mitterrand visited India, Taj staff were told that he was extremely particular about his food and would bring his own chef along for the trip. The consulate also sent us a list of ingredients in advance so that my team and I could source everything for this trusted chef. But I wanted to please the French, and the only window open to me was the first night he landed.

I was now acquainted with the French Consul of the time, owing to the many banquets we gave for them. So at a dinner he was attending, I decided to talk to him about the president’s schedule and how we might get a chance to cook for him. “Sir, I believe you have written to our general manager that he will bring his own chef.

You are familiar with my kitchen. Could it be that we have a chance to do something for His Excellency at least once during his two-day trip? Why don’t we do a little trial three-course meal for you in a few days, and then you can take a call?” I snapped.

The Consul General agreed, and I set about preparing a very French three-course meal.

For the first course, I made a smoked salmon cigar filled with pate. For the second course, I made a corn-fed chicken breast stuffed with onions, garlic, herbs, mushrooms, cream cheese, spinach, and nutmeg. I stuffed the chicken, wrapped it in silver foil and baked it in the oven to cook in its own juices.

After it boiled, I poured the juice into a pan, added some white wine and cream, and reduced the mixture to make a sauce that I poured over the chicken, which I served with fresh vegetables.

The aroma was divine. For dessert I had Indian, but in a Baked Alaska style. In a ramekin I mixed pistachio sponge cake, crushed pralines, kulfi and gulab jamun and covered everything with meringue. Then I baked the mixture. It is then flambéed with brandy and served.

The French Consul seemed impressed with all three courses and promised me that he would speak to the President on his arrival. On the day of my arrival I got a call from the French Consulate at around 3pm saying that the President had agreed to have dinner in his room. We were expected to serve him and the First Lady as well as the Consul General and his wife.

I immediately sprung into action and set up a temporary kitchen next door to the apartment the president was occupying. I had two helpers with me and we started preparing the food.

I stuck to the menu I had created in collaboration with the Consul General. At that time, smoked salmon and foie gras pate were considered the best delicacies. After this meal, the accompanying French chef spent the next two days of his trip in the swimming pool at Mitterrand’s request.

The cover of the book.

Excerpted with permission from Sweets and Bitters: Tales from a Chef’s Life by Satish Arora, narrated by Chandrima Pal, published by Bloomsbury India, 208 pages, 599.

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