Having spent 30 years in the culinary world, Chef Arvind Rai, corporate executive chef, The Ashok, New Delhi, while speaking to Akshay Nayak about his culinary journey and ITDC’s F&B prowess, he underscores that the trick to making food click with people is to fully understand the cuisine and adding your surprise element to it
What inspired you to pursue culinary arts as your career?
I remember getting excited when my mother used to prepare the scrumptious feast; the journey began there. With the growing interest throughout my teenage years, I decided to learn more about this profession. I took admission in IHM – Pusa, which was the first step towards polishing my culinary skills & reinstate my interest in food. So, it wouldn’t be wrong to state that it was my mother who inspired me to pursue a career in culinary art, and second is my keen interest in food since the early days. As they say, if you make your passion your career you never have to work for a single day and that is what I did too.
What were the initial challenges that you faced throughout your journey?
Starting a career in new space brings its learnings and challenges. When I started my culinary schooling, I realized cooking was not just about getting the ingredients right and throwing them in a pan and tossing it. It is about understanding what spices and ingredients react with certain flavors, textures, and fragrance and that it was an art to hone. Secondly, when I started working in hotels, it was very different from my humble kitchen, I never had to cook in large vessels with strict deadlines. Getting used to them takes its own time, but after three-plus decades in the culinary field, I feel the challenges we face at the start, makes our foundation strong, which in the end contributes to ours and the organisation’s success.
While catering to many VVIPs, how does it test your mettle being at the helm of ITDC’s F&B operations?
Catering to VVIP’s is both, challenging and rewarding experience. We have zero chances of error while making sure the dishes are presented authentically. Coordinating the overall kitchen operations, while keeping my culinary brigade motivated, does pose its challenges, but in the end, the reward of making it all happen is thoroughly satisfying.
What are the F&B innovations that have you been applying at ITDC’s all segments to be at the forefront amidst the increasing competition from private and international hospitality players?
I have been in the industry for over three decades now, and in that period I have cooked for a varied set of people from India and abroad. The trick to making food click with people is to fully understand the cuisine and adding your surprise element to it. The surprise element is how you define your cooking style. So when it comes to cooking style I stick to, our motto at ITDC, which is to give the best in class service to all our stakeholders at all levels. I abide by the three pillars of good food which are simple, authentic and tasteful. Whatever we do has these three elements always attached to it. We at ITDC keep experimenting to keep ourselves abreast with the latest trends in the culinary field. Recently we participated in the Arunachal Pradesh food festival in collaboration with the Arunachal Pradesh government, which was a tremendous success, bringing authentic Arunachali cuisine to the capital city was appreciated by our guests. This is just one prime example, how we keep abreast of trends; ITDC has always been and would continue to be in the frontline in the culinary space.
Moving forward what are the strategies that you will be applying at ITDC? Your mantra for the aspiring chefs in the country?
As far as strategies are concerned the idea is to create a journey of taste and flavours for our guests. We ensure the menus of all the hotel outlets complement each other. That’s primarily because there’s always some element in the menu that keeps our regular guests keep coming back to us. For that very reason, we put in specials and organize food fests etc. for some variation, but to keep changing menu options could be detrimental, so we stay fairly consistent. Last but not the least, we give a lot of importance to homegrown produce, spices, and experiment with the local flavors. India is a country of Myriad colors, flavors and rather than going outside, we should use our local ingredients as much as possible, as they are not only cost-effective but also flavorful.
My mantra to aspiring chefs would be to keep it authentic. A dish can be simple and yet work wonders. It is essential to keep a balance between textures and flavors, as they are the key elements. Over the years, the process of cooking has undergone a lot of changes, with new trends emerging now and then. The use of home-grown ingredients in cooking is one trend that is in these days. They give an authentic flavour to the dish and local touch to it. Keep it simple and keep working hard, should be the one line they should always keep in mind.