A professional culinarian with expertise in gastronomy that spans close to four decades, Chef Rajesh Wadhwa, executive chef, leads the culinary operations at the capital landmark, Taj Palace, New Delhi. Speaking to Akshay Nayak about his journey in the culinary sphere, Chef Wadhwa says the opportunities in the culinary world today are aplenty
What inspired you to pursue culinary arts as a career?
I was always fascinated by food. Culinary arts was hardly considered a ‘career’ back then but I knew that I had to be a chef. The hotel industry was just beginning to take shape and cooking was my ultimate release! It’s been close to four wonderful decades ever since!
What were the initial challenges and opportunities throughout your journey in the culinary world?
When I embarked upon my professional journey, the opportunities and avenues in the culinary world were just about a handful. The industry here was just beginning to mould itself and I think I was lucky to have found my calling with IHCL. Back then, we underwent extensive training and experimented with a lot of concepts and creations behind the scenes. We worked hard to source the finest imported ingredients, did a lot of research and with time, built some of our most iconic restaurant brands. Consistency, commitment, creativity and hard work have been key. It’s been close to four incredible decades now and as a professional chef, it’s been wonderful seeing the industry evolve over the years. I have seen the industry progress, palates develop and flavour sensibilities evolve with time. As a culinarian, it is heart-warming to see not just a growing interest in newer cuisines, but also a renewed interest in the ancient and traditional cuisines. This widespread interest and acceptance of both innovative and forgotten flavours has been extremely encouraging and has definitely aided in evolving my culinary journey.
How has the stint been with Taj?
I have spent almost my entire professional journey with IHCL and most of it at the iconic Taj Palace, New Delhi – a hotel I proudly call home. I am fortunate to have been associated with a hotel that has been a trendsetter in the culinary sphere – from exquisite restaurants like Orient Express, to the very chic, yet authentic, Spicy Duck, our restaurants have been cherished over the years. Restaurants aside, Taj Palace has been the country’s finest events and convention destination since 1983. Perfecting the art of ensuring quality and quantity has been our forte. Over the course of the last three decades, we have hosted numerous global events such as the ASEAN Summit, the BRICS Summit, World Economic Forum’s India Economic Summit, the India-Brazil-South Africa Summit and the Indo-Africa Summit. Serving Presidents and Prime Ministers from across the world at these platforms has been an indescribable experience. More recently, I had the privilege of serving the American President on his maiden visit to New Delhi at the Presidential Palace earlier this year. Nuanced understanding of discerning tastes, an extremely enthusiastic, yet mature and experienced team and most importantly, sharp, well-thought-through planning has been our winning formula. And I am, therefore, indeed proud to have been associated with this iconic brand for 37 years.
What strategies have you devised to make the guest experience the Tajness in F&B, once the businesses are rolling in full strength again?
My strategy has been fairly simple. Two-pronged, it begins with a comprehensive understanding of one’s own food philosophy and the culinary experiences that we wish to showcase. A lot of research, creativity, funnelling and fine-tuning is critical to building a nuanced approach. For instance, while it’s great to think out-of-the-box, pragmatism is important for a sustainable business. The other part is decoding the customer’s palate. A fine balance of these two elements lies at the heart of our strategy. So while it’s great to experiment with cuisines, we’ve realised that over the years, some of our bestsellers will remain on our menus forever. At Taj Palace, New Delhi, we relaunched our all-dining as Capital Kitchen, a couple of years back. The world-class restaurant has an international vibe while the menu selection features authentic, all-time favourite comfort food that invokes a blissful sense of nostalgia. Orient Express, on the other hand, is an institution in itself that represents timelessness. The 37-year old iconic restaurant still has some dishes like the luxurious Camembert Cheese Souffle and the Lobster Bisque – that have been on the menu since 1983! Besides our restaurants, our unique dining experiences exemplify Tajness – they’re highly personalised, there’s astute attention to detail and they create memories indeed!
Moving forward what would you suggest the aspiring chefs keen on joining the industry?
The opportunities in the culinary world today are aplenty. It’s heart-warming to see the chefs’ tribe grow and how. Continuous learning is the key to sustenance and growth for a professional chef. While there’s no alternative for hard-work, profound dedication, commitment and a desire to learn will always make a winning chef.