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Starry-eyed at a five-star kitchen

In conversation with SANGEETA BAROOAH PISHAROTY, Nita Nagraj, Corporate Chef of Vasant Continental in Delhi, talks about the first time she saw scallops, soft shelled crabs, even baby corns and peppers in a five-star kitchen.

Photo: Anu Pushkarna.

WHEN NITA Nagraj, the country's only corporate chef, now with Jaypee Hotels, talks about the time when even broccoli used to be imported by a five-star hotel, it seems so far-flung. A roadside vegetable vendor in Delhi can give you the best-blown broccoli any day now.

But then, in just about a decade or even less, the country's hotel industry has experienced so much, be it in terms of food ingredients, kitchen equipments, restaurants with different world cuisines and even importing of specialised chefs.

"It is a simple case of demand and supply. But for those who have seen both the worlds, it is an amazing journey," Chef Nagraj comments. Specialising in Continental food, the Chef relates, with a laugh now, the first time she saw scallops, watercrests, Kenyan beans, soft-shelled crabs, goose liver and even babycorns and red and yellow peppers. "When I joined Orient Express at Taj Palace here in December 1992, we used to learn from Chef Richard Neet as how to use things like goose liver, something which was so novel as an ingredient in India those days. It finally turned out to be one of the most popular dishes at the restaurant. In 1993, I was transferred to Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai and there, I saw things like scallops for the first time. Nobody then used to import such things," reminisces the chef. Import duties then were so heavy that one could not think of bringing ingredients from abroad. She talks of how French fries used to vanish from the menu her for some months as good potatoes would not be available then. "Those were not the times of tinned potato products," she says.

With time, changes have breezed in.

And now, most raw materials are domestically procured and those which need to be imported, are done in zero per cent duty charges. "Like any other hotel, Jaypee Vasant Continental also has local suppliers for vegetables, fruits and other items. Though regularly, both chefs and people from the purchase department keep visiting local markets for spot checking," she says. With a fractured ankle now, the chef is unable to embark on such visits. "But we have our Chinese chef visiting INA market today to check new things available. On his approval, we would be procuring them," adds the Jaypee Hotels Vice President, Materials, Pramod Gupta.

Liquor, the chef says, is easiest to import and so, most hotels do so. "But buying ingredients like tinned food and sauces etc, it is expensive at INA and Khan markets as small vendors still get things illegally as for them, import duty is not less. Five-stars being forex earners, fall in different bracket," she explains.

Kitchen equipments

Though Indian kitchen equipments are there, most suffer from poor quality. "So, for our Canadian chain Eggspectations here, we imported a grill from Canada worth Rs.3 lakhs. The powder used to wash it is Rs.2700 a can which lasts only a week. So, finally, the restaurant guests pay for it," all the chef is arguing here is for a better local market for kitchen equipments. Offering an instance of poor domestic transportation, she says when Vasant Continental wanted to procure golden kernel locally, they found a supplier in Mumbai. "But then, to deliver in Delhi, he demanded that we should order a minimum of 300 kg because a refrigerated van would bring it from Mumbai and it was not feasible to us. Thankfully, he found a local agent here who agreed to supply it to us and other five stars," she says.

"Even now, we need Chinese flour for our dim sums but the government rules does not allow this. And, nobody here produces it. So, even if you want to serve authentic food, at times you can't," she rues.

Being a food lover, her greatest regret, you bet, is the diners' dissatisfaction.

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