Vijay Thapliyal, the executive chef at The Lodhi, New Delhi has been spearheading the team for close to five years to orchestrate unmatched dining experiences for guests at the hotel’s five restaurants
With more than two decades of experience with hospitality brands across the country, including The Leela, Hyatt and The Lalit, chef Vijay has developed a commendable repertoire. He started his culinary journey in 1998 at the Hyatt Regency, Delhi, working with Mediterranean cuisine, after which he turned his attention to Oriental flavours. He went on to work with the Grand Hyatt, Beijing and launched The China Kitchen upon his return to India. He was also instrumental in the re-launch of SET’Z at DLF Emporio, Delhi – an award-winning restaurant boasting seven international kitchens, where he was leading a team of 83 chefs.
Vijay has been the winner of the ‘Executive Chef of the Year (National)’ award at the IHE 2020 Excellence Awards. His strength lies in his willingness to experiment and an extensive knowledge of international culinary trends. We got a chance to catch up with him regarding the impact of the lockdowns on F&B and how the industry is changing. Excerpts from an interview:
TD: How did you end up deciding that you wanted to go to culinary school and pursue cooking as a career?
VT: I belong to a small village in Uttarakhand. The only hotels I saw were in the movies. They were luxurious and glamorous. I was attracted by the glamour. Then I figured that the only way to enter the hotel world (hospitality as a word did not exist in my vocabulary then) was to pursue a course at a hotel management institute. When I completed my schooling in the mid-1990s, there were two streams that most children were going for. It was like a herd mentality. One was to go for NIIT, computer programming and the other was hospitality. I didn’t know I wanted to be a chef just that I wanted to work in hotels.
But once I made up my mind to enter the hospitality industry I decided to pursue cooking. It’s something I have always enjoyed. Cooking is a part of our culture in Garhwal. In the villages the person who is considered the most hygienic is given the responsibility for cooking for the community. It is considered an honour. Even if you look around in the industry, a large number of chefs and cooks are from Garhwal.
I was 11-years old when my mother had to undergo an operation and I was left to cook for her and the family. That’s the time I picked up the skills.
TD: What has it been like since March last year? How has business been impacted with on-and-off lockdowns? Have you had to make any changes?
VT: Of course, business has been impacted significantly because of the lockdowns but at The Lodhi we have apartments and we have long-term guests staying with us. So in terms of the kitchen, it has always been operational. But of course the restaurants have been shut down and that impacts revenues.
But the pandemic and the resultant lockdown was also a good time for us to change ourselves. All SOPs came into place. We became more conscious.
TD: How has the hospitality industry as a whole changed due to the pandemic?
VT: Yes definitely it has changed. During the last lockdown which had a much longer duration we all learnt what needed to be done. This time we were nearly 75 per cent prepared. The second lockdown has not impacted us as the first lockdown did.
The industry has changed as the thought process has changed. Everyone has to sustain their own business. Earlier if you thought of a five-star hotel, it was all about fine dining. You came to a restaurant, relaxed and the food came slowly to you. Now they are offering casual dining and also takeaway. No one wanted to do takeaway before. The thought process was that if you wanted to eat my food, you come to my hotel. That has changed now. We are all designing menus that work in the takeaway format, cooking dishes that have a life of more than an hour so they can be delivered.
TD: Will you face any staffing issue once the restaurants are fully operational?
VT: We are very fortunate as we haven’t laid off anyone from the hotel and all our salaries have been paid in full. All those who are at home have been undertaking online training. We have a large group of employees who have stayed inside the hotel during the whole duration of the lockdown to look after our long-term guests. We don’t have any staffing issues.
TD: How do you see the food scene changing in India?
VT: The home delivery segment has come up very strongly. Regional food had started picking up before the lockdown but now it will be even more important. Ragi flour, kuttu ka atta are all regional products that never made an appearance in commercial kitchens before but now are majorly in demand. Also service has changed. Earlier each table was being served by 2-3 servers. Now people are happy if you just leave the food on the table and they can help themselves.
TD: What is your food philosophy?
VT: It’s very simple: always cook the food from the heart. A happy chef always cooks good food.
TD: Do you have any advice for home cooks?
VT: Home cooks have excelled during the pandemic. They have realised that everything that they saw on a fancy menu can be cooked at home. From golgappas to pasta, everything has been cooked at home.
My advice would be don’t be afraid to experiment.
TD: What’s some good advice you’ve been given?
You need to be physically and mentally present in the kitchen. You cannot cook if your mind is somewhere else.
TD: Is there anything that you won’t cook with, that you hate?
VT: As a chef I like to experiment and am open to cooking with any ingredient. But when it comes to serving the guests, if there is one thing that I dislike handing over to them it’s tomato ketchup. It destroys all the efforts that a chef has made.
TD: Is there a secret ingredient that you love to cook with?
VT: My secret ingredient would be mountain mustard. It is finer than the regular mustard we get. Its specialty is that it remains crunchy in your mouth.