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TD Conversations: Akshraj Jodha, Executive Chef, ITC Grand Bharat, Gurugram

Chef Akshraj Jodha, considered a custodian of Rajasthani cuisine across ITC Hotels, speaks about his ancestral cuisine, his food philosophy, and how the food scene in India is changing.
Chef Akshraj Jodha has revived his ancestral Akheraj Deolia cuisine.

Chef Akshraj Jodha has been in the industry for over 18 years. He started his career with ITC Hotels as a kitchen executive trainee. Having kicked off his journey with ITC Maurya as a trainee chef at the acclaimed Dum Pukht restaurant, he was soon assigned to open Dum Pukht at ITC Sonar in Kolkata.

He has been associated with many properties of ITC Hotels such as ITC Rajputana, ITC Maratha, ITC Gardenia and ITC Windsor, to name a few. In his current role, he is the Executive Chef for ITC Grand Bharat, Gurugram.

Hailing from a Rajput family, from the lineage of Rao Jodha, the founder of Jodhpur, Chef Jodha has revived his ancestral Akheraj Deolia cuisine. A custodian of the Rajasthani cuisine across ITC Hotels, he has also conducted several food promotions in each of the properties. He speaks about his ancestral cuisine, his food philosophy and how the food scene in India is changing. Excerpts:

TD: What was the inspiration behind studying at a culinary school and pursuing cooking as a career?

AJ: I never thought I would end up studying a course in hotel management. In the year 1997, when I finished school, all my cousins were moving to Pune/Mumbai to pursue further education. I also decided to go to Mumbai but I did not want to take up a regular college curriculum. So I applied to a hotel management course, and as a priority opted only for Mumbai. I would say I was lucky to get through IHM Mumbai as admissions at that time were very difficult.

As part of the hotel management curriculum, after completing Industrial Trials for a duration of six months, I was noticed by my mentor, Late Chef Vernon Coelho, under whose tutelage my interest in the culinary arts grew and I was able to hone my skills.

TD: Could you describe your culinary journey for us?

AJ: I began my career at ITC Hotels by joining as a Kitchen Management Trainee from erstwhile Welcomgroup Management Institute, Gurugram, and was posted at ITC Maurya, New Delhi in the Dum Pukht kitchen from where I went on to work as a Dum Pukht chef at ITC Sonar in Kolkata.

I worked at ITC Rajputana, Jaipur as a Rajasthani cuisine master chef, then moved to ITC Maurya, again as a Banquet Chef. In December 2013, I moved to WelcomHotel Jodhpur as a pre-opening executive chef and spent over 4 years at the hotel. In 2018, I joined ITC Windsor in Bengaluru as an executive chef. In April 2021, I came on board as the Executive Chef at ITC Grand Bharat in Gurugram.

At ITC Grand Bharat, the DNV platinum-level certification brings a great sense of confidence to the guests.

TD: How has the hospitality industry changed due to the pandemic?

AJ: As lockdowns gradually lift and travel steadily resumes, travellers are breathing a sigh of relief that they will not have to stay entirely cooped up at home. After months of isolation and safe distancing, there is a real chance to visit some other destination other than the local grocery store, especially now that the hospitality industry has evolved to implement stringent risk mitigation measures.

ITC Hotels ‘WeAssure’ initiative is one such example that has instilled faith among guests to travel once again with confidence. 

I believe that the most important aspect which needs to be understood and addressed is the fear of moving out. Building confidence through stringent and visible sanitisation and safety protocols will play a critical role in instilling trust among potential guests.

At ITC Hotels, we have been quick to understand that the future is contact-light and driven through digital experiences. Safe distancing, dining experiences aided by QR codes, among other measures, are the new normal.  Additionally, the DNV platinum-level certification brings a great sense of confidence to our discerning guests.

TD: How do you see the food scene changing in India?

AJ: People are becoming far more discerning about what they eat. The focus has gradually shifted towards responsible dining experiences that are ‘Vocal for Local’, which means we source local, seasonal ingredients that are fresh and help minimise the carbon footprint. Keeping this shift in mind, at ITC Hotels we recently launched an innovative and mindfully prepared ‘Feel Good’ menu that focuses on thoughtfully selected, responsibly sourced ingredients.

There is no doubt that the food industry has undergone a tectonic shift, which is likely to continue in the near future. The option of ordering food through apps has become extremely prominent during the course of the pandemic as has the concept for satellite kitchens. At ITC Hotels, we recently introduced a cloud kitchen, which brings culinary delights to the residents of Gurugram.

Additionally, sanitisation, health, and hygiene norms play an important role when it comes to preparing food, along with the overall dining experience. As part of ITC Hotels’ WeAssure programme, we have worked toward ensuring that the hygiene norms are followed while preparing and delivering the food.

TD: How would you define your food philosophy?

AJ: My food philosophy has always revolved around the use of local ingredients and products. My idea is to have most of the ingredients sourced from local farmers and suppliers. I enjoy using sustainable products, different varieties of grains such as millets in my dishes, as these ingredients are packed with nutrients and make for some mouth-watering delicacies.

Akheraj Deolia lies between the borders of Marwar and Mewar, hence the cuisine has been influenced by both regions, with the use of ingredients such as makki, bajra to jo, chana and moong.

TD: What defines or characterises the Akheraj Deolia cuisine?

AJ: Akheraj Deolia was founded by Rao Akheraj, the grandson of Rao Chandrasen of Jodhpur and one of the 16th Istimirdari of Ajmer. The region was always under the Sultanat of Delhi from the time of Prithviraj Chauhan and changed hands from Mughal to the British. All the jagirs were independent and only reported to Delhi till 1956, when they became part of Rajasthan.

Akheraj Deolia lies between the borders of Marwar and Mewar, hence the cuisine has been influenced by both regions, with the use of ingredients such as makki, bajra, jo, chana, moong etc.

The other influences were the different marriage alliances which changed the repertoire of the food cooked in royal houses. For example, my grandmother was from Gujarat, therefore some of the food cooked is a little sweet in nature.

Few of the dishes from the region are Pithod Methi Dana, Ker Sangri, Hara tamater laungi, Makka Kheech, Akkha Khargosh and Achari bater.

TD: You worked in a Hollywood film, Viceroy’s House! What were you expected to do?

AJ: Working in a Hollywood movie, that too with a renowned director like Gurinder Chadha, was a dream I had never dreamt. Manish Dayal, who worked as a chef in his previous movie Hundred Foot Journey, played the lead with Huma Qureshi. I cannot forget Julian Anderson, who played Lady Mountbatten. She was sweating since we were shooting in temperatures close to 50 degrees!

I assisted the art director in replicating the entire kitchen set-up so that the the set resembled what kitchens looked like in 1947. The actors were not trained to use the tools and utensils found in the kitchens of that era, so I got a chance to train them as well. I also played the part of a sous chef but without any dialogues! The experience was extremely rewarding.

TD: Is there anything that you won’t cook with, that you hate?

AJ: I think hate is a strong word and as a chef, I like to experiment with different ingredients. But yes, there are few ingredients that I do not use often, which mostly includes cooking reptiles or any such animals.

TD: Is there a secret ingredient that you love to cook with?

AJ: I do not believe in secret ingredients. The food should be cooked with utmost love and care. I believe if you do not reveal your ingredients then you cannot share your food with the world and make it popular.

TD: You have worked for both business and leisure hotels. How are they different to work in?

AJ: A traveller’s expectation along with the nature of travel at leisure and business hotels are different. Typically, leisure travellers prefer to stay for a minimum of two nights with family, and on the weekends. Business travellers are usually available only for breakfast and maybe for dinner. The handling of both these clientele varies as they usually travel with different mindsets. One is at the hotel for a vacation, while the other is there for work. So, the food preferences also differ. While a leisure traveller would look for more variety and eat at a slow pace, business travellers are more comfortable with quick, wholesome meals and are mostly short of time, leading to shorter meal durations.