Amitesh Virdi, the new executive chef at JW Marriott Mussoorie Walnut Grove Resort and Spa believes that good food and hospitality is the most important bridge connecting to people, places and memories
Chef Amitesh Virdi, has over 19 years of experience and has built a recognisable reputation for himself in the industry.
He has donned the apron at some of the most renowned hospitality and culinary establishments in the country like Grand Hyatt Delhi, Hyatt Regency Mumbai, Grand Hyatt Mumbai, JW Marriott Juhu Mumbai and JW Marriott Sahar Mumbai. He has also held the baton at a popular Indian restaurant chain, Punjab Grill, as their Brand Chef, handling up to 10 restaurants for Western India and the South India region. With this melting pot of experience to his credit, Chef Amitesh is a master of many cuisines. However, he holds home-made food, traditional recipes and local farm fresh produce close to his heart. He appreciates the making of a recipe and the method of how certain foods are cooked in a special way. In the Chef’s opinion, it is more profound than the nuances of flavour alone, and there are many contributive factors like weather conditions, topography, and the history of a place that influence people’s habits and traditions with food. Chef Amitesh respects the authenticity of age-old secret recipes that have been handed down through the generations. However, he also balances this with the idea of having an unlimited mind, looking forward to the future of food, embracing new technologies and techniques, exploring new and healthier ways of cooking and evolving along the way. 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?
AV: My parents were very well travelled. My father did his PHD from France. During my school days we used to travel all over the country and eat a lot of local food. My parents told me a lot of stories about French food and other European cuisines. Hearing their stories I developed an interest in food. By the time I was in class 10, I knew I wanted to be a chef.
TD: What has it been like since March last year? How has business been impacted with on-and-off lockdowns?
AV: It’s been a very difficult time. Lots of industry stalwarts have lost jobs, incurred losses and some have even lost loved ones. That’s on a personal note, but even in terms of business things have been bad. While revenue is only at 20-25 per cent, fixed costs are at 100 per cent. Profits have come down drastically. Costs have gone up and it becomes difficult to operate the luxury segment. When you come to a hotel like JW Marriott we want to provide you with a certain standard of luxury. But that is difficult in the given circumstances. It is still luxury but we want to provide more.
TD: How has the restaurant/ hospitality industry as a whole changed due to the pandemic? What is the future like? Do you see the industry undergoing more changes?
AV: Industry will make more changes. It’s a very dynamic industry, quick to respond. Tourism and hospitality industries are also the first ones to be hit in any situation, be it terrorism or pandemic. So we change quickly and adapt to new business styles. So many safety measures have come into play. Sanitisation, wearing masks, gloves etc., is now the norm. But other things, such as buffet styles have changed. We now serve more on the table, even when it is a buffet. We also end up serving things that are not included in the buffet, just to make the guest feel extra special — to bring in that luxury factor.
TD: Have you had trouble sourcing ingredients?
AV: Yes. Sourcing ingredients is an inconvenience. Travel is banned. Shops are shut. Businesses are open for a very short time. For instance, transport was only allowed between 6 and 10 pm. So even if I had to get something from Dehradun, often the person would not deliver as he may get challaned. Sourcing is a problem, even though most of our ingredients are procured from within 50-100km of the hotel. We are facing difficulty getting such products also.
TD: How do you see the food scene changing in India?
AV: People are travelling a lot more within India. There is a lot of growth to local tourism. People are now more aware of local foods, ingredients. I feel that is healthy because we are now eating food from the Indian subcontinent that has been tried and tested over years by our own people and suits the climate we live in. People are looking for local and fresher food. They are more aware now.
TD: What is your food philosophy?
AV: I am all for local food. I try and understand local cooking methods and cook using local ingredients where the ingredients shine with as little handling as possible. Cook the ingredient the way it should be.
TD: Which are some of your favourite ingredients to work it?
AV: I use a lot of millets, chia seeds, microgreens. I use local Doon rice, locally grown pulses. I am exploring and learning about them.
TD: Could you tell us a little about the local food which is served at JW Marriott Mussoorie Walnut Grove Resort and Spa?
AV: We cook bhuna gosht here. It’s a Kumaoni speciality. The meat is cooked over a spit fire in a traditional vessel with the local masalas. It is succulent and freshly made. There is also a poori called swala which is stuffed with potatoes flavoured with jakhiya seeds and cumin. Jakhiya is tinier than mustard seeds but doesn’t taste like mustard. It is crunchy. The poori is served with tomato, coriander and mint chutney. We serve a saag made of nettlegrass which grows wildly around here. It’s called bichhu ghas. The grass has to be roasted over a naked flame to get the bite out of it. It is then cooked and served. It has a slightly peppery flavour.
TD: You have worked at both business hotels and leisure hotels, how are they different?
AV: In a city hotel the whole vibe is different. People are in a rush. They spend maximum 30 minutes having breakfast. We do around 300-400 covers in a business hotel during breakfast because there is a turnaround. Lunch is also only for 45 minutes to one hour. Dinner is more relaxed. But at a resort, people are relaxed. They enjoy the meal, they want to speak to the chef. They want to learn cooking tips. They are more interactive.
TD: Any advice for young chefs joining the industry today?
AV: I am very concerned about Indian cuisine. We are low on Indian masterchefs. We used to have a large number of masterchefs who knew Indian cuisine and Indian ingredients very well. They cooked food from various regions of the country. But we are losing out on that now. Younger chefs are now replicating western cuisine more. They hardly know how to cook Indian food. I feel they need to learn their mother cuisine. Focus on that first and then after a few years venture out into whichever other cuisine you wish to specialise in.