Chef Arun Sundararaj is a culinary maestro who started his career under the legendary Hemant Oberoi and has stayed with Taj Hotels ever since. More recently, he has reimagined the menus at Machan and Chambers and has come up with the healthy Innergise menu.
Once Chef Arun Sundararaj joined catering college, he knew he wanted to be a chef. There’s been no looking back since. Starting his career at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai he went on to work at most of the Taj Group’s luxury properties. One of the most important phases of his culinary journey was his stint at the Taj Falaknuma Palace in Hyderabad, where he had many opportunities to challenge himself as a chef and showcase his talents. Now, as Executive Chef at the Taj Mahal Hotel in New Delhi, he is masterly in his approach to his craft and continues to awe and surprise guests with his superlative creations.
Excerpts from a freewheeling conversation with Chef Sundararaj about food, the universe and everything.
How did you get into the hospitality industry? And what drew you towards the kitchen?
I come from a family of doctors, so I’m the rebel, or black sheep, if you will.
I grew up in Bombay and did all my schooling there, but I holidayed internationally because my parents lived abroad most of the time. As a result, my sister and I were on our own pretty often and I started cooking—and realised I liked it.
A friend explained to me what catering college was all about. He said it’s a college where the girls are very good looking! We both gave the exam but I’m the one who passed.
Once I joined, I realised this is exactly where I want to be. By the time I finished my first year of college, I was very sure I wanted to be a chef.
My dad was a bit upset with me because I had the marks to become a doctor but wasn’t interested. Of course, over a period of time he’s seen what I’ve been able to achieve and was finally very happy with the choice I made.
What were the early years in a hotel kitchen like?
Taj gave me an opportunity right after college and there has been no looking back after that. I was first posted at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai, where I worked with Chef Hemant Oberoi for a long time. He was the Grand Chef then. He would send us to other Taj hotels to work there. Eventually, I eneded up working in all the luxury properties of the Taj Group.
We also used to travel internationally for food festivals, etc. I’ve done promotions in Switzerland, London, Paris and so on. It was great exposure.
There was so much to see and learn in terms of variety of cuisines at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai. It had one of the biggest banqueting areas in the country then. I started my career in 1993 and I first saw foie gras in 1995 and wondered, why is it so expensive! That’s when I realised how much depth there is in food and how much variety you can offer a guest.
Nowadays the conversation is more around going local…
Yes, of course, it’s glocal now. But there are some ingredients you cannot replace and certain dishes that some guests expect. We have Himalayan trout on the menu. But we also have Atlantic cod because some guests want it. So you have to cater to both segments.
India is diverse. Even along the coast, all the states use coconut but so differently. During the pandemic we realised how difficult it is to maintain the food supply chain.
What cuisines have you explored in your journey as a chef?
After college, I did a lot of Italian and European food for many years. In Mumbai, we launched two new restaurants, Wasabi and Souk. I was part of that evolution so I learnt those cuisines (Japanese and Middle Eastern, respectively).
Being a Malayali, I have done a lot of research on my own food over the years. In my Mumbai years, I also learnt to appreciate the craft of the Gujarati maharaj, indispensable in every hotel because of the clientele. From the maharaj you learn how to make dhoklas, khandvis, and the various shaaks.
Once I left Mumbai, I went to Goa, where I did a lot of research on Goan food. Once you move to a small hotel, you also realise that the skill sets you had in your big hotel are lacking here, and you really need to come into the kitchen and work.
I also launched the Lobster Shack at the Taj Exotica there. It’s a pure Western grill restaurant, with seafood on a table which you buy by weight and then it’s grilled for you.
The Taj Falaknuma Palace was a turning point in your evolution as a chef. Tell us a bit about that.
After Goa, I was transferred to the Taj Falaknuma Palace, just four months after the opening. It’s a small hotel with a small kitchen team, so it’s a completely different operation. The guests are very high profile. They don’t even have time to complain, but they have expectations and you have to meet them. You learn along the way and upskill every second that you have.
One of the highlights for me at Falaknuma was Adaa, the fine-dining Hyderabadi restaurant, which even made it to the Top 100 restaurants in the world at one point. It takes a lot of guts to open a Hyderabadi restaurant in the city of Hyderabad, and still be right up there!
What was the experience of moving to the Taj Mahal Hotel in Delhi like after the Falaknuma Palace?
Actually, I can’t believe it’s been six years already since I moved here.
The Taj Mahal is a very high-profile hotel. It is right in the centre of Delhi, and is frequented by high-level ministerial delegations, ambassadors, and HNIs. The Chambers of Delhi is here.
My first few years here were at a time when the hotel was trying to renew its lease with the NDMC. So we did a lot of promotions to stay relevant and send out positive vibes. We also received a lot of love from our patrons.
Post the lease renewal we went into renovations. On the food front, it has been a very, very exciting time.
One of the highlights of the culinary updation has to be the new Machan…
For the first three years at the Taj Mahal Palace in Delhi I had guests telling me how certain dishes were supposed to be. I had replaced Chef Amit Chowdhury [now the Executive Chef at the flagship Taj Mahal Hotel, Mumbai) who had been here for 12 years. Guests would tell me, “You are new here, you don’t know!”
So there was a connect that the guests had with Machan and I couldn’t ignore that. The guests also had many personal memories attached to the restaurant (“I had my first date here” and so on); so much so that I have named a dessert at Machan ‘You Made My Day’ because I’ve heard that such a lot here!
In terms of décor we’ve taken inspiration from the first Machan [this is the third iteration of the iconic restaurant which opened in 1978]. The staff have new uniforms designed by Rohit Kamra.
What is the food like at the reimagined Machan?
There are a lot of retro items from the classic Machan menu but they have been refreshed. Everything has a twist. The coleslaw is now a green apple slaw. The quality of the ham and cheese is much better.
The new menu is also inspired by the forests of the world and India, so there are dishes that come from certain regions. When I built the food philosophy of this restaurant, I made sure the cooking style and ingredients reflected the area a particular dish came from. For instance, in the Jungle section, we have Guindy duck—it’s a smoked duck with a salad, and the flavourings are from that area. For the Murkhanda khadmurgh, the chicken is cooked rustically, in an earthenware pot, and is served with a multi-grain roti.
The other big innovation is our breakfast, which is now a la carte. The cold stuff, cereals and bakery basket are brought to your table, and then the hot orders are prepared. It’s definitely a high-pressure kitchen, considering there are at least 100 guests during breakfast at any point, each having ordered three-four dishes.
What did you tackle after Machan?
After I finished with Machan, I did the Emperor Lounge. It has a variety of teas, coffee, snacks, and chaat in the evening (and not necessarily from Delhi). It’s the sort of place where you can have a very good financier or a chicken tikka pizza or a sandwich.
How did you come up with the menu for Albero, the new restaurant at the Chambers?
It was a lot of fun putting that menu together. I actually travelled to London for three weeks and spent my time tasting the food out there. There was not a single high-end restaurant we did not see. Some of the dishes are inspired from there, some are our own. The trip gave me a fair sense of what is currently trending in London.
We also looked into what Chambers’ guests want. Our guests are people who love to eat—something Western today, Asian tomorrow, their comfort dal day after…Each guest has his own preference.
It was earlier just a Western restaurant. The rest of the cuisines would come from our other kitchens. We decided to start from scratch and restructured the entire Chambers kitchen. Now it has a Western section, an Asian section and an Indian section. There is a high-end pantry. Everything is state-of-the-art equipment. Once I had all that in place, I could construct the menu.
I have tried to give guests something which is local. We also use a lot of superfoods in there like quinoa, chia seed, avocado. There are a lot of light dishes, but also some heavy ones for someone who wants to show off or impress. The requirements of the guests vary. Someone may just want a chicken tikka whereas someone is trying to impress a buyer or a potential client or crack a business deal. At one point you may be serving a double-baked cheese souffle, at another a chicken tikka (which also has to look very good when it goes out to the guest).
The construction, understanding, stylisation took a lot of time but at the end of the day it’s come out beautifully well. There’s a lot of attention to detail. The crockery and the cutlery are top notch keeping the Chambers guest profile in mind. We have gin, wine and malt carts and a desert trolley. There’s a lot of showmanship in the entire thing.
With the dining spaces and the meeting rooms, the Chambers is like a mini hotel within a hotel. We have seen members who have come back just going wow.
How did the Innergise menu, which you’re rolling out across the Taj chain, come about?
The idea came from the MD’s office. We roped in the Arya Vaidya Sala, Kottakkal for a better understanding. Along with the Vaidya Sala, we had our corporate chefs and we all brought our views to the table. The more research we did, the more we realised there is so much to it.
We localised the menu for every region, based on the availability of ingredients. Then we ran the entire menu by the Vaidya Sala.
What’s next on the anvil?
It’s a very interesting time for the hotel…and I’m in the hot seat! I’m planning to work on House of Ming next.