He talks about his culinary journey, sustainability, challenges of the pandemic and the changing food scene in India.
Chef Ajit Bangera, Senior Executive Chef at ITC Grand Chola, has had an accomplished career as a chef in managing large and diverse kitchens for some of the leading hotels and resorts around the world, including luxury liners. Chef Bangera has worked in Melbourne, Shanghai, Kathmandu and Luxury Liners sailing out of the United States of America. He talks about his culinary journey, sustainability, challenges of the pandemic, and the changing food scene in India. Excerpts:
TD: Tell us a bit about your journey in the industry. How has it been so far?
AB: My journey has been amazing. I have ventured into many facets of catering — to name a few, hotels, preopening hotels and restaurants, cruise lines, airlines, hospitals, industrial catering, and standalone restaurants. This has given me a very wide perspective of this business and insights into many different facets of food operations.
TD: What are you working on right now. Any new ingredients, dishes, or menus that you’re experimenting with?
AB: Working on multiple projects – Launch of new menus at Avartana, preopening of Avartana at ITC Royal Bengal. Working on multiple menus and concept creation of new restaurants for the new property coming up at ITC Colombo. All these different projects involve working with novel techniques of cooking like fermentation, slow cooking, understanding how ingredients react to different forms of cooking. Working on menus for ITC Colombo is a different experience and challenge as the market is very different from India, it is more conservative and there are a lot of new creations to offer to the people of Sri Lanka.
TD: Sustainability is a buzzword currently across most industries. What does sustainability mean for you? How do you practice this with your creations or processes?
AB: 43% of ingredients used across the kitchens at ITC Grand Chola are locally sourced. Electricity used to run the equipment is generated from windmills. Water used in kitchens is recycled for horticulture.
TD: With the pandemic putting a sharp focus on health, are you seeing any trends in the food industry to reflect this?
AB: Gourmands across the globe have become conscious of what they eat and want to know the contents of a dish for an informed choice. At the same time, a lot of people were looking forward to eating out and exploring their favorite cuisines at the dine-in options.
TD: With the lockdown lifting, how has diner behavior changed, if at all? Could we expect to see any new innovations when it comes to the dining-in experience?
AB: Diners are very much concerned of the Covid safety protocols followed at the hotels. ITC Hotels has a stringent Covid safety protocol under the banner of WeAssure which allows us to give the same luxurious experience which a diner used to get pre-Covid, keeping in mind various safety standards in place.
TD: The pandemic has impacted the F&B industry in a big way. How do you see the future for the industry shaping up?
AB: The pandemic led to many new avenues being opened for the F&B industry. At ITC Hotels, the team came up with various takeaway verticals, which enabled our patrons to get their favorite cuisines in the safe environment of their homes. Gourmet couch offers dishes from specialty restaurants, flavours menu offers a large variety of dishes from our all-day dining restaurants. Special curations like Biryani & Pulao, Monsoon menu, chaat & chat & feel-good menu offer thoughtful creations to the diners.
TD: How do you see the food scene changing in India?
AB: As mentioned above the takeaway verticals are here to stay. Healthy and innovative food with a surprise element is the way forward.
TD: How would you define your food philosophy?
AB: Use the freshest possible ingredients and raw materials. Keep food simple, flavours, clean, attractive and fresh in appearance. Bring out the element of Happiness in People with the food we create must be perceived as exceptional value for money. DO NOT WASTE..!!
TD: Is there a secret ingredient that you love to cook with?
AB: Show utmost respect, care and devotion to food
TD: Avartana changed the way people perceived South Indian cuisine. Did you face any resistance in the beginning?
AB: I feel people were very pleasantly happy with the way Avartana changed the perception of South Indian food. The idea of reimagining southern culinary flavour’s and presenting them in an avant garde style was much appreciated by people from the region as well as people travelling from across the nations. The ethos of universal taste which were strongly considered while developing dishes for Avartana helped us to make the cuisine at Avartana liked by all.
TD: What were some of the reactions you received from old-timers regarding Avartana? How was that changed over the years?
AB: Even before we opened the restaurant to public, we did multiple tasting sessions with some of the well-known families from the region who were overwhelmed to see the creations which the team put forward to them in a very unusual style. The combination of traditional flavor’s, textures, international cooking techniques, delicate and robust presentations were much appreciated by everyone.
Over the years the patrons have only asked for more!
TD: Every hotel has its own ethos. What has it been like working at ITC Grand Chola, considering it’s one of the largest hotels in the country. How is it different than working for a cruise liner?
AB: Making a difference in the culinary landscape of a city and even globally gives me great satisfaction. I believe along with my team we have been able to accomplish that with all sincerity and integrity.
Hotel work environment is always altering in a sense it is very dynamic compared to cruise lines, where even though the volumes are large your day can be quite predictable. There is something new happening every day in a hotel and a chef needs to keep evolving with the times.