Prem Kumar Pogakula, Executive Chef, The Imperial New Delhi speaks about his culinary journey, his food philosophy, and the changing food scene in India.
Prem Kumar Pogakula joined The Imperial New Delhi as Executive Sous Chef in May 2013 and has been the Executive Chef of the hotel since the beginning of 2017. Chef Prem’s quintessential culinary experience of nearly two decades across premium hospitality brands has made him a pioneer in many culinary concepts. With his earlier tenures at The Oberoi Udaivilas, The Leela Palace Bangalore, Carlson Group, and also, The Imperial New Delhi, along with Accor Hotels in Thailand, has made him a coveted gastronomic achiever.
His specialisation in western (Italian and French), Orientaland Indian cuisines and his interest in fusion food are a result of his stringent Thai and Japanese training in Bangkok, Thailand and his culinary odysseys with Michelin Star French and Italian chefs. He speaks about his culinary journey, his food philosophy, and the changing food scene in India. Excerpts:
TD: How did you end up deciding that you wanted to go to culinary school and pursue cooking as a career?
PK: I was a teenager when I decided that food was my true calling and I wanted to pursue it professionally. Until then, I was simply acquainting myself with food in my hometown Hyderabad, helping at family events or enjoying different cuisines at my neighbours’ homes, exploring the street foods and biryanis. All seemed quite novel and interesting to me. What started as a culinary exploration gradually grew into a passion. In those times Sanjeev Kapoor’s TV show was the only inspiration and it was very hard to convince a south Indian family about the profession of a chef. Hence, I joined engineering, did my three semesters (electrical & electronics), then called it quits to follow my passion, hotel management, where my heart belonged.
TD: Could you tell us briefly about your culinary journey?
PK: I have culinary experience of 18 years across premium hospitality brands. My earlier tenures have been at The Oberoi group, The Leela Palace, Carlson Group, and The Imperial New Delhi, along with Accor Hotels in Thailand, Dubai and Middle East. My specialisation is in western (Italian and French), Oriental and Indian cuisines and I am also interested in fusion food. I was trained in Thai and Japanese specialty cuisine in Bangkok and Tokyo and my culinary odysseys with Michelin Star French chefs plays a key role in my whole journey.
TD: How has the hospitality industry as a whole changed due to the pandemic?
PK: I feel that the hotel industry has adapted to the current limitations arising out of the pandemic on the operational front. That means, that we have and are getting used to the various implements that we are using and have never used before. As the guests are seeking enhanced experiences now, impeccable, and personalised services are quintessential.
TD: How do you see the food scene changing in India?
PK: This is a very interesting topic to discuss. Initially, our food was very much united in the communities and temple cuisines or recipes. As we started growing as a country, the urban lifestyle and the food changed tremendously. Now in my words, food is divided into two parts — urban and rural food. Fortunately, rural food is intact and not diluted much but when we talk about urban food it has taken a fast U-turn in terms of cooking styles and eating habits. Lazy cooking mostly has been part of our lives and consumption of fast food or semi-cooked food is increasing rapidly. Most importantly, many international brands are introducing erroneously done cuisines or even Indianising international cuisine which is against our eating habits and taste. They are only serving their own business gains.
TD: What is your food philosophy?
PK: My food philosophy is easy: cook with very simple ingredients with easy techniques. My grandmother used to say: ‘Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food’. I guess we should get back to our pre-independence business establishment because when we are in an industry, we mostly serve egos on a plate or even in the packages, as we are in the trade of mass gains.
TD: Is there anything that you won’t cook with, that you hate?
PK: I never thought of not cooking with any particular ingredient. If it is edible and used in cooking, I will try it. However, I will never be near snakes as I am dead scared of them.
TD: Is there a secret ingredient that you love to cook with?
PK: I don’t have any secret ingredients because every ingredient has its own role in getting the recipe right. Actually, it depends on which cuisine I am working on and most importantly, if I am working on any classic dish. I don’t choose any ingredients, I just follow the recipe. If I am developing any recipe or need to twist any of the dishes, I would love to use the local favourites and available ingredients. Personally, I don’t have any favourites since I love to use fresh and traditional ones and find it pretty exciting to pair them with a dish according to my liking. One thing I don’t miss while cooking is the seasoning at the end. This is an extremely crucial step while cooking.
TD: Could you tell us a bit about working with Michelin star French and Italian chefs? What was the experience like? What did you learn from them?
PK: Working with Michelin star chefs is the hallmark recognition of excellence in the culinary world. In order to receive an elusive star, kitchens must operate like machinery – with every person working flawlessly in-sync. My favourite part was witnessing decision making behind the menu and food preparation. I got to see the level of detailing from step one to the completion of the dish. What I learned were the very basics of food, how to read ingredients and how they behave at different steps or according to the techniques we apply. Of course I also learnt detailing, planning and most importantly, discipline.
TD: You have a specialisation in Italian, French and Oriental cuisine. Which is your favourite cuisine both to eat and to cook?
PK: This is really hard to answer as I love food and I can’t differentiate. Also, I am a non-vegetarian. I love to eat meat in different varieties in all my meals. Eating food is also an art. If we don’t develop this art within us, we can’t really enjoy the food. I normally follow the below rules if I am working on a new dish or trying a new cuisine:
1- Stay hungry or skip 2- 3 meals a day before.
2- Don’t expect anything from the food.
3- Don’t compare it with any other dish
4- Eat the food as it is, (if it is supposed to be eaten raw then eat it raw like sashimi or tarter)
5- My mother always said this to me since I was a fussy eater as a kid: “When a wise man cooks food for you then you should just eat it like a GOAT”. This means the person cooking the dish puts all his/her experience and knowledge into it and we can’t declare it good or bad just on the basis of our taste.
If we can adopt all of the above, then we can enjoy every cuisine. Then there are no favourite dishes. Only thing you have to choose from is vegetarian or non-vegetarian.
TD: Every hotel has its own ethos which is reflected in all its offerings. How is working at the Imperial different than the previous hotels you have worked with?
PK: All the hotels work on the same motto which is guest satisfaction. I have worked with many brands and I need to always manage my kitchen within my budget which is the basics of kitchen management. Luckily, I don’t have much pressure as besides guest satisfaction, our kitchen motto is to never compromise on ingredients. This makes a big difference in the output of the product.