During my decades as the executive chef at the Taj, I had the privilege to cook for some of the world's most powerful men and women: presidents, prime ministers, Hollywood stars and industrialists who were nation builders in our times.
When Dhirubhai Ambani's elder son Mukesh, now one of the richest persons in the world, got married at Cooperage, I was in charge of the banquet that catered to hundreds of guests. It was a traditional affair with a lavish vegetarian spread, and I was responsible for creating imaginative and delicious vegetarian dishes that would appeal to his eclectic guest list.
I created a fusion cannelloni with a creamy cottage cheese filling and tender bits of pineapple to add to the dish's delicate flavour. I made a stuffing of onion, garlic, celery, chopped spinach, grated cottage cheese, black pepper, herbs and a white sauce. I stuffed it into cannelloni rolls, put it in a serving dish, coated it with cream sauce and herbed tomato sauce and baked it with cheese. Mr Ambani's younger son Anil was responsible for the banquet and he was so pleased with this particular dish that he suggested I call it Cannelloni Arora. The same dish was later served at other high-profile banquets as well. It was part of the classic Taj menu for two decades, alongside twenty-six other signature dishes that 1 created over time.
Some of the most challenging assignments for me as executive chef were creating dishes for heads of states.
When the former President of France Francois Mitterrand visited India, the Taj staff was told that he was extremely particular about his food and was bringing his own chef for the trip. The consulate also sent us a list of ingredients in advance so that my team and I could source everything for this trusted cook. But I was keen to please the French, and the only window available to me was the first evening that he landed.
Now, I was familiar with the French consul of the time, thanks to the many banquets we had hosted for them. So at a dinner where he was present, I decided to talk to him about the president's schedule and how we could possibly get an opportunity to cook for him. 'Sir, I believe you have written to our general manager that he is bringing his own chef.
You are familiar with my cooking. Is it possible that we get a chance to do something for His Excellency at least once during his two-day trip? Why don't we do a little food trial in a few days a three-course meal for you, after which you can take a call?' I pitched.
The consul general agreed and I set about putting together a very French three-course meal.
For the first course, I made a smoked salmon cigar filled with pâté. For the second course, I made a corn-fed chicken breast, with a stuffing of onion, garlic, herbs, mushrooms, cream cheese, spinach and nutmeg. I stuffed the chicken, wrapped it in silver foil and baked it in the oven to cook in Its own juices.
Once it was cooked, I poured the juices into a pan, added some white wine and cream, and reduced the mixture to make a sauce to pour over the chicken, which I served with fresh vegetables.
The aroma was divine. For dessert, I went Indian, but in a Baked Alaska way. In a ramekin, I mixed sponge cake with pistachios, crushed praline, kulfi and gulab jamun, and covered the whole thing with meringue. I then baked the mixture. It was then flambéed with brandy and served.
The French consul seemed impressed with all three courses and promised me that he would speak to the president upon his arrival. On the day of his arrival, around 3 PM, the French Consulate called me and said that the president had agreed to have dinner in his room. We were expected to serve him and the first lady, as well as the consul general and his wife.
I immediately sprung into action and set up a temporary kitchen adjacent to the suite that the president was occupying. I had two assistants with me and we started preparing the food.
I stuck to the menu I had created in collaboration with the consul general. At that time, smoked salmon and pâté de foie gras were considered to be the finest delicacies. After that meal, the accompanying French chef spent the next two days of his trip in the swimming pool on Mitterrand's request.
Excerpted with permission from Sweets and Bitters: Tales from a Chef's Life by Satish Arora as told to Chandrima Pal, published by Bloomsbury India, 208 pages, ₹599.