Sunday, 13 April 2014

As The Oberoi New Delhi Prepares for Golden Jubilee, Rare Vintage Pictures & A Sweet Personal Memory

By Sourish Bhattacharyya

Baan Thai opened in 1992, a year before Thai Pavilion in
Mumbai, making it the country's first Thai restaurant.
Before it became Baan Thai, it used to be India's first
Spanish restaurant named Esmeralda. It introduced
Delhi to the pleasures of sangria. Baan Thai had a short life
and eventually made way for a spa. Read this short piece 
from India Today dating back to 1993 to figure out how 
much our palate has evolved in all these years.

The Moghul Room, photographed in 1976, had a troubled
history. Its entire staff was filched by ITC when the Maurya
came up around the same time. ITC's then chairman, A.N.
 Haksar, it seems, not only preferred to hire senior executives
from The Oberoi  (notably, Anil Channa, Sashi Pancholi and
Virendra Datta), but also was in love with the food served
at Moghul Room. That was just one of the many points of
contention between ITC and the East India Hotels. P.S.

When I put this post up on Facebook, the lady in the picture
was identified by old Oberoi hands as Nandita Ghosh, who
was the guest relations manager of the hotel when this
picture was taken. She was later working for Taj Bengal in
Kolkata. People remember her as being an ageless beauty.

The Taj restaurant, seen here in 1972, served French food, had
tableside garridon service, the master of which was the veteran
waiter Albert Gomes, so you got your fish meuniere filleted in
front of you. Taj had a sprawling backdrop of a  dancing peacock
made with beads, four minarets, and its popular dishes were
duck egg omelette, prawn cocktail, chicken a la Kiev, beef
Wellington and crepes Suzette. Jawaharlal Nehru was
a regular. It made way for La Rochelle in 1988,
and eventually for threesixtydegrees in 2004.   

This picture of Cafe Chinois dates back to 1970, two years
after it was opened at a time when India's humiliation by China
in 1962 was till fresh in people's minds. The restaurant served
Sichuan food and was the first in India to hire Chinese chefs.
One of them was John Wong, who was quite a celebrity in his
time. The only reason he came to India was that he had
related living in Kolkata's Chinatown. Today, any chef
from anywhere in the world would give an arm and a leg
to be hired by an Indian hotel chain.

A view of the beauty saloon at The Oberoi in
1968. No wedding of the city's elite would be
complete without the bride visiting the
saloon for a makeover.
A BUNCH of vintage pictures of The Oberoi New Delhi emailed to me by the lovely Deepica Sarma, the hotel's spokesperson, set in motion a torrent of memories, not the least of which was my recollection of my first accidental food assignment. Back in 1988, when I was still a rookie in journalism, I was fortunate enough to be a minor cog in the wheel of The Indian Express at a time when Ramnath Goenka and Arun Shourie were fighting Dhirubhai Ambani and Rajiv Gandhi respectively. Those were heady days for young journalists, especially after The India Express declared war on the government and Rajiv Gandhi responded with the entire might of the State.
Those were also the days when invitations from five-star hotels (and embassies) were handed over with great fanfare by the news editor (a Jurassic breed in this age of editor-centric journalism) to general beat reporters or sub-editors who performed well. It was quite an incentive at a time when journalists used to be paid peanuts, but were feared and never suspected (unlike today!), and a visit to a five-star hotel was unimaginable luxury. Even our sources (unlike today!) wouldn't entertain us at a five-star hotel!
The recipient of one such invitation -- to Kandahar, The Oberoi's Indian restaurant, which thereafter made way for the Delicatessen -- was Sujata Brown (she added Shakeel to her name after marriage), who used to cover the police and crime. When she got the invite, Sujata, instead of being on top of the world, was in a state of panic. She did not want to go alone, so I gallantly offered to be her partner.
Before that, I had only heard stories about The Oberoi, about how Cafe Espresso (the precursor to The Palms, which eventually made way for Travertino) served the most expensive cold coffee in the city -- as The Oberoi Group's Corporate Chef, the brilliant Soumya Goswami, reminded me, it came for a princely Rs 15 in the 1980s! We would also hear from some of our more fortunate friends about how the Beef Wellington at La Rochelle was made with 'real beef' imported from Scotland -- 'real beef', they would insist, for Angus was still a foreign name.
Rai Bahadur M.S. Oberoi had started building the iconic hotel in 1962, but he soon ran out of money. He was advised then to approach the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which by the way is now headed by an Indian American, for an injection of funds. The only requirement was that the Rai Bahadur would have to tie up with an American hotel chain and that's how the InterContinental came into the picture.
The InterContinental management team turned around the place and organised it along the lines of an American hotel. When it opened its doors in 1965, which explains why the countdown to the golden jubilee celebrations has started, it had many firsts to its credit. The Oberoi New Delhi was the first hotel in the country to set up an electronic telephone exchange, introduce 24-hour room service, provide hot water round the clock, and have piped natural gas in its kitchens. It was also the first hotel in our city to employ women to operate the telephone exchange.
Unsurprisingly, The Oberoi New Delhi soon became the benchmark-setter for the country's hospitality industry. Goswami, who joined the Oberoi Centre for Learning and Development in 1993 and has emerged as the group's star in the last 21 years, is not exaggerating when he says it has taught generations of hoteliers "the finer aspects of luxury hoteliering". It was Abhijit Mukherji, Executive Director of Taj Hotels, who first pointed this out to me, much to my surprise, in an interview which I carried in HT City. The Oberoi New Delhi, he said (he was then the much-celebrated General Manager of The Taj Mahal Hotel in the Capital), is a "hotelier's hotel" because it has taught hospitality professionals the fine art of attention to detail.
The same sentiment was shared with me recently by Ranjan Bhattacharya, Managing Director, Country Development & Management Services, whose record of becoming the youngest general manager of an Oberoi hotel (at 25, he was heading the group's Srinagar hotel) remains unbroken. He recalled how he had met the East India Hotels Chairman, P.R.S. 'Biki' Oberoi, some days back and he said to him, "Do you realise what an unbeatable institution you have created?" I couldn't help but be affected by that feeling of awe.
You must be wondering what happened to my first assignment at The Oberoi New Delhi. Well, here is the rest of the story. On the appointed day, at the appointed hour, we took an autorickshaw from Express Building and set off for The Oberoi. Our first shock came at the main gate. We were stopped by the guard outside and told gently but firmly that autorickshaws were allowed only through the hotel's service entrance. My first arrival into The Oberoi New Delhi therefore was through the service entrance.
Once we entered the hotel, Sujata (with whom I had the privilege of working again at Mail Today) and I were given the importance due to journalists from the city's second most read (The Times of India used to be a poor third in those days) but most respected (The Hindustan Times was then regarded as a rag read only by Lajpat Nagar traders!) newspaper. We were greeted by a sweet PR person (we all loved her and when she passed away one night in her sleep when she was not even 30, she left us in a state of shock).
Her natural warmth made us shed at once whatever 'we are journalists' attitude we may have had. We were talking as if we were old friends, but a real surprise awaited me when we entered Kandahar. I was greeted at the door by an old schoolmate who was not exactly a model citizen in our callow teens. He said he had joined The Oberoi as an apprentice right after school (I believe the programme is now called STEPS) and the chef who cooked for us was Pankaj Mehra, who, I learnt to my shock the other day from L. Aruna Dhir, is no longer in this mortal world. I don't remember what I ate, but I haven't forgotten my shock when Sujata asked me, a couple of days later, to write the review, which was on page the very same evening.
I had never cooked in my life and I had never written about food. But Sujata had some major crime story to do and I was on morning shift, which meant my evening was free, so, kicking and screaming, I sat down to write the review. I did not take a byline because I was so uncertain about what I had written. The next day the PR person, whose name I just can't remember, called me up to thank me profusely for the review. She had been informed by the ever-gracious Sujata about its real author.
I could not believe my luck. I was being complimented for a review on a subject I had no clue about! I hope I got the spelling of 'galouti' right, I remember asking her! Little did I know then that food, literally, would become the source of my daily bread.