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Rupa profiles Ajoy, a well-known chef, his life and times, exclusively for Different Truths.
Trademark embracing smile that’s a mile long, curly mop on the head and his signature big moustache are Ajoy’s distinctive introduction. From a warm childhood in Hyderabad to culinary creations across Taj kitchens as Executive Chef to successfully running his dream restaurant with fun cookery classes, to his line of ready to eat dishes exudes his joie de vivre. Anyone who visits, meets, or has tried his creations is infected by his irrepressible optimism. Did I mention I met in high school? Well, I want to share my wonderful friend and school mate’s story with you, in his own words.
Meals at home were basic but fresh. As a ‘treat’ mum would allow ‘mutton Roganjosh’ to be cooked on special occasions!
My dad was in Defense (R&D) involved with the first satellite launch Aryabhata, and mum was a Montessori teacher. Meals at home were basic but fresh. As a ‘treat’ mum would allow ‘mutton Roganjosh’ to be cooked on special occasions! And ‘special treat’ meant Tandoori chicken from Dhaba! Eating out was mainly to have ‘masala dosa’ which was a family ‘outing’.
Sciences to Culinary creativity
I was a science student. However, it was never a serious part of my vision, certainly not ‘pure sciences’! A part of me for a moment considered becoming doctor, maybe a pilot! Some part even said ‘play cricket’ but the real ‘Ajoy’ wanted different, to break away from routine, (which those days included to be a doctor, an engineer, pilot, or join armed forces). So, I opted to “just be myself”. It allowed me to express myself, to do things I wanted. I got to travel and see India from a different perspective, from a culinary angle which was uniquely more interesting than a regular tourist. I got to meet people from different parts of India, to learn their culture in ideal way, viz., through their food! I saw how the humble sambar changed its form from Hyderabad to Chennai to Bengaluru to Mangalore to other places. It was utterly fascinating to see the variations and people’s possessiveness to their regional cuisine.
Indian cuisine became my ‘passion’; the best way to ‘learn and understand’ this vast ocean of culinary knowledge was to become a ‘student’ and remain one!
Indian cuisine became my ‘passion’; the best way to ‘learn and understand’ this vast ocean of culinary knowledge was to become a ‘student’ and remain one! “It hurt me (and still does) when the rest of the world calls it a ‘curry’. A misnomer I have come to hate from the bottom of my heart because it just does not describe this beautiful cuisine with so many interesting facets, so many subtle differences, so many colours, so many taste sensations and each one a ‘masterpiece’. Had La Rousse been alive, it would have prompted him to write an Indian gastronomic! It is the only cuisine; I call ‘art’ that titillates each of our ‘five senses’
The transition from Top Chef to Owning a Gig
As a young chef, I always believed it was important to build a strong foundation,
and Taj chain of hotels provided that and much more. I learnt the basic skills from my catering institute, but the Taj channeled those into a specific direction. Here I
learnt the art of cooking with a purpose, and purpose was the Guest. The guest was the ultimate, he and only he could decide if the food I cooked was good or not. This was not only a great lesson in my early years but is ingrained in my mind, it helps me leave my ‘ego’ at home!
The guest was the ultimate, he and only he could decide if the food I cooked was good or not.
- I am as good as the last meal I have cooked. Nothing else matters. It does not matter how many years I have been cooking or in how many places or how many awards I have won. All that matters is what I am cooking now. I learnt to live in the present.
- Taj also provided me with the opportunity to work and learn from maestros with in-depth knowledge and understanding of Indian food. Here I learnt the importance of ‘cooking with a reason’.
- Indian food is not only about ‘how much’ you add son, but ‘when and how’ you add said one Ustaad when training in Hyderabad to learn the art of cooking Dakhni food.
- Another Ustaad said, son Indian food, unlike European food, cannot be tasted ‘as you cook’, it must only be wafted for one to know and appreciate whether the spices have ‘bhunaoed’ (sautéed just right) or not!
And so, the journey began. It continues. It was only when I was made Executive Chef at the young age of 28 that I realised I had to move on, I had much more to learn and loads to do.
Moving to Australia was a great opportunity for me to practice my art yet keep learning at the same time.
Moving to Australia was a great opportunity for me to practice my art yet keep learning at the same time. The only difference being this time it was ‘learn as you go’ at my own risk in my own kitchen of my own restaurant. It still happens every single day after nearly 30 years of running a restaurant in Australia.
What Makes this Chef Tick?
When you love what you do, and do what you love, I guess, you don’t need any other reason. I am self-driven, I find it highly rewarding when I am able to create what I envisioned in terms of colours, flavour, and presentation. I reward myself with a glass of red wine each night. It helps me unwind, to clear my mind.
…every customer thinks he is the ‘best’ cook and his wife the ‘ultimate’ cook.
Cooking is like any other profession. Except in my profession ‘everyone’ is a cook. In fact, every customer thinks he is the ‘best’ cook and his wife the ‘ultimate’ cook. Absolutely true, except that cooking at home and cooking in the restaurant are like ‘playing gully cricket versus playing in a stadium in front of a full house’. There is no place to hide and very few margins for error. I will leave it at that!
- It started in a small plaza as a 40-seater restaurant, in 1998, serving ‘my version’ of Indian food from different states of India. Soon it grew into a 65-seater restaurant! After 4 years it was time to move to a place that was a ‘dream come true for me’. It was this dream that brought me to Australia – a restaurant with an open kitchen, 4 private rooms, and a function hall. Each named after an ‘element’, serving ‘ethnic’ Indian food from different regions of the country.
- The dream was also to cook food on a large scale and package it for the supermarkets after ‘blast chilling’ it. Using technology to ‘vacuum seal’ the food and even ‘shock freezing’ it. Make my own brand of spice mixes and marinades, pickles, chutneys and morabbas, kulfis, for patrons to take ‘ready to eat restaurant-style food’!
- The dream was to have a ‘cooking school’ on the ground floor and a ‘test kitchen’ to develop new recipes; have a ‘Tiffin room’ selling Thalis from different parts of India. We did a Gujarati thali for one month followed by a UP thali next month, then Maharashtrian after next, Kerala Saadhya to follow the month after.
- Do ‘Chef’s tables’ where guests are seated on the ‘kitchen table’ and are served a 12 course ‘tasting menu’ with accompanying wines.
- The dream was to change the menu on the 9th of each month for 18 years!
- The dream was to write cookbooks and make videos for people to take home and cook Indian every single day without the stress.
- That done, time to open a small restaurant (for my son to run it and join the business), where you are actually seated in a kitchen and are cooked and served coastal Indian food.
- Son decides to not join the business. As the saying goes ‘man proposes, son, disposes’! It is time to ‘downsize’ and move to smaller and more manageable premises.
Role of Family
Meera stayed home after Aniruddh was born to be a full time ‘mum’, while still doing the accounting work for the business and looking after our son’s ever-growing needs. She was also a full time ‘cricket mum’ when Aniruddh was playing competitive cricket and don’t think ever took her eyes off her son especially when he was batting! She has recorded all his scores from game 1 to game last (when he stopped playing due to knee cap injuries) and still misses that part of her life which was priceless!
Photos sourced by the author