Vikas Milhoutra is Executive Chef of Taj Santacruz Hotel, Mumbai. Chef Vikas has a deep appreciation for the beauty of simple food — letting the ingredients shine and providing a uniquely memorable dining experience. His food philosophy is simple: use fresh, local, seasonal and sustainable products to create well received dishes. He has done a course in facility planning from Cornell University, USA, completed his catering management from prestigious Institute of Hotel Management IHM-Mumbai 1990 batch. He did his secondary education from St Xavier’s School, Durgapur (west Bengal) and higher secondary from Delhi Public School (DPS) Mathura Road, New Delhi.
The gates to the culinary world opened for him at the iconic Taj Mahal Palace hotel, flagship hotel of Taj group in Mumbai. Since then, he has travelled the world, going to a different destination every 2-3 years in search of new learning and creating new experiences. In his almost two and half decades association with Taj hotel he has worked for St. James Court London, Vivanta by Taj Coral Reef Maldives, Taj Exotica Mauritius, Rambagh Palace Jaipur, Fort Aguada Beach Resort Goa and Taj Bengal Kolkatta. As the Executive Chef of Taj Santacruz, he intends to revolutionize street food of Mumbai by giving it a fresh perspective. In an exclusive interview with Senior Journalist Sitaram Mewati.
How did you become a chef?
I was destined to be a chef and decided to join the hotel industry on coming into contact with a cousin of my roommate in DPS, Delhi. He used to work in ITC’s Maurya Sheraton hotel then, I was impressed with his profession. That was a turning point in my life to choose my career in hotel industry. The decision of joining the kitchen happened, after I completed my Industrial training in the 2nd year of my IHM days. I felt that this was one area where I could make a contribution to my organisation each day in a different way and the sheer pleasure of dealing with a hugely versatile product “FOOD”. When you cook with love the magic is working and as a chef it makes you feel happy to make other people happy. The best part is, you don’t have to say anything, when they will take a bite from what you make for them and the smile on their face will do it all. It is an pleasing fulfilment for chef.
Is anyone else from your family in chef’s profession or in hospitality industry?
We are a family of Engineers. Before me nobody from the family ever worked as a chef or in the hospitality industry. I am a part of Taj group for more than two and half decades. After seeing my growth in hospitality industry many of my family members keep on taking advice from me on career prospects of hotel industry. I happily tell them to jump in to the ocean of knowledge and opt for this trade; many are in the fray to choose their career in hospitality trade.
You are known as an expatriate chef in Taj group, how do you feel about it?
Well I was fortunate to have worked overseas with the Taj in Maldives, Mauritius and UK. However the chef job role remains principally the same wherever you are with similar challenges and similar objectives – all that changes is the methodology to face and resolve these situations. Having travelled to a few places I feel more enriched with ideas of being able to do the same thing differently and also be able to carry the efficiencies and positives of one place to the other.
What are the most enjoyable aspects of your work and what are the most challenging?
The greatest perk of the job is that we have the opportunity of having our guests say “WOW” for a different reason which very few professions can offer the opportunity. This makes the profession so much more rewarding and fulfilling. It is sheer bliss to see happy well fed faces in your restaurants. The most challenging part is to be able to deliver the great experience consistently day in and day out. Besides, the most challenging aspect of my job currently is grappling with new and rapidly changing expectations of our guests about food and latest trends in culinary trade.
How do you keep abreast of all that is happening in hospitality industry?
Changes in hospitality business sneak up on you and you have to manage the change for success what has occurred. Therefore, anticipation and alarm are the two things that one has to constantly keep in mind while working in hospitality industry. It is much easier today with the advancement of the IT world. Being part of various F & B platforms and forums keeps getting you info on facebook, Instagram and other social media platforms. As well as various Chefs Gastronomy affiliations, travelling to various places and eating out regularly also helps understand what is happening in the world and around you. I try to educate myself, giving my chefs a free hand to create their menus and presentations and each one brings to the table something new, different and nice which we dint know of, as each one comes from different backgrounds and has one or the other strength. So we learn from our colleagues too. The most successful hoteliers are successful in this business because they always embraced change and found it exciting for their business rather than fearing or being intimidated by the change.
Other noteworthy achievements during the career?
Taj group being the oldest and biggest hotel chain in India has catered to who’s who of entire world. I was fortunate to being able to cater to the dignitaries while working at Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai. I was have designed exclusive menu for various events of Maharani of Jaipur in Rambagh Palace, catered to Royal family of UK at St. James Court London, as well as being the host hotel of the Olympics in London in 2012. Opening a Western food restaurant in London which gains 2 AA stars was very satisfying. I was a part of pre-opening teams of different hotels and restaurants; it was a great experience too.
Who all inspired you in chef’s profession and what did you learn from them?
Every single day is a learning day for a chef. I am really fortunate to be inspired by pioneers of the culinary industry right from beginning of my career. There are many chefs from whom I have learnt so much who made my career graph shining. Chef Satish Arora enhanced my culinary skill when I joined Taj group, he was Regional Corporate Chef of Taj Group, Mumbai then. Chef Joel Roubochon, a French chef and restaurateur. He was titled “Chef of the Century” by the guide Gault Millau in 1989 and also awarded the Meilleur Ouvrier de France (France’s Best Craftsman) in cuisine in 1976. Chef Alan Ducaisse, could easily be characterized as a mogul in the restaurant industry; Ducasse is a verifiable culinary force. And his reach isn’t just global. By way of his French cooking school and its partnership with European Space Agency, Ducasse is actually sending food into space. Chef Jason Atherton is an English Chef and restaurateur. His restaurant Pollen Street Social gained a Michelin Star in 2011, its opening year. He was the Executive Chef at Gordon Ramsay’s Michelin Starred Maze in London until 30 April 2010. In 2014 he co-hosted the Sky Living TV series My Kitchen Rules. While travelling extensively to the Far East he was trained with Master Chefs like Pius Lo, Hardy Cheung, and Chef Shi-Xi –Lin, are just some to name a few.
Could you recall or flash your unforgettable moments?
There have been many. However to be able to cook and serve 150 guests during a formal sit down bow tie charity dinner without lights due to a technical engineering snag amuses me today. This incident happened at the St James Court Hotel, London.
What are the sacrifices chefs needed to make in his profession?
Chefs are bound to miss important life occasions. One needs to understand reality of chef’s profession before choosing it. The ground reality is chefs are deprived of many important events of life like, Birthdays, Public Holidays, Weddings, Parties and Weekends. It’s unrealistic in this industry to assume that you’ll ever have these off. The rest of the world plays whilst you toil, weekends are almost a taboo – and this will generally eliminate most parties and birthdays as the rest of the world will want to do this on their weekends. It is possibly the biggest killer of potential chef careers. It can be a very lonesome and frustrating life to those who aren’t willing to make the sacrifice.
Do you want to communicate any message for aspiring chef?
Follow the path that teaches you skills and success will follow you – be patient, committed and sincere in your work and you could achieve what you want. You can learn from many people, but the greats take all they have learned and they create dishes that inspire them. Get inspired by other chefs and other restaurants, but let that be a catalyst for you to create that which inspires you and reflects who you are. Be your authentic self and let your personality come through in your food. It will show in your plates and it will be recognized.
How important is constant change in food?
The change is constant and one has to understand that fittest can survive in any trade. It is very because it ensures that customers keep getting newer experiences and keeps us on our toes and in business. As a chef it is our paramount responsibility to keep on doing constant research and development on culinary and create new dishes for guests. The more you are into inventing dishes you are on top of the world.