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Interview with Chef Narender Singh, Director of Culinary at Park Plaza Bengaluru

Chef Narender Singh is a member of the prestigious Chaine Des Rotisseurs and has recently been awarded the Hotelier India Award 2015- Chef of the Year Mid-Market segment. His career spans over three decades in the hotel industry. Before heading the culinary team at Park Plaza, Bengaluru as Director of Culinary, Chef Narender has been associated with a number of International Hospitality brands and cruise liners in the Middle East, India and the US.

He has been awarded by the White House, US President, and Hosted dinners for President of India, Historic summit of Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Pakistani President Musharraf and number of state of heads. He has been awarded by various ambassadors – Australian, British, Egyptian, Indian, Sri Lanka, Pakistan for hosting dinner for their state of head delegates and National days.

Chef Narender Singh in an interview with Suman Prasad of Unkrate spoke in length about his experience with Park Plaza, his style of cooking, what he looks in a candidate while hiring for his kitchen, his success mantra, his to the point view on recent controversy of Padma Awards for chefs & cooks and many other interesting things.

Excerpts from the interview:

Q. How long you have been working with Park Plaza? How has the journey been so far?

I have been working with the Park Plaza, Bengaluru for 6 months now, since 20th July 2015.
The journey has been enthralling so far, to say the least! This is my first stint in the Bangalore market and I must say, Bangaloreans know their food! People here are extremely cosmopolitan and are not restricted in their choices when it comes to dining. To cater to such a clientele excites me as a Chef.
I am also fortunate to be working for an Ownership and Management who are extremely forward thinking and open to suggestions and change. I have been given the freedom to operate in my own style and my expertise and experience have been valued.

Q. Everyone has their idol/inspiration in life. Who is yours?

My inspiration has been my mother. My first recollection of truly connecting with food is a soup my mother made when I had the flu. It was fantastic and the first time I recognized the magic of a meal that is lifted above the ordinary.

When I was 15, I was inspired by the magic of making yummy cakes and biscuits. Then I was out in the world and inspired by feeding and sharing good food with friends. I was also inspired by different cultures and ingredients through travel and work.

Q. What is your style of cooking? Which is your signature dish?

My specialty lies in Western cuisine however Indian cuisine is a passion, the skills for which I have acquired having been lucky enough to work with several Indian Master Chefs throughout the course of my career.

I am often asked what my signature dish is and I am yet to find a direct answer to this question. Can a mother tell you which one is her favorite child? Can an artist tell you which his favorite painting is? I love cooking and cannot discriminate and pick one dish. Nevertheless, to try and answer the question, my Trio of Scallop, Oyster, Mussels with Pernod and sage cream accompanied with Fennel confit is a dish I enjoy cooking and is one that has probably received the most amount of appreciation and compliments.

Q. What do you love to cook for yourself? 

I myself, of late have completely gone the healthy route. I like eating simple and fresh, whether it be Indian cuisine or any other. And of course, having to sample all sorts of dishes throughout the day is an occupational hazard which I then try and balance out by eating healthy.

Q. What qualities you look while hiring a Chef for your team? How do you rate fresh students out of Hotel Management colleges? Do you think they have the necessary skills?

Skills – the right skill set as per the requirement of the restaurant for which they are being interviewed. All my interviews include a skills test.
Hygiene – As important as skills!

Operating style – to make sure the team is able to work together, and most importantly attitude! Somebody with the right attitude and approach towards work will add to the team.
Students fresh out of Hotel Management colleges have something very important- a base and the hunger to learn. No they do not walk out of college ready to be put in the forefront but these children have picked up the basics and are eager to work heard. They can be taught and more often than not they do very well in their careers.

Q. You were recently awarded with Hotelier India Award 2015 – Chef of the Year. In the past, you have been awarded by the White House, US President and various ambassadors of different nations. How important is to remain grounded like you even after tasting success? How would you define your success mantra?

I firmly believe that success can be lost as fast as it is gained and I have witnessed the downfall of several great Industry veterans as a result of success getting into their heads. For me the mantra for success is simply to not have a mantra at all! It is that key difference between ‘success’ and ‘achievement.’

Strive towards achieving and success will follow. Be passionate about your work and excel at it and success will follow. Simply put, the mantra to success is not to chase success. Work hard and with commitment and interest and success is bound to be the end result.

Q. What are your views on the recent controversy on Cultural Ministry recommending the cooks and chefs for Padma awards to the home department? 

Quoting the minister of state for culture and tourism, “Cooking is an art. If there can be Padma awards in other fields of art like music, tabla, why not cooking?”
I couldn’t agree more!

Q. What goes in the kitchen of Chef Narendra Singh when the occasion is as big as hosting dinners for the US President and President of India? What planning goes in the preparations, menu selection and other stuff?

Planning a ministry hosted banquet requires intricate and detailed planning. Not only are you and your Hotel in the limelight but you are also in ways representing the country and showcasing Indian Hospitality.

Planning is not just limited to the main event but starts from pre-arrival all the way until departure.
Chief Protocol officers of both India and the visiting dignitary’s country are closely involved and details such as cultural dos and don’ts, dignitary’s dietary preferences, allergies etc. are taken into account while preparing the menu. We must insure that the menu includes dishes from the countries in order to cater to the visiting country’s palate while at the same time showcasing Indian cuisine.
The ministry is so particular about the arrangements that the menu is vetted by them and is also printed by the ministry on stationary of their choice.

There are multiple meetings amongst the hotel teams so that no details are overlooked and everyone is on the same page. Pre-rehearsals, food trials, manning and service sequences are all planned in advance.

It’s no less than a theatrical performance that requires multiple rehearsals to ensure that opening day is a big hit!

To give you an example, the Historic Summit involving President Pervez Musharraf and Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was state banquet for 200 ministers and we served a 5 course Indian platter to plate menu for 200 VIPs. The planning for this event started over a month in advance.

Q. Can you share the menu of few important occasions? 

Occasion 1: Lunch by The Prime Minister in Honour of H.E. GENERAL PERVEZ MUSHARRAF, President of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

Venue: Jaypee Palace Hotel, Agra

Date: 15th July 2001 – Sunday

In Vegetarian, few of the many dishes included were: Dhingri Shabnam (a cottage cheese kofta, stuffed with oyster mushrooms, pistachio, almonds, dried plums, coconut, ginger and mint and simmered in a gravy flavored with garam masala), Zannat-e-Zameen (mushrooms and new potatoes stir fried with clove in full bloom, pomegranate, kababa, onions and garam masala powdered with abrak), Aam ki Phirnee (a soufflé of rice and milk cake garnished with mango tidbits).
In non-vegetarian, few of the many dishes included were: Dilkash Paarchey (picatta of chicken, treated with arq kewra-perfumed gramflour- and griddle fried), Lehm-e-Murghan (boned shanks of kid braised in a concentrated broth with zarraquoosh and finished with a korma of myraid spices), Dum ki Biryani (choice cuts of lamb, braised with a masala thickened with mukta pisti and a hint of amber, combined with basmati rice and cooked under flaky puff pastry).

Occasion 2: Dinner by The Government of Uttar Pradesh on the occasion of THE SUMMIT MEETING BETWEEN H.E. GENERAL PERVEZ MUSHARRAF, President of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan and H.E. SHRI ATAL BIHARI VAJPAYEE, Prime Minister of India.

Venue: Jaypee Palace Hotel, Agra

Date: 15th July 2001 – Sunday

In Vegetarian, few of the many dishes included were: Chenna Paturi (escallops of paneer, coated with freshly ground mustard and green chillies, wrapped in banana leaf and steamed: Kolkata style), Rattan Manjusha (spinach kofta, with a filling of black oyster and button mushrooms, sage and dried plums stuffed with almonds, simmered in tomato gravy: Punjab Style), Rampur Aloo Gobhi ki Tahree (garden fresh potatoes, cauliflower and basmati rice cooked on dum in sealed terracotta pots: Rampur style), Tirangi Kulfi (saffron, cardamom & pista flavors).

In non-vegetarian, few of the many dishes included were: Tandoori Machchi (steaks of sole, marinated with dill, fennel, dinger, honey and trace of mustard oil, roasted in the tandoor: Delhi Style), Bharwan Murgh Pasanda (breast of chicken stuffed with forcemeat of chicken leg, blended with pistachio and fennel, with a yogurt gravy: Punjab style), Kundan Kaliyan (boned shoulder of kid simmered in gravy with mushqdaana: Awadh style)

Q. Would like to share some funny anecdotes amidst of all serious and important proceedings?

It is a very serious thing and you yourself become very serious while working on an important event like cooking for the Prime Minister of India or the President of Pakistan. There are lot of things that needs to be taken into account and making sure everything is spot on, right from the arrival to the departure.

But talking about a funny incident, I can recall one on top of ahead. The occasion was serving breakfast for SHRI ATAL BIHARI VAJPAYEE, Prime Minister of India. So, as per the rule the ministers have to collect sample of everything which is than kept in cold storage for 20 to 24 hrs. Now, for breakfast there were two boiled eggs and they wanted one portion of boiled egg as a sample. I just said ‘How can I can give a sample of an egg? Shall I break the egg and give it you’?
I understand there are certain protocols that needs to be followed but sometimes it becomes very difficult to follow it in a situation like this.

Q. ‘Fusion Food’ has suddenly become specialty of many chefs. What do you have to say about this trend? Do you have a liking for ‘Fusion Food’?

I do not particularly have a liking for fusion food. I feel it is important to maintain the individual identity of a cuisine to truly highlight its taste. However, I admit that there are Chefs who manage to pull of fusion cuisine quite well and are able to present it quite beautifully and deliciously. Nevertheless, in my experience, fusion cuisine is not everyone’s cup of tea and more often than not things go wrong. Fusion cuisine works only if it is well conceptualized and that’s easier said than done. Tandoori chicken with hollandaise sauce is not fusion food!

Besides I like food to be authentic. For example, on my visit to Lyon, France, I came across a restaurant that said that it served Chicken curry and rice. Craving Indian food, I went in; I was quite surprised when I received chicken in a cheese sauce with curry powder!

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