26-11

We lost so many young chefs, can never forget them: 26/11 survivor Hemant Oberoi

Hemant Oberoi, former grand executive chef of the Taj Mahal Palace hotel, recalls the hours of terror

November 22, 2016 1:46:29 am

Hemant Oberoi was wrapping up a long and busy day of meetings when the call came. “I was in the kitchen when one of the chefs called me and said there was a shooting,” recalls the former grand executive chef of the Taj Mahal Palace hotel, Mumbai. Oberoi, 62, thought it was another film shoot outside, near the Gateway of India. “But then he said there were men shooting people dead inside the hotel. I hung up and the first thing I told my staff was to switch off all the lights in that area,” he says.

There was a function for Unilever in the Gateway room, and the food had just gone in, but the replenishments were stalled. Soon, Oberoi was informed that it was a terrorist attack. There was no game-plan, no real strategy to proceed, except that the guests were not to be inconvenienced. “We could hear the blasts. But we didn’t want the guests to panic. Some of them knew what was happening, some didn’t. But we wanted to ensure that they were calm and that we would take care of them,” he says.

As the terrorists moved through the hotel, Oberoi recalls how every department head had to take charge. “There was constant communication between the security team and the rest of us. When we were informed of their location, we knew where to block the entry and exit points,” he says. But with danger looming large, Oberoi decided to take most of the guests from the banquet halls and the restaurants through the kitchen to the Chambers.

While they waited to be rescued, Oberoi rolled up his sleeves and got to work in the kitchen, making sandwiches with any ingredients at hand. “All the young chefs came up from the basement to serve the guests. One hour, then two, then three passed, but nobody was coming,” he says. It was only a short sprint from his office to the main road, but they couldn’t take the chance.

In the lobby, general manager Karambir Kang told him the terrorists had taken over the CCTV room, their movements could be monitored. “That’s when I rushed back to my office, a camera was just above the door, and blocked every passage through which they could gain entry to the Chambers. I decided then to begin evacuating the guests from the hotel,” he says.

His sous chef Vijay Banja was the first to be shot. “I came to know only at about 4 am, when we had moved to the laundry room.” Oberoi and Banja were close, they would often walk back to their respective apartments in Colaba at the end of the day. “We lost so many young chefs that night — I can never forget them.” Oberoi had to inform some of the families the next day; it was the hardest thing he has ever done.

oberoi-1 On November 26 this year, the chef will be in faraway San Diego, US, where he is opening a restaurant, Masala Street, with his younger son who is also a chef. Express Photo/Amit Chakravarty

A man of faith, Oberoi says he hasn’t had trouble coping with the events of 26/11, the only way to recovery has always been forward. “Three restaurants were totally damaged but everybody at the Taj was determined to reopen. We converted Rendezvous in 15 days,” he says.

Last year, after an illustrious 41-year career, Oberoi stepped down as the corporate chef and grand executive chef of the Taj Group of Hotels. He is now collaborating with billionaire Jagdev Singh Gill as a culinary consultant for a fine-dining Indian restaurant called Yantra by Hemant Oberoi in Singapore. “It’s a 120-seater restaurant and in the last five months it has been mentioned favourably in Harper’s Bazaar, Wine and Dine magazine. I want to open a restaurant in Mumbai, but in good time,” says Oberoi.

On November 26 this year, the chef will be in faraway San Diego, US, where he is opening a restaurant, Masala Street, with his younger son who is also a chef. But he will take a moment out of his schedule to send a message of condolence to colleagues’ families. “I’ll always be in touch with them,” he says.

anushree.majumdar@expressindia.com

Thanks

  • TV news partner
  • Hospitality partner
  • Associate partners
  • Supported by
  • Radio partner
X