Hemant Oberoi: “Ours Is A Luxury Restaurant Without Luxury Pricing”

A couple of days after the launch of his eponymous restaurant in Bandra Kurla Complex, we met Hemant Oberoi, the former executive chef of the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, to talk to him about the potential for fine-dining in Mumbai, how he’s updating his culinary repertoire, and why he’s chosen to serve European, Peruvian and Asian fare at his first stand-alone establishment. Edited excerpts:

Tell us about the concept behind Hemant Oberoi.
A year ago, when I was leaving (the) Taj, I thought ‘Let me do something different’. The first offer that came was Yantra By Hemant Oberoi, which I launched in May 2016 (in Singapore). We set that up in 45 days. After that we realised that there was potential in San Diego, where my son lives. We opened Masala Street there in December last year. In the meantime, we had already signed up this BKC spot. I was scouting for a place in a lot of buildings and then I realised that this was the place because of its high ceiling (it’s 24 feet). I thought if I have to complete this triangle of SMS, Singapore, Mumbai and San Diego, let me be here.
As for the concept, I thought, in the luxury space there are very few stand-alone restaurants. Ours is a luxury restaurant and we don’t charge luxury pricing. Your average lunch (bill) is Rs2,000 per head and dinner, Rs3,500 per head, it’s not that kind of luxury pricing where people are spending Rs7,000 to Rs8,000 per person. Yes your cheque depends purely on what you want to eat. If you want to choose the lobsters and the foie gras and good wine, you will be paying more. But in Rs3,500 you can easily have a good meal at this place.

Why did you pick BKC for the launch of your flagship?
BKC is going to be the future. Everyone has moved to this side in the last couple of years. All the banks, consulates, big company head offices are all here. Everyone is moving to this side. It’s probably the centre point today in Mumbai, close to the airport and the banking institutions. That’s why I thought, let’s be there.

Is there a market for luxury dining in the city? Or do you think it’s your name that will draw diners?
The first time perhaps everybody comes for the name. After that only quality and consistency will drive a crowd. We’ve already had the same group book dinner twice in two days. I think here there is a market for Maruti, Rolls Royce, Mercedes and BMWs, all are selling well. So everyone has a niche in the market. People travel so much. They want to have good food and good wine. You can have good wine for Rs2,000, Rs5,000, Rs7,000 and Rs8,000. It depends (on) what you want to spend on and what your taste buds are. We are looking for young people to enjoy our food and wines, as such they can have wine by the glass at Rs700 or Rs800 at Hemant Oberoi.

Everyone expected an Indian restaurant from you. Why did you choose to focus on European, Asian and Peruvian cuisines instead?
My passion in life has always been Western (food). When I started Zodiac Grill approximately 28 years ago, it was my passion. I think overseas Indian food works very well, there is a demand for it. But in our country, Indian food is taken for granted and everyone says “My mom makes it better” or “My maid servant makes it better”. Everything is taken for granted and I realised I wanted to do something different. I was already working on a Peruvian concept restaurant for the Taj and I’ve spent a good amount of time in Peru in the last couple of years. Asia is of course a big influence. But overall we’re seeing Western food. I wouldn’t call it fusion, but I would say it’s influenced by Peruvian and Asian cuisines.

Did you feel the need to update the menu since Zodiac Grill? Did you keep audience expectations in mind? 
The Brie and truffle souffle is the new avatar of the Zodiac Grill Camembert souffle. Some of the dishes from Zodiac (Grill) you will find here but with Peruvian influences. I’ve introduced a three melon gazpacho; beetroot vichyssoise; chocolate shawarma; and Mediterranean kolokithakia (zucchini fritters) with fondue. But I believe in good food by itself. It’s not just about molecular bubbles. It’s good food, presented well, in a good ambience and with good wines. So yes, it’s totally an updated version. If you remain with the same version, you probably don’t last that long.

In terms of the ingredients, is it fair to assume there is a heavy dependence on imported ingredients and is it possible to run a fine-dining establishment with what’s locally available now?
Not really. You have to depend on both. The basic ingredients are available, but if you want good-quality fish such as sea bass, black cod or flounder, it’s very difficult to find here and moreover during the monsoon there is no fish available. What do you do? You have to depend on imports. The same with pork products. Local pork is not that good and people are used to a certain quality because they travel and they immediately start comparing. I don’t want to deprive them. If it’s parmesan it has to be from Italy, for instance. If we need fresh truffles or fresh asparagus you have to depend on imports.

What are the challenges of running a stand-alone restaurant compared to setting up a restaurant in a hotel?
Number one, you have financial backing if you’re working with a hotel. So the company is behind you, the resources, labour, designer etc., everything is at your disposal. Here you have to stand on everyone’s head and push them. You have to find out ways to get licenses, everything is a task. It’s a tough one, but I think we have managed well in four months. Credit also goes to Ashiesh Shah who has designed the restaurant. He heard me out. Generally designers want to go their own way, but he was very flexible with the feedback.

Why call it Hemant Oberoi?
It’s not me who decided. Everyone around me decided. If it was up to me, it wouldn’t have been Hemant Oberoi. My PR agency and friends insisted. They said, ‘If it can be Alain Ducasse, why can’t it be Hemant Oberoi?’

Listen to our podcast featuring Hemant Oberoi here

Hemant Oberoi, Unit 5, Ground Floor, Godrej BKC, Bandra Kurla Complex, Bandra (East). Tel: 022 2653 4757. Open daily, from noon to 3pm and from 7.30pm to 12.30am. Get directions here.

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