Chef Chandan Taneja on his love for Indian cuisine, healthy cooking and his mother's kadi
What drives a 25-year-old from Amritsar with a background in commerce to become a chef? “My father’s business was wholesale dairy products and farming. I grew up on a farm chasing birds around the fields, catching them, cleaning them and getting my mother to cook my favourite dishes. Even though I went in for a commerce degree first, I found my heart wasn’t in it. I wanted to cook, I wanted to be able to bring people their favourite food,” says Chef Chandan Taneja, specialty chef from Masala Klub at Taj West End, Bangalore.
In Chennai to showcase the modern take on Indian cuisine that is the trademark of the ‘Masala’ restaurants across the country, Chandan says that he never expected to be where he is so early in his career. "It was luck, I guess. Perhaps I was in the right place at the right time," he says, as he rushes out of the kitchen to join us at a table in Beyond Indus at Taj Club House.
“I joined as a commis chef straight out of college about three years ago. About a year and half later, one of our senior chefs had to leave the job for personal reasons. While they were looking for a replacement, I was given temporary charge,” says the chef, who graduated from the Acharya Institute of Hotel Management and Catering Technology, Bangalore. With executive chef Sandip Narang finding his work to be satisfactory, Chandan was offered the job full time.
Recalling the time he accepted the offer, Chandan adds, “It was definitely tough taking over from someone who taught me a lot. And those were some pretty big shoes I had to fill: the chef who quit had nearly a decade of experience. I was green in comparison.” He gives the credit to the team in his kitchen: “They really worked hard and backed me up. Their constant support is what helps even today.”
Chandan’s love for Indian cuisine is evident when he animatedly talks about his food philosophy. “Everyone is moving to European cooking because they feel Indian food uses too much butter, oil and ghee. It’s true, but with a little bit of extra effort, the same food can be made without the unhealthy fats,” he says. These includes sautéing or spit roasting instead of deep frying, slow cooking instead of using a pressure cooker or using yoghurt in the place of cream. “The idea is to make it healthy without affecting the taste or texture,” he says.
Presentation plays an important role, especially with diners these days, says the chef. “Anyone can cook, but to be a chef takes some hard work in terms of thinking not only about taste, but also the look. People eat with their eyes now,” he says with a laugh.
If there’s one thing he loves, it seems to be working on the toughest dishes. Chandan says, “I love eating murgh galouti kabab and I also love making it. A lot of time and effort goes into this dish and every step is important. The consistency completely depends on how you make it. It’s a challenging recipe that I enjoy tackling.” This makes sense, as it comes from the man who makes paan-flavoured panna cotta, aloe vera halwa and an Indian mousse with rabri and gulkhand.
“When someone challenges me or tells me that a certain kind of dish is not available in my restaurant, I can’t let it slide. Even if it means longer hours than usual, I will work at it till I get it done,” he says.
Living away from home and apart from family is tough, admits the chef, who usually eats out or at the hotel itself. “I really miss the kadi that my mother makes; it’s the best. But we’ve recently added kadi to the menu of Masala Klub so I’m happy I’ll get a taste of home now,” says Chandan.