Heart of Hospitality – An Interview with Executive Chef Michael Saju
With 18 years of professional experience, and having worked with the likes of Oberoi, IHG, and Carlson, the new Executive Chef of The Residency Towers Chennai, Michael Saju, has tried it all when it comes to food. Born into a Malayali family in the city of Jabalpur, the chef’s speciality is, interestingly, Punjabi and Delhiite cuisine.
We got up close and personal with Chef Michael Saju, and here is what he had to say!
Where did your culinary journey start?
My mother was my inspiration. Back then, both my parents were working in the Indian army. I was into bodybuilding and martial arts, due to which I had plenty of dietary restrictions. While my mom cooked, I’d stand beside her and blurt instructions like ‘don’t put too much oil’ or ‘don’t put too much masala’. I was fascinated just watching her cook. Soon, I forgot about bodybuilding, and became interested in food. I’d finish all the prep work like chopping the vegetables by the time mom came back home from work. Everything would be ready; she only had to cook.
Many people move away from their childhood passion. How were you so persistent?
I tried bodybuilding, and even attempted to join the army. But, my love for cooking triumphed everything else. When my father tried teaching me about the army, my nose wandered to the kitchen, to the dish my mom was cooking.
Is there any particular childhood meal that you still distinctly remember?
Okay, this might sound a little silly, but I always loved the ‘thattu dosa and chutney’ my mom made. She’s given me her recipe, and even prepared it before my eyes many times. However, I haven’t been able to make it taste as delicious as hers.
At home, do you still wear your chef’s hat?
My daughter is a hardcore meat-eater and loves when I cook for her. She doesn’t really like my mother’s or her mother’s cooking. When I went home the last time, I prepared a special biryani and took it within the unopened cooker, to keep it fresh till I reached. She opened the door, took a deep breath and said “Dad has come”. She identifies my presence with the aroma of food!
What is your favourite cuisine and do you have anything on you food bucket list?
I love Thai cuisine. I really want to try an authentic ‘jasmine rice and Thai green curry’, prepared by a chef from Thailand.
What makes you happy and content with your job?
It’s not an easy job. We work from early in the morning to late at night. So, a supportive and motivating family is the best to have in such situations. After a tiring day, when I go back home and see my wife and daughter, the weariness just melts away.
How has your experience been at The Residency? What are your plans here?
It’s only been a couple of months since I’ve joined the team, but having been to all the restaurants, I can tell they are all fantastic with top-class food and service. If I’m seated at the restaurant and absently looking around, the restaurant employees always come over and ask if I’m comfortable or if I need anything.
As for my plans, right now I’m adding dishes to each outlet’s menu. For example, we’re trying to curate a menu for Main Street that includes street food from all over India. On the other hand, if our plans for Southern Aromas go well, we’re sure its dishes will feel and taste authentically mom-made!
Mr. Erine Louise, the General Manager, is also a foodie like me and loves innovation in food. In fact, we’ve already discussed his plans for the hotel, for the next 1.5 years!
Between North and South India, is there any difference in people’s relationship with food?
In the North, people are particular about their tastes. They know what they like. Every menu needs to have one ‘dal tadka’, ‘paneer butter masala’ or ‘butter chicken’. However, people are willing to experiment more, in the South. I’ve heard that there is a small roadside shop, enroute Coimbatore from Pondicherry, that’s only open between 12 midnight and 2 pm. People flock to this shop, regardless of their status or any other differences. Food is a big deal here; a uniting factor!
Do you have a favourite dish out of all the meals you’ve cooked?
When I worked in Kochi, I had 25 VIP customers who wanted something innovative for their event that was a month away. They didn’t want simple Indian or Italian cuisine. It had to be something truly great. So, I played around with local flavours, and served them with an elevated Kerala beef dish, paired with an Italian-style pepper sauce prepared using simple Indian ingredients.
What are your thoughts on interacting with guests? Do you like getting feedback for your dishes?
Absolutely, yes! Today, customers know what good food is and won’t compromise on it. It is no more just one bad meal. An unsatisfied customer shares his or her experience with 20 other friends. And nowadays, that’s how a hotel’s reputation goes down. Getting feedback from customers tells you where you are. Every customer is a sales and marketing person for your hotel, if you serve them well.
Finally, could you share some tips on cooking?
Try and avoid reheating your meal. You will not enjoy that. By reheating, you’re overcooking the food, killing it’s flavour and texture. Fresh is always the best!
Thank you Chef for your time, anecdotes, and insights!