Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the Foodie: As Revealed by Chef Satish Arora
“Vajpayeeji once asked me for the recipe of kheer,” says Chef Satish Arora.
From cooking for Margaret Thatcher and Bill Clinton, to even Indira Gandhi and Queen Elizabeth II, legendary Chef Satish Arora has served various dignitaries all along his career, that goes back to almost five decades.
As the nation mourns the death of former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Chef Arora remembers the soft spoken yet appreciative foodie that Vajpayeeji was. Over to Chef Arora...
“I met AB Vajpayee on several occasions,” recollects Chef Arora. “I was introduced to Vajpayeeji in 1977, when he was going to address the United Nations General Assembly in New York.” (Remember Vajpayee’s first speech at UN Assembly in Hindi? That was the time!)
“We travelled in the same plane and we were introduced to him through Air India officials. We were flown to the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York and I was the personal chef to him,” elaborates Chef Arora who was heading Taj SATS, known as Taj Air Catering then, that served on all Air India flights.
“We usually made Indian food. For example, during evenings we made snacks such as poha, upma, pakoda, samosas, kebabs etc. which weren’t very oily. I had two chefs with me plus we got good cooperation from the American kitchen because we had sent a list of ingredients in advance to them, keeping in mind the schedule of the event. And I must say, the food was very well accepted. At the end of the conference when we were returning, Mr. Vajpayee had a press briefing in the air craft and there he even mentioned that, ‘All my dignitaries were looked after very well, especially the food’. He was a simple man, but very appreciative.”
“I got closer to him when he was doing his knee treatment in Kumarakom,” says Chef Arora. It was the time when AB Vajpayee stayed at the Taj property in Kerala for his ayurvedic rejuvenation treatments, relaxation massages and meditative rides on the kettu- vallams (houseboats) on the vast Vembanad in 2000.
Mr. Vajpayee was there for almost a week and again I had the chance to take care of his food. I remember, I had this chaat festival and I wanted to prepare pani-puri for him, but he said, ‘Satishji, mein apne aap banaunga’. And there he was – filling in channa and aalo in the puris – the man prepared his own ‘paani-puri’ despite all the assistance available in the world and he really enjoyed it.
AB Vajpayee was quite interactive as well elaborates Chef Arora,
“He asked an ordinary man like me, about my family. He was interested in knowing about how big was my family. He even asked me how I got into this profession. He asked me earnestly once, ‘Aap chef kaise bane? Aapko khana pakaane ka shauk kaise aaya?’Chef Satish Arora
All these questions are still fresh in my mind. A PM asking an ordinary man like me – who was attached to him just for his dietary requirements – was a morale booster,” he continued.
“Later I met him again in Colombo, Sri Lanka when he went for a SAARC Conference. At that time, the conference was in Taj Samudra and I was again attached for taking care of the entire entourage. AB Vajpayee was very polite as usual,” he remembers.
It came as a surprise to me, as at one stage, Vajpayeeji asked me about ‘kheer’. He made me sit alongside him this one time and asked me the recipe of how to prepare kheer. Kyon ki humne kheer rakhi hui thi, toh unko shayad pasand aayi, toh woh poochne lage… ‘ki yeh aap kaise banaate hai? Kheer was one of his favourite dishes. But in my opinion, he was of course fond of food and probably was aware of even how it was prepared. Just how he was excellent at poetry.
“Atalji preferred simple vegetarian khaana. Not that you had to scratch your mind or prepare a very out of the box dish, but of course you had to give some very well-presented tasty food for him. He even ate continental food, not just Indian food. I made an Italian Risotto for him during the Colombo SAARC conference and he ate that well. I am a great believer of observing plate waste and the first reaction when one consumes the first spoon of what they are served. And all I can say is I was satisfied with his reaction then,” shares Chef Arora.
“In fact, I even served PM Indira Gandhi several times and there was a certain sense of nervousness all the time. Because when you are serving dignitaries from world over, it can get quite taxing, country ki izzat stake pe hai na, toh poora nightmare toh hota hi hai.
“Vajpayeeji ke saath when I traveled for the first time there was sheer happiness about the fact that I was travelling with the PM of the country in the same airplane and was asked to be appointed as his personal chef for that time. He was extremely encouraging. I later traveled with him to Egypt and Iran as well.”
“All I can say is when the funeral was going on, I literally had tears in my eyes remembering that great man. Aur yeh saari stories, history aur photos ye saare mere aage aa rahe the,” reminisces Chef Arora.
According to protocol, one is not allowed to speak much about the food consumed by dignitaries or delegates shares Chef Arora, “As you must have seen, delegates are photographed while seated on the dinner table, but never while eating food. Yeh protocol hai, security doesn’t allow. Usually inke khaane peene ki discussion nahi hoti. So, you can’t reveal much. All this gives you goosebumps. But, I am very proud of my profession – I cook with passion, I eat with passion and I serve with passion!” signs off the culinary expert.
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