Montu Saini, India’s Chef-in-Chief

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi pictured with visiting chefs of heads of state. Montu Saini, executive chef at Rashtrapati Bhavan is in the middle behind the prime minister

When Monsieur Gilles Bragard, founder of Le Club des Chefs des Chefs (CCC) accepted the invitation of President Mukherjee to come to India with his illustrious entourage comprising chefs of heads of state, there was one man who was working tirelessly behind-the-scenes – executive chef Montu Saini who wanted to ensure their visit was a glorious success. It took almost a year for him to organise this grand assembly. Bragard came in advance to vet every detail – from the seating plan of his contingent during the press conference, to each element of their wining and dining. Chef Saini candidly confesses that his “standards have gone up after working with Bragard”.

The CCC chefs are no less than the heads of state they serve so they needed to be given the same royal treatment. With a lot of support from the Indian government, and Bragard himself, Chef Saini prepared elaborate itineraries, chalked out routes with police commissioners, finalized menus, and zeroed in on luxury hotels across India for their stay. “Before I became the President’s chef, I knew all about Le Club des Chefs des Chefs. India had been a member since 1990 but nobody had everinvited them here. I wrote to Gilles informing him about my appointment. After completing all the formalities, he welcomed me to the club, and I in turn decided to invite CCC here. Since I work closely with the President, getting an invitation from him to them wasn’t that difficult.”

Underlying the many aspects of the visit that Chef Saini had planned with unerring precision was a common theme – all things were solely and exclusively Indian! From food to wines – Chef Saini prepared a matchless Indian sensory experience. One that would blow their minds – and taste buds – away! “As the President’s chef, it is my duty to showcase Indian cuisine and its myriad hues. Serving the group pies and foreign meats would have been a complete no-show. Even though we have the right ingredients, I really feel that when a cuisine leaves its borders, it loses its essence. You cannot create France in India no matter how hard you try; for instance, their onions are much sweeter than ours! I am also very impressed by Prime Minister Modi and his Make in India campaign. If we want foreign countries to invest in India, we need to tell them who we are and what our culture is all about!”

So it was last October when the CCC arrived in India to be a part of what Chef Saini describes as the “G20 of gastronomy”. There was Cristeta Comerford, Chef to then US President Barack Obama; Fabrizio Boca, Chef to the President of Italy; Christian Garcia, Chef to Prince Albert II of Monaco and President of CCC; Mark Flanagan, Chef to Queen Elizabeth II of the UK and Neil Dhawan, then Chef to Canadian PM Justin Trudeau, among others. They had a packed itinerary that included meetings with the Indian prime minister and president, a fun trip to Delhi’s alley of spices, Khari Baoli; meals at Bukhara at the ITC Maurya and at The Imperial (their hotel in Delhi); cooking for a gala charity dinner; trips to Agra and Jaipur where they stayed at the ITC Mughal and the Rambagh Palace and took in a lunch on the luxury tourist train, the Maharajas’ Express – apart from a whole lot of other greetings and meetings.

During the CCC’s visit to the Pusa Institute of Hotel Management in Delhi, they announced a three-month scholarship for the food production topper of 2017 who would train in at least two Palace kitchens, starting with the kitchen of Prince Albert II of Monaco. Chef Saini regaled them with Indian street fare – golgappas, dhokla and jalebis at the Rashtrapati Bhavan; marigold garlands and rose petal showers at Khari Baoli; Bukhara’s iconic raan and naan teamed with beer; and high-tea with Prime Minister Modi who shared with them a story about hosting an all-vegetarian food festival at his residence, where 5,600 different vegetarian recipes were created! He also asked Chef Saini to share with these hardcorenon-vegetarian chefs the virtues of converting to vegetarian food.

The wines accompanying the food were true-to-the-soil Indian wines from Fratelli Vineyards. Kapil Sekhri’s Akluj-based winery was the official wine partner. “Showcasing our wines along with the best of Indian cuisine to such an august gathering of international chefs was a unique experience and a privilege,” said Sekhri who accompanied the chefs on their tour. “The visitors had no idea that India was a wine producing country. The quality of our food friendly wines took them completely by surprise and their response was overwhelming.”
Not only did these venerated cooks enjoy the food, they also loved the wines. The wines were Fratelli Gran Cuvée Brut from Chenin Blanc grapes, 2012 Sette, predominantly Sangiovese with 30% Cabernet Sauvignon and a 2015 M/S Red from 60% Sangiovese, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon and 20% Syrah. The 2015 M/S White was mostly Chardonnay with 20% Sauvignon Blanc.

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Chef Montu and the visiting chefs pictured in the forecourt of Rashtrapati Bhavan throwing their caps in the air

Apart from wine, the group also enjoyed Louis XIII – especially brought in by CCC’s wine expert, Hervé Dumesny, director of Public Affairs & CSR Group, Rémy Cointreau in France. In totality, the CCC visit was a grand success, exactly as Chef Saini had planned. After they left, Bragard sent a glowing letter of appreciation to Chef Saini saying, “This was the best general assembly the CCC had in years.” So much so, that for their 30th wedding anniversary in January 2017, Bragard and his wife Monica chose to visit India. Later this year, in July, Chef Saini will be off to Canada for CCC’s next general assembly. While he has set his sights on engaging with new people from the global gourmet industry during this trip, he’s quite clear as to whom he will be representing in Canada. “I am the brand ambassador of 125 crore people. I will be doing my part!”

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