Sudhish Pandey's motto in life is: eat, drink and be merry. For one surrounded by the flavours that spice up life, that's in the right spirit of things. As chief chef of the Oberoi Flight Kitchen, he's responsible for the food and drinks served to passengers of international airlines such as British Airways, NorthWest Airlines, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, Gulf Air, Qatar Airways, Belle View, and Royal Nepal Airlines.
Mr Pandey operates from the lush and pleasing environs close to Mumbai's Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport, better known as Sahar Airport. Your senses are aroused the moment you enter the precincts of his office. The gardens that surround the flight kitchen are lush green, full of blossoming flowers. The mouth-watering fragrances waft out of the kitchen.
"If I'd not been a chef, I would have ended up as a clerk or junior manager in a company. I am very happy I decided to become a chef." Mr Pandey joined the Taj group of hotels as trainee cook after completing a diploma in hotel management and catering technology in 1976. Six years later he was abroad, as chief chef at the Dhahran International Airport, catering to airlines such as British Airways, PanAm, KLM, Singapore Airlines, Air France and Philippines Airlines. Four years later, he returned to India as chief chef of the Oberoi Flight Kitchen.
Mr Pandey's day begins at 8.30 a.m., first attending to administrative work. Then a round of the kitchens. This is perhaps, the longest and most critical part of his work. He checks out the flight loads for the day, on the basis of which food preparations are planned. It is a complicated procedure because the requirements vary -- some airlines like to carry a buffer of as much as 50 per cent of the normal food requirement. Menu planning is another thing airlines are particular about. He has to be methodical here. Different airlines follow different policies. Some opt for frequent changes in the menu while others may carry the same menu for three months.
The kitchen department makes menu presentations to airlines, on the basis of which menus are decided for later periods. European airlines are very particular about hygiene and insist that food be preserved in accordance with the cold chain method. The method ensures that the micro-bacterial content in the food does not exceed permissible levels even if the food is served hours after cooking.
In the Oberoi Flight Services kitchen, food is cooked eight hours in advance of flight departure. After the cooking, it is sent to the blast cooler, where it is cooled to a temperature of five degrees centigrade in 90 minutes. Here onwards, it is preserved in environs where the temperature is not allowed to rise to more than 10 degrees centigrade. This ensures that the bacterial content of food remains within permissible limits. If flights are delayed, the food remains safe and hygienic.
This is contrary to the practice of some other airlines, which insist on freshly cooked food. While their intention is honourable, this results in the food getting spoilt if the flight is delayed.
The Oberoi Flight Kitchen has been awarded the ISI 9002 certification. Categorised as one of India's most well-managed flight catering organisations, it follows the hazard analysis and critical control point evaluation. This means that food temperature is monitored at various stages by means of a thermometer and, if a conformity error is detected, the food is trashed.
Did he enter the profession by design? Mr Pandey is candid: "The choice was purely by default, because of certain failures in life. But cooking was always a passion with me."
Adept at concocting recipes, he used to invent exotic combinations from mundane recipes. Sensing his interest, his family encouraged him to take up catering as a career. That, he says, was one of the motivations.
"It was my best decision ever in life. I am happy I am not a junior or a middle level manager in a mediocre organisation, but a chef in a renowned catering organisation like the Oberoi Flight Kitchen. It's indeed a far more satisfying career option."
When you ask him whether his work has changed to mere administrative work or he still contributes to culinary operations, he says on important occasions, if a VIP is travelling or visiting the organisation, he makes the piece de resistance himself. His speciality is Chinese and Mughlai food, though he can do the full honours to any kind of cuisine.
Surrounding Mr Pandey are four chefs who affectionately call him guru (teacher) and call themselves shagird (students). They are what are termed as 'sous chef'. Each sous chef has four assistant chefs under him who, in turn, have trainee cooks under them. The entire organisation has a staff strength of 325 of which 65 are pure kitchen staff.
Mr Pandey feels there's a tendency among young men nowadays to view catering as an undignified job. They avoid it because they feel it is not a typical managerial or routine office job. Curiously, these were precisely the factors that attracted him to a catering job in the first place.
"This career offers scope for individuality, intellectual and artistic input. It also offers a certain amount of glamour, scope to travel abroad." In his career span he says that he has had the opportunity to visit nearly all the food capitals of the world. Flight catering organisations send promising chefs on familiarisation trips to different catering units to learn and absorb the flavours of different cuisines at close quarters.
He has himself worked with a number of catering units like the British Airways unit in the UK, Cathay Pacific in the Philippines, Singapore Airlines and PanAm at Marriot Inflight Services and the San Francisco Dobbs Flight catering unit.
"A successful person is one who goes along with his or her natural talent and not by what society feels is the right career choice. All the people who once ridiculed my choice of a career now admire me. Success is important and that depends on how much you love your work, which will inevitably make you good at it."