Harmeet Singh is a lion by name (Singh) and a Leo in the western zodiac according to his birth date. He is also a Chef at Baan Thai Restaurant in the Oberoi Grand in the Indian city of Kolkata and a Sardaar, the affectionate name Sikh males are called by the Indian community.
Sardaar means commander or chieftain, a custom that hails from the time when Sikhs took up arms to free India from the clutch of the Mughal Empire.
Conversion by force was not something the Sikhs were prepared to tolerate fighting to defend everybody’s right to retain their religious beliefs, whether they were Hindus, Buddhists or Sikh.
To this effect, Guru Gobind Singh Ji, the tenth and last living Guru of the Sikhs, formed the Khalsa in 1699, a military force of fierce fighters who dared rebel against the mighty stronghold of Emperor Aurangzeb.
Baan Thai Oberoi Grand
Described as a ‘live wire’ by General Manager Mr Varun Chhiber, Harmeet Singh not only leads his team to produce delectable fare but he makes a point of working the floor, coming out of the kitchen to interact with guests.
Of course, his command of English allows him to do that with ease but it is his warm manner and smart, sharp appearance that endears him to diners at Baan Thai the award-winning restaurant at the Oberoi Grand.
A grand Kolkata hotel
The beauty of this hotel is the easy mix of old traditions and new blood, classic elegance and relaxed ambience.
The rooms are grand indeed and the service impeccable but it is the atmosphere that appeals, a reflection of the new India, vibrant, young and driven.
As Mr Anupam Dasgupta, now General Manager at the Oberoi in Mumbai, put it to me once: ‘A job at the Oberoi is not just a job. It is a career’.
Dare to dream
Chef Harmeet Singh tells me how important for his career the support provided by Executive Chef Mr Saurav Banerjee has been.
The caring personalities of General Manager Mr Chhiber and Acting General Manager Mr Shiraj have contributed heavily to his feeling of belonging. And, just as the creator of the brand Oberoi himself (Mr Mohan Singh Oberoi), Harmeet Singh dreams big.
Dare to Dream, is a riveting read by Bengali author Bachi J. Karkaria tracing Mr Oberoi’s journey from hotel clerk in Simla to hotel owner and builder of an international empire.
Also born a Sikh, like Chef Harmeet Singh, Mr Oberoi left his village in the Punjab to make it big.
With a remarkable eye for detail, thriftiness and organisation, he transformed Clarkes hotel in Simla into a household name.
The day in 1937 when on impulse he arrived in Kolkata to inspect the old ruin of a 500-room hotel was a fateful day.
Abandoned to dampness and decay for over a year and dammed by the death of five guests said to have succumbed to water born bacteria spreading through the hotel’s ageing plumbing, the magnificent pile didn’t look promising, but it appealed to young Oberoi.
He went on to acquiring it to start the painstakingly hard job of bringing the hotel back to life.
Ripping off the entire plumbing system and replacing it with the best to be had, was only part of it.
Despite this, early guests remained cautious about the water. Mr Oberoi promised a magnate friend of his to provide him with free soda water not only to drink but also to brush his teeth with, if he felt unsure about the water.
The word spread and was distorted till the final version had it “that a rich Punjabi had taken over the Grand Hotel, that whisky flowed like water and the bathtubs were filled with soda water”.
The Oberoi system
Over a year of intense labour, every carpet, silver candlestick and giant chandelier were meticulously cleaned, buffed and restored to its former glory.
New top quality beds were purchased and more importantly, the then unemployed former hotel staff was re-hired into their old positions but rigorously re-trained in the new Oberoi system.
So it was, that one destitute lady became the Grande Dame of Chowringhee where everybody who was somebody wanted to be seen at Grand gala balls, international entertainers and world-known celebrities flocked to the Grand after it threw its gates open on 21 December 1938.
Today, despite intense competition from international chain hotels, the Oberoi Grand remains at the forefront of Kolkata’s preferred destination for discerning travellers who delight in its unique service, dining facilities, live jazz at the Chowringhee Bar, the Spa and the exotic award-winning Baan Thai, the Thai restaurant.
Super-talented hotel chef
Twice a lion and twice a Chieftain, Harmeet Singh is super talented and hard working.
He says he always gives 200% to the task at hand. He loves life, runs every morning before dawn and works out at the gym during his breaks.
On his days off he plays cricket and volunteers at his Gurdwara’s Langar (Sikh Temple’s community service open kitchen) where thousands a day are fed free of charge.
And yes, girls, he is in his late twenties and single. I suggested to him a career in modelling – if he ever gets tired of Cheffing…
The writer was a guest of the Oberoi Grand, Kolkata, India.