By and large, Indian food items have even more variety than international cuisine. And, it is traditionally acknowledged that the Indian palate is more attuned to adventurism in trying out cuisines from all over the world. This is one of the reasons that you will find speciality restaurants in all luxury hotels and, even the proliferation of standalone eateries that focus on a particular cuisine are a testimony to this.
In recent times, the popularity of TV programmes like the Master Chef Australia and US have been gathering eyeballs by the thousands, prompting hosts like Gary and George to come to India. Gordon Ramsey is an idol to many a catering student.
When Roger C. Willi Willson, popularly called Chef Willi, came to India to take up responsibility as Executive Chef at The Oberoi Grand in 1996, little did he imagine that 19 years down the line, he would continue to be here and turn into an entrepreneur.
“After serving great hotels like The Oberoi Grand, Kenilworth Beach Resort (Goa), The Leela Kempinski Hotel (Mumbai), I joined The Park, Chennai as Executive Chef,” says Willi who later became Director of Food and Services, till he quit in 2008 to join hands with Subway franchisee Vipin Sachdev to launch two high-profile, speciality restaurants. “Chennai was just turning into a gastronomical paradise with Thai, Japanese, Korean and Mediterranean cuisine finding willing customers. Simultaneously, fast foods like subs, pizzas, burgers, fried chicken, etc. were also making their presence felt. We launched Tuscana Pizzeria specialising in wood-fired, thin crust pizzas, and Kryptos offering Greek and Mediterranean cuisine. These found instant acceptance among the Chennai foodies,” states Willi who also helped in setting up Burgundy restaurant and its associated B-Bar in Chennai.
In a recent move, Chef Willi parted ways with Tuscana and Kryptos co-founder Vipin Sachdev and turned into an independent entrepreneur. “I launched Chef Willi’s Restaurants and Consultancy with the intention to offer my expertise to anyone who plans to get into the food business. The first of such a venture is the Jonah’s Bistro owned by Sam Paul, which has two outlets in Chennai. My responsibility is to design the menu, train the cooks and other restaurant personnel and put a quality process in place for the entire running of the restaurant for a given period till it can run on its own, by the promoters,” says Willi whose personal favourite cuisines are Mediterranean and Sichuan.
Chef Willi feels that, in Chennai, there is more acceptance for Mediterranean cuisine which includes Italian food. “This apart, European and Pan Asian cuisines are also well-accepted. Although most foodies are quite adventurous, strangely, American and Australian dishes may not get total acceptance due to the very large meat content. Here we are not only quite health-conscious but also like to have a lot of vegetables in our meals. Besides, to cook authentic American or Australian food, many ingredients are not available here at reasonable prices,” notes Willi.
In his 36 years of experience what are the three most important lessons he has learnt as a chef? “Respect. You have to respect your kitchen and dining room staff and in turn, earn their respect by being a creative leader. Trust. Trust from your clientele by giving high quality food, so that they will keep coming back to your restaurant. Consistency. While at The Park Hotel, I had a customer who came back after a few years and ordered for his favourite dish and remarked to me that it tasted the same as it was on the previous occasion he ate it. These three are the most crucial qualities that I firmly believe has got me to where I am today. Foremost of course is quality. This will go hand-in-hand with hygiene,” declares Chef Willi who has no regrets for not having gone back to his favourite destination, the Middle East, after his tenure with The Leela Kempinski in 2002 and the six months he was supposed to be in The Park Chennai to set it up.
Now that he has turned entrepreneur, Chef Willi is already getting offers from those who would like to avail of his experience, expertise and knowledge to start their food outlets. “Next on the anvil are a seafood restaurant serving Asian cuisine flavours and a vegetarian restaurant which will only use organically grown farm produce,” signs off an excited Chef Willi.