Expert Views & Interview

Success is our journey and not a destination - Chef Ranojit Kundu

Success is our journey and not a destination - Chef Ranojit Kundu

It was the early 90’s when our Indian Government was occupied with reviewing, reforming and laying the foundation for betterment, in every field one can think of – health care, social security, education, finance, defense, technology, agriculture, infrastructure and the like. We had no clue as HM students as to what was in store for us after we would graduate.

Today’s generation of HM students are mostly influenced and updated by the media and have a considerable amount of information as to what our trade is at presently. They are highly motivated and driven by technology and much more aware of the hospitality industry than we were earlier.

My 3 years of Diploma in HM, happened in the year 1993 from IHM-Bhubaneshwar. Campus recruitment were only from the Taj, Oberois, and a stand-alone resort from Goa. Jobs were scarce then and about a dozen only from our batch could fix up their luck through campus. It was by default that other students had to come down to Mumbai or Delhi in search of a job and applying randomly as walk-in, as these were the 2 cities which scored the highest numbers of star hotels. 

In today’s world of hospitality, a fresh graduate has the numerous options to kick start their career. During the 90’s, it was majorly the star hotels and we could not think of any other avenues. I was one of the lucky few to have been selected for Cidade de Goa’s recruitment drive in 1993. While I opted for  Culinary, the  recruiter influenced me to be with F& B Service. Take it or leave it! It was a Hobson’s choice and no way could I turn it down as we were financially parched at home. It was a matter of survival to make both ends meet. I spent two and a half years at this Goan Resort, getting exposed to the various outlets- fine dining, bar, banquets, room service, coffee shop. I also found out that most of the local males were working overseas and the hotels, usually hired outstation candidates. My outlook started to change when I felt that I had enough of a resort hotel and I wished to get exposed to a city hotel. Hence, I shifted to Mumbai in January 1995.

After a few days of job  search and a successful walk-in interview at The Ambassadors, Churchgate, Mumbai, I was put into Banquets and later to their Specialty Continental  Restaurant. I could realize the difference in working for a resort and a city hotel. There used to be a huge turnover of staff as Mumbai was the gateway to overseas employment then. As like others, I had a fond dream of globetrotting too and waited for any opportunity to cross by.

By January 1996, I found my new workplace in the unknown rigid culture and environment, for a chain of Arabic and Western Sweets outlet in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Religious laws engulfed the place with various restrictions, but so what? “In Rome, do as the Romans do” I went with the objective to learn and earn which was so much deep-rooted that all my troubles seemed far away.

At the outlet, I showed interest and respect in anything I came across. Started picking up the local Arabic dialect and in return taught my colleagues, beginner’s English .In here, there was the French Head Chef, whom I befriended and used to greet him and kept admiring his work. It was the first time ever that the French knowledge earned during IHM days, came in real use. My work involved in picking the selected confections as indicated by the customer and getting them packed. It sounds easy but there’s a typical way by which Arabic desserts are packed and definitely an art form.

It then happened quite suddenly after a month or so, that I was asked to report to the French boss of the production section. He asked me to be his ‘assistant’ and I grabbed the opportunity. Initially, it was very difficult to adapt to his strict working standards he would follow. I still remember today, how we as a team, gathered in chef’s office at sharp 11 AM to have the black coffee, how we started work at 5 AM and left the kitchen at 1 PM with such precision. It can never be forgotten how he rebuked and embarrassed me while I was having a freshly baked croissant in front of the oven as I waited for the load of Danish to be brought out .Till date I consider him as my Guru and taught me to what I am today. He made me realize of what a baker should be: passionate, hard working, focused, having patience, displaying honesty, standardization, time management and most importantly ‘ownership’. All hail, Chef Patrice Monchausse!

In 2001, while I was on a vacation in Kolkatta, I thought to myself of having a job change. My concept is, in a job, if 3 things don’t happen simultaneously, I need to be out of it . These 3 things are –time, knowledge and money. Work-life balance was there as we were able to finish work on time. We were given timely salary every month but it didn’t get raised by a single penny anytime .Knowledge remained the same as I was the frog in the well .French Chef returned to his homeland in 5 months after I joined him. Management rejoiced as I could gradually bring in the same products, without any difficulty. Probably, it was a large chunk of money that could be saved from the French Chef’s salary that he wasn’t contacted anymore. But to mention, I am still in touch with my coach through social media.

The confidence I garnered in Middle East for 6 years till 2001 helped me to get a job in Bakery and Pastry, Taj Bengal, Kolkatta. I started all over again as it was a new setup and much different to the SOPs we followed in Saudi Arabia. After a span of 2 years, I realized, I was not making any of the 3 things I needed to continue a job.

My dream to be on a cruise liner appeared when an agent in Mumbai was in the process of recruiting in 2003. I was frequently taking leave from Kolkatta to Mumbai and doing back and forth to complete the various stages of interview and official proceedings for the cruise liner’s job. At a point where my Bakery head got irritated for my intermittent abrupt leaves, I decided to end my service with Taj Bengal as new employment offer was at hand. Little did I know, that my passport was yet to be stamped by the US Embassy for Visa, where it got rejected for reasons unknown. This unexpected blow left an indelible mark on my mind and hopelessness loomed large in front of me and worth memorable to teach me a few life skills lesson I could have ever stumbled upon.

Firstly, never to resign from a job unless very sure of the next. Thereafter, keep official documents updated always. While I said at the US interview that I was married, my passport did not indicate the same. It wasn’t intentional at all. I thought of adding the same once my passport was about to expire and apply for the fresh passport. Or else, I could have said a white lie of being a bachelor then. Incidentally, the US Visa officer was quick to find out the discrepancy, which she didn’t mention then and it took me a decade to find out the reason for rejection.

Future looked scary and grim without a job. It was better to hang on to Mumbai as job openings were always scarce in Kolkatta. It became a ritual for me to scan the classified job ads on every newspaper. I was frantically on the lookout for a suitable job and be occupied when I found a Jordanian advertiser was to come in to Mumbai for US Army Catering job in Middle East again . Gulf region, politically then was at unrest- chasing of Saddam Hussain. Taking up a job, in a war zone was challenging but no other alternative was available. It was an immediate joining with a pay package double the amount of what was committed by the cruise liner.

The Jordanian representative undertook a 40 minute face-to-face interview and only when he was convinced that I was more than willing and equally experienced and ready to serve the US Army based in Jordan, he signaled me to leave my passport behind for further processing. Very soon, a group of selected Indian youth ready for the Army Catering flew together to Amman, the capital of Jordan. Several days passed by and there was no sign of our  workplace. We were put up in a small hotel and we were kept informed that our work would start once US troops signaled us .One midnight, we were suddenly woken up and asked to hurry up with our luggage to the waiting cars. Someone from the group, with a low voice said, we were going to travel to Iraq to the US base camps. Most of us had the impression that we would be working in Jordan for the US Army.

The journey started in the darkness of the night and we got stopped at several check posts, manned by US soldiers as was understood by the American flags stitched on to their fighting jackets. It appeared , they were counting the heads and tallied the number written on the permit kept safely by the driver. At one point, our passports were stamped and realized we stepped into Iraq. About lunch time, we entered the cordoned off US Army camps and the camp boss came forward to show our working place - a makeshift shed turned into a kitchen and dining hall. Our resting places were insulated portable containers with bunk beds. The whirring choppers, military trucks with broadest tyres rolling on loose stone chips, grim faced soldiers passing by, missile or scud alert sirens, bunkers fortified with numerous sand bags, rippling effect of cannonade still remains fresh on my mind .

From kitchen, we used to get ready with 6 meals a day starting from midnight chow- 12 AM, early morning tea- 4 AM, Breakfast-6 AM, Brunch -10 AM, Lunch -1PM, and dinner at 6 PM.It was here I experienced dry whip topping cream powders, egg white powders, frozen and ready to serve pizzas and so many other ingredients and techniques, unique to a common chef. The appreciable adaptability of the soldiers to embrace any palate, whether it was Mexican, Chinese, mid- Eastern or even Indian was noteworthy. Food was in abundance and hygiene and safety was of the first order. Leftover food was simply discarded and strict Quality Control officers were constantly on rounds.

An unsettling couple of months passed by in uneasiness and I  got used to the turmoil, heat and dust of the barren lands. While the US and Allies were fighting the Operation Iraqi Freedom outside the camps, the picture inside was one of rebuilding and construction- Gym, Internet library, phone booths, postal department, army canteen , football (American) ground for the benefit and welfare of the US soldiers and civilians like us who were mostly Asians.

A big concern cropped up next. We received our salaries in cash but were not able to send home. The camp boss and others in authority requested the US Postal department to come to our help. I decided to hold the huge amount of cash, labeled and wrapped over by a thick Aluminum foil paper lest any scud hit us and burnt everything. We had so much trust on the US military, that even if we were killed inside the camp, our belongings and dead bodies would have arrived to our dear ones. So, at least we could save our earned money, which was piling up, in case of a fatal incoming air strike. 

While working with a diverse community, my tolerance and understanding over food and culture broadened, the tenacity to work long hours increased, the ability to take risks heightened. After all, “Fortune favours the brave”. I still feel, because I missed my bus to catch the cruise liner, I could experience a much better one in the war led zone.I am still lucky to be alive , to share the experiences with our students. I learnt the ways to survive, the skills sets required in emergencies. We could feel the caring attitude and respect, the American commanders and chiefs bestowed on us through their rewards and awards program. They kept our motivation high at all times.

Although I wished to work, support and get exposed a little longer alongside US Armed forces, my family in India was panic- stricken as media news were only  flooded with terror attacks , mass killings and kidnappings which brought distress and was unbearable for them. After spending 15 months at the US base camp in Baghdad ,I safely returned back home. My primary job search began through friends and I owe them so much. One job offer interested me, which happened to be in one of the HM colleges in Delhi. I was excited and successful , to clear the various stages to recruit  a faculty and in 2005 I started teaching F&B Service, Bakery and a few classes of Food Production. I was happy and confident in classrooms as I had experienced both the areas of Service and Production.

In 2008, as part of my academic enrichment, through IGNOU, I was able to convert my 3 years Diploma to a Bachelor of Science degree. By 2012, I was having a Masters degree in Hotel Management. My job revolved around teaching in classes, attending and organizing workshops, reviewing HM text books, preparing and evaluating question papers and answer sheets for various Universities, delivering lectures on media, judging culinary events, R & D with new or existing products ,writing articles ,  and many other activities.

After rigorous and stringent screening of selected chefs PAN India, USDA, Mumbai, in 2016 recommended 10 chefs, including me, to visit the USA for a 2 weeks exposure in US Food and Agriculture under the Cochran Fellowship Training Program. Joy and pride filled my heart. While in 2002, my US Visa got rejected, the invite for the visit came from the US Government this time.

Apart from this International exposure during my tenure in academics, I had the opportunity to visit Korea for the English Baking Camp and Saudi Arabia, as part of the workforce during the GCC Summit organized by the King.

2019 was indeed exciting and remain memorable. I decided to file my nomination for the ICF Chef Awards ,after being in the Hospitality trade since 1990. It took me more than 3 weeks (2 hours per day) to compile and consolidate my candidature for the category of “Pastry Chef of the year”. I was one of the winning faces and glad I could hold the “Oscar of the Culinary Awards” There was no media house left, who did not cover this event . The ICF Organizing committee, under Chef Davinder Kumar’s leadership does definitely need a pat on the back for the marvelous job they are doing for our fraternity.

To conclude, I really don’t know, how much successful  my journey has been but assuring you that I am very much happy and really enjoy to be a part of the hospitality trade and would consistently keep contributing for the growth , development and stability of our community and our nation at large.

Jai Hind!
Chef Ranojit Kundu
HOD- Bakery &Pastry, Banarsidas Chandiwala IHM, New Delhi