Vikram Arora On How He Never Expected To Be A Celebrity Chef

Food in Mumbai is a serious business. Restaurants come and go and if one place doesn’t live up to expectations, there are ten more waiting to take its place. So when Chef Vikram Arora, a Delhi native, took his first steps towards opening his own restaurant here back in 2018, it came with many doubts and second thoughts. But since the opening of Tamak, he’s been making waves on the restaurant scene and is currently wow-ing SoBo guests with a stunning modern Indian menu at Nksha. 

He made his way from a hotel service to being a full-fledged business owner, restauranteur and entrepreneur. Aside from running 3 successful restaurants in Mumbai, he also moonlights as a consultant and added another feather to his cap with The Johri, a Jaipur-based restaurant that was recently featured on Conde Nast Traveller’s Top 50 Restaurants list for 2023. He’s got many similar consultancy projects in the works across Goa, Ahmedabad and Pune, but he’s also harbouring a new plot of his own to introduce Mumbai to a new world of chaat experiences. 

On the occasion of International Chef’s Day 2023, we caught up with the chef who seems to have done it all to find out what makes him tick and how he went from hotel kitchen to star chef.

Where did your love for food begin?

I grew up in a Multani Punjabi family and by the age of 12 or 13, I used to go with my mum to buy vegetables. Back then there were no options to order things in so we used to go out every time to shop and go out to eat. I was a little greedy kid and I quickly realised, that if I went with them I’d get good food to eat as well. On my mum’s side, it's a big family with 5 brothers and 3 sisters, and her family was very food-oriented. She was so fond of cooking that now people from my dad’s family all come to try her food. Simple things like chole kulcha, aloo puri gobi paratha. Since then I wanted to do something in food.

How did this translate into a career?

I used to be very studious, a topper in my class. But I realised numbers weren’t my thing. As the youngest, I was given the choice to do what I wanted, so even though my family hoped I’d do engineering, I thought I’d give it a try with Hotel Management. I took the entrance exam, cracked it and then purposely failed the engineering exam just to make sure.

I wasn’t interested in the business side, I didn’t want to wear a suit, blazer, this and that every day. So I knew the cooking side was for me. At that time – 21 years ago – it was very difficult to enter the hotel industry as there were less number of them around. But I knew a friend’s relative who gave me a chance at the Radisson and he told me, ‘I need you to prove you belong here.’.

What was your journey to opening your restaurants in Mumbai?

At the Radisson, I went on to open and run The Great Kebab Factory and opened up branches in Noida, Gurgaon and others. Then I went on to open a standalone restaurant in Hong Kong. I worked there for a year and when I was back in India for a holiday by chance I got a place at the Four Seasons. It was like a dream come true. On the trial day, I served them 32 dishes, got the job and then my Mumbai journey started. Delhi to Hong Kong, Hong Kong to Mumbai, and I’ve been here since. 

What made you leave hospitality and take a chance on your own restaurant?

I travelled across the world for Four Seasons, and hosted trainings and events in Florence and Hong Kong, but the passion wasn’t there. So I decided to open up something of my own. And in 2018 I opened up Tamak, a small 22-odd seater, and I used to do things differently there. I made small coin jalebis, made chaas in a coffee blender, make salads tableside. People weren’t expecting to see North Indian food in such a different way to the table in a place where the kitchen was bigger than the restaurant itself. I wanted to break the conceptions around North Indian food and I succeeded

I got a partner on board to handle the business end of things and once we’d developed some confidence as a team, we opened up a new place during COVID. I had a global food background from Four Seasons – Indian, Cantonese, Peruvian, Mexican – I’d experienced it all. We found a cosy place and decided to do something around tea, and that became Zaocha House, based on the concept of Yum Cha, which is dim sum and tea. I then went on to open the pizzeria Sforno in Worli, and the Nksha a modern Indian concept which has been up and running for 5 months.

How would you describe your signature style as a chef?

I try to keep things as traditional as possible. It’s what people can relate to best. My cooking has a North Indian touch. More dum cooking, I get my spice mixes pounded in Delhi and sent here, they have my signature recipes for things like Chana Masala and Shahi Masala, and they grind it in a stone grinder and send them. Delhi, UP, Amritsar, these 3 places are my go-to for authentic spices. I don’t believe in fusion, the base has to be real. You can top it off with whatever you want but that content has to be real, like my Truffle Kulche. Same way at Nksha, we have chaat on the menu and the chaat itself will taste just like the chaat you’ll get in Delhi, but what I do is add seasonal berries instead of the anar (pomegranate seeds), it’s these little things that make a difference between traditional to a little elevated without losing the authenticity.

What are some of the highlights of your career so far?

I didn’t ever expect to move from a service background to a business background, but I somehow found the courage to make the jump out of my comfort zone. My thought process was, that if I made the switch to business, I’d have to struggle a lot but maybe my children would take over and would struggle less. I never expected to run three restaurants of my own, I thought maybe I’d open one and stick to it, but things fell in place to open three. I had the opportunity to work at Four Seasons, which is a dream for many Hotel Management students. But at a hotel, the Chef is anonymous, people know the hotel name, not your name. But after Tamak, I realised people will say things like “I’m going to eat at Chef Vikram’s restaurant, or Chef Vikram’s butter chicken is ‘ek dum Delhi style’”. I’ve sent my jalebi and paan ice cream to places like Dubai and France, and people have even ordered 2 kilos of jalebi, then come back a few days later for 2 kilos more! I’ve served cricketers, politicians, and Bollywood celebrities, these are all parts of my journey which have made me proud that I’m really making something of myself. 

Rapid Fire Round

Favourite Comfort Meal:

Definitely Rajma Chawal. My whole family knows this is what to make for me.

Most Overrated Ingredients:

Edible flowers and microgreens. I like traditional cooking, I just don’t use them. They might look good, but they don’t add anything. 

Activated Charcoal. There’s such a trend for making everything black, but for what, it doesn’t even change the taste. Simple things are best. 

Most Embarrassing Kitchen Moment:

When I was the Executive Chef for a banquet at The Four Seasons, I sent my sous chef to make a rice dish, and when he sent it up, it smelled burned. He refused to believe it, but I could smell it. We made 10 more batches and managed to avoid the guests noticing. 

Kitchen Staples I Can’t Live Without:

You can’t cook without salt. You can make food without chilli, but never without salt.

Greatest Culinary Inspirations:

Chef Rajeet Choudhary was like the godfather for me in the industry, whatever I have achieved today is because he gave me a chance. Another is my first executive chef, Vaneet Wadhera, who today is my partner. One got me in and the other dragged me along and taught me how navigate being a chef in today’s world.