One of the biggest challenges and opportunities that came my way, courtesy Mr Tata, was catering for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), held in Goa, hosted by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in November 1983.

I had a very tough interaction with Mrs Gandhi – she just met us for a minute or so, but her team had briefed us on how the banquet was a matter of the country’s prestige. The same was also conveyed to us by Mr Tata, who came to the Taj to meet all of us and said, “The food and service has to be top-class”.

It was an extremely high-profile retreat with leaders from more than 40 countries, and their teams, coming down for a mere forty-eight hours. Mrs Gandhi wanted new heritage cottages to be built on the Taj Goa property by the deadline, and the entire Taj Group machinery was in full swing. There was a section on a hill in Fort Aguada, where six new cottages were constructed for Mrs Gandhi, Her Excellency Mrs Margaret Thatcher and all the other state premiers

Goa, in those days, was not as well-developed. It was a tremendous task to get any work done. Mr Kerkar was our managing director and vice chairman at that time, and he took complete charge of the project. He dealt with the contractor, the labourers, even picking up a broomstick here and a spade there, to expedite the process.

I was busy upgrading the kitchen and trying to make it as hygienic as possible. I put up a huge board in the kitchen where I wrote down the name of the country, the dietary preferences of the head of the state and any other vital information. The guests arrived a day before the conference and were supposed to dine at the restaurants. It meant we had to make sure all the restaurants on the property were ready from the get-go.

The trick to catering to such a large and diverse group of guests is to create a grand buffet. And that’s what I did. I put together a vast buffet with more than a hundred dishes for breakfast, lunch and dinner, keeping in mind the setting, the mood and the weather. For the conference, I created a menu of dainty finger foods with visual appeal. I prepared small potato vadas and gobi pakodas, chicken tikka, puffed pastry pies and open sandwiches. I also had to keep in mind everyone’s personal preferences – someone did not like coriander, someone did not touch garlic or chillies. But you cannot make 20 different kinds of potato vadas and you also cannot stick to traditional recipes for the sake of it. So I tempered the vadas with curry leaves, mustard seeds, and cumin seeds and created an assortment of dips to go with them.

After the conference, the guests were more relaxed – swimming or playing tennis or enjoying the breeze and the views. The mood was jovial and everyone was in flowery T-shirts provided by the Taj, or in their beach dresses and shorts. To make sure everyone had a good time, we were working extra hard to ensure the food was perfect. We had to ensure there was enough fresh fruit, fresh juice, freshly baked croissants and rolls. I had provisioned for an Indian breakfast with upma, poha, dosa that would be made live at the counters. We prepared unique stuffings for mini dosas, including paneer bhurji, soya keema, spinach mixed with cottage cheese and minced lamb masala. And of course, potato for anyone who likes to keep it authentic.

As I have said earlier, I love the concept of live cooking, and it is something I pioneered in India with the many food festivals and barbecues that the Taj hosted. The aroma of food being cooked live not only gets people hungry, but the food is also fresher and tastier. What makes it better is when the chef himself interacts with the guests, explaining a bit about the ingredients and techniques. The more your guests engage with the food being served, the more value it adds to the dining experience.

So for the main banquet, we went all out. There were jalebis and gulab jamuns that were being fried and dunked in sweet syrup, fresh lobsters were being grilled, oysters in colanders, and an assortment of sauces poured on a big roast joint. We also had Shehenshahi biryani in a handi, kept on a lightly burning charcoal sigree, a pasta station with morel sauce, Indian kebabs from a charcoal pit and even Indian breads that were being freshly prepared in a portable tandoor. At every counter, each guest was given plenty of choice – whether it was the cut of meat, the fruits or the sauces. The idea was to make people feel that everything was being customised according to their individual palates. They were floored!

There were at least 15 hygiene inspectors and doctors who had come along with the various heads of state. It was a nightmare. They went through the cold storages, they checked every inch of the kitchen, the storage area for the raw material – whether vegetarian or non-vegetarian ingredients, fish and lamb were stored separately. To appease them, I even went a step further and made date tags for every ingredient. Containers with cooked food are tagged so that we know at a glance when exactly it was cooked and by when it should be consumed. It helps us in the hospitality industry to ensure a first-in, first-out cycle of cooking and consuming. Date tagging is particularly crucial in-flight kitchens.

Some kitchens also have coloured date tags for each day of the week, so that the kitchen staff can tell at a glance when that tray was prepared and by when it should be consumed. The same system is used in the butchery for the meat rack – fresh meat is tagged with the date of arrival, supplier’s name, weight, etc. This helps in keeping food contamination at bay and reduces wastage.

But for all my careful tagging, there was invariably a slip-up. At 3 pm, one day, I took a round of the walk-in cooler where the trays were tagged and kept. Everything was in order. 45 minutes later, a hygiene officer from Singapore, who was accompanying their prime minister, wanted to take a tour of the kitchen and the walk-in cooler with me. The moment we walked into the cooler, we spotted a handi full of white sauce on the floor instead of on a pallet.

The officer was furious about how we were unable to take care of what was a very basic requirement. I tried to salvage the situation by showing him the chart that recorded my last check, how we had tagged every single item and apologised profusely for the oversight. My assistant chef Prem Kumar also joined me and the two of us did our best to convince him that the incident was truly an aberration. Fortunately for me, the rest of the kitchen was absolutely spic and span and assuaged the inspectors’ concerns. But those were some of the toughest days and nights for me.

Excerpted with permission from Sweets and Bitters: Tales from a Chef’s Life, Satish Arora and Chandrima Pal, Bloomsbury India.