Montu Saini was a teenager when he made his first chapati – it was neither round nor edible.
“It was burnt,” said Saini. “I remember making 12 chapatis that day, and only three of them were worth serving.”
In 2015, Saini took over from chef Machindra Kasture as the executive chef of the Rashtrapati Bhavan, under President Pranab Mukherjee. The journey, said Saini, from that first chapati to the president’s kitchen, has been a long and fulfilling one. It started when Saini, a science student, moved in with his uncle in Hisar, Haryana, to prepare for the Indian Institute of Technology entrance exam.
With no woman in the house, the responsibility of cooking every day fell to the men.
“I was never encouraged to cook growing up, but it was just me, my brother and my uncle in that Hisar house,” said Saini. “We had to cook our own food. The first few things I learned to make was regular fare like dal, roti, aloo sabji.” He now boasts a range of dishes in his oeuvre with murgh darbari and baoli sabz handi being his signature dishes. However, that simple meal of “peeli dal and roti” (yellow lentils with bread) and a fresh salad is still comfort food for the man who typically tastes more than a dozen dishes each day.
Sitting at the 1911 restaurant at the Imperial hotel on Janpath, Saini sipped a cup of coffee and spoke about how the hospitality industry came to him by pure chance. His father had asked him to apply for hotel management, a safety net in case IIT did not work out. It did not, and Saini found himself at the Institute of Hotel Management, Bangalore. He sits now in his chef’s whites, adorned with the national emblem.
Saini lives with his family within the president’s estate.
“When I chose this line, my father was not un-supportive, but he used to say jokingly that ‘this son of mine turned out to be useless’,” said Saini. “That changed the day he found out that I had been appointed as the chef for the presidential kitchen and that I was the youngest one to have been chosen for the job. I think that remains my biggest reward.”
“My juniors in college used to joke and say ‘if you are looking for Montu sir, you’ll probably find him either in the kitchen or in the library reading a cook book’,” said Saini. “In many ways, I’m still learning. It never stops. If you want to remain relevant in your profession, you must keep updating yourself with the latest trends.”
Saini does not have a romantic history with food that he can relate to. His training as a chef began in college, and developed with every job.
“You have to be good student throughout your life. You tend to pick up little things along the way that makes you better chef.”
One such experience that Saini can never forget happened while he was working with the Ashoka Group. “I considered a cook called Yakub chacha my guru,” he said. “He taught me things that I would never find in a group. One day while passing by the kitchen he could tell without tasting the food that I had forgotten to put in salt. I was surprised to find that he was right and had to pursue him for a week before he finally gave in and told me that he knew by the smell of haldi (turmeric) in the air. Salt tamps down that haldi smell.”
Armed with these nuggets of wisdom, and a formal training in running a professional kitchen, Saini oversees a staff of around 45 people at the Rashtrapati Bhavan, and his job requires him to put his numerous management degrees to good use. The presidential kitchen caters to all the official functions, meetings, banquets, receptions and conferences hosted by the president. The main kitchen is divided into various sections – bakery, halwai station, a training area, grocery area and staff cafeteria. A “family” kitchen is reserved for the president and his family.
According to Saini, there is no such thing as a “typical day” at the Rashtrapati Bhavan. “Every day there are scores of meetings taking place at the palace [as Saini refers to the bhavan], so menus need to be drawn up and approved. If the president is travelling then we need to cater the flight, for which the food needs to reach the aircraft two hours before the tour begins. It all needs to be planned down to the last detail.”
On special occasions like Diwali, Holi and other festivals, the kitchen staff makes sweet delicacies and special dishes. “This Diwali we made besan ladoos by hand,” said Saini.
Saini is guarded when it comes to talking about the president’s favourite dishes, or his food preferences, but says that president Mukherjee’s family pitches in with suggestions from time to time about what they wish to eat on a particular day.
“The president obviously prefers Bengali food, but he can get very adventurous and tries different cuisines from all over the world,” said Saini. “He enjoys a good sizzler now and then, but how much of it can you really eat? At the end of the day you want home style food.”
On the day Saini spoke to Scroll.in, President Mukherjee was about to host probationers of the Indian Revenue Service, and Saini had been fielding calls from the office.
“There are around 50 people coming today,” he said. “They have to be fed well with different types of snacks, tea, coffee, nariyal pani.”
The food served is always a true reflection of traditional cuisine from all over India. The cooks of Rashtrapati Bhavan excel in various areas, be it baking breads and pastries or cooking up perfectly flaky kachoris and samosas or making imarti and jalebi. In fact, Saini says, the kitchen is requested to prepare Indian foods for foreign dignitaries when they visit the president.
“Recently when Aung San Suu Kyi [state counsellor of Myanmar] was at the palace, she requested foods like dosa, samosa, kachori and puri bhaji,” he said. “It is our duty to showcase the Indian cuisine and we only ever serve Indian food.”
For Saini, maintaining a smooth chain of supply is the most important aspect of maintaining the kitchen. On days when the president is not hosting a special event or a banquet, the kitchen garden, tended to by about 200 gardeners, is their source for fresh produce.
A meal at the Rashtrapati Bhavan usually begins with a soup, followed by a variety of vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes and dessert. The meal always finishes with tea or coffee. The guests can also enjoy a variety of pan and other mouth fresheners on their way out.
“When you are serving the guest of the president, whether they are foreign dignitaries or from Indian states, there is zero room for error,” said Saini. “Whatever is prepared in that kitchen is the chef’s show. I decide how spicy or bland a dish is going to be, how thick or thin the gravy should be and it all needs to be perfect.”
The requirement to always stick to Indian food, what Saini refers to as the “mother cuisine”, doesn’t bother him. He says that he still enjoys a lot of creative freedom in the kitchen. “People tend to forget that when we say ‘Indian’ food, it means food from, literally, all over India.”