He's an executive chef at one of London’s most upscale Indian restaurants -- Benares -- in the tony Mayfair district. But ask Sameer Taneja
about his signature dish and you'll get him talking about his mother's chaats he grew up with in India.
"Not a signature dish but a favourite one, which I have recreated, is the cured sea bream and oyster chaat. It's closest to my heart and represents my mother's cuisine. She taught me that Indian chaat goes beyond the ingredients and tingles all the taste buds at the same time. Umami, bitterness, salt, sweet and sour all at one point," the Delhi-born chef told TIMESOFINDIA.com
His own version of chaat, which for him ticks all the boxes, combines saltiness of oysters, is garnished with crispy Indian boondis and served with sour aam-panna (mango) dressing.
Taneja, whose first job after college was at the prestigious Oberoi Rajvilas Jaipur
, moved to the UK in 2003 and has worked at many famous restaurants in London with big names such as Michel and Alain Roux at Waterside Inn in Bray, and Pierre Koffmann at Koffmann’s in Mayfair.
"I came to the UK not because I wanted to leave India, but because I wanted to cook at the best Michelin-starred restaurants. During the two years at Oberoi, I worked with French and English chefs and the high standards of cooking were implanted in my head. Landing a job at One-O-One Restaurant, which is London’s best for seafood, was an immense journey for a young Indian boy back then," he reminisced.
Taneja -- who first joined Benares as head chef in 2012 but left three years later to launch his own restaurant, Talli Joe
, in Covent Garden -- returned as an executive chef in 2019. Talking about the difficult months triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic, he feels that the idea of fine dining in London is coming back but with changes.
"It was hard for us but we tried to remain positive and hopeful. At Benares, we found alternative ways to keep the restaurant running and meet the demand from regular customers," he said. It was also important to support the National Health Service
(NHS) medical community during the pandemic and the management of the restaurant saw an opportunity in donating over 10,000 hot and nutritious Indian meals to frontline workers in their effort to give back to the local community.
The chef now believes that fine dining will be defined by the total experience of the diners rather than a fancy setting or expensive ingredients. "We certainly use expensive ingredients but the approach is more about sustainable, fresh and organic local produce," he explained. And London, for him, will continue to remain a gastronomic capital, even if the approach to fine dining is a bit different in the post-pandemic world.
Taneja sees a huge impact of Indian cuisine in London with the largest number of Indian restaurants making it to the prestigious Michelin Guide
of fine dining. "London has the largest number of Indian restaurants in the world and the fact that a very small number of them shut doors during the pandemic shows how high the demand for Indian food is," he said.
The trend of small Indian restaurants serving single origin, regional cuisine from different Indian states, is something that the chef is upbeat about. "The UK has a whole big Indian restaurant mafia, but in a very good way."
He was picked as the head chef for Benares and mentored by chef Atul Kochhar, who he still admires as a mentor and "living legend". But Taneja's own journey as an entrepreneur, when he left to start his own restaurant venture, ended in disappointment.
"It was a bar-led restaurant with a desi menu inspired by traditional regional food of India. Everything, including the innovative cocktails, was done differently in a playful and fun way," he recalled. And though he feels very sad about having had to close down the venture, he believes that with the immense learning that he has gained from the entrepreneurial journey, he will again open his own restaurant someday.
When he is not cooking, Taneja spends quality time with his wife, son and daughter aged 11 and five. "I love my job and the pleasure that I find in cooking Indian food with local British produce keeps me going. But I also find positive energy from the time that I spend with my family," he said. Gardening on their home turf in London and growing potted flowers and vegetables is a hobby that the family enjoys together.