The year was 1980. It was Dinesh Kumar’s first day of civil engineering class at the Pusa Polytechnic, New Delhi, when he learnt of his successful admission for degree in Hospitality and Hotel Management from Pusa Institute of Hotel Management, Delhi. “You know after Year 12, you are at the crossroads, you think about your career and apply in ten different places. But my destination was hotel management,” says Kumar.
The moral is also that intelligent people can master any trade, but Kumar was already fascinated by how life would be different and full of glamour in the hotel industry, so he decided to pursue his course. By 1982-83, Kumar completed his hotel management and at the same time a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Delhi through correspondence.
And it was exhilarating for him that immediately after graduation he was selected by the India Tourism Development Corporation (ITDC), a hospitality, retail and education company owned by Government of India, as management trainee with the Ashok Group, a chain of hotels owned by ITDC.
“I joined ITDC as kitchen management trainee and for two years I did intense training working in different branches of the Ashok Group of hotels, after which I became chef with Ashok Hotel, Delhi,” says Kumar. He would go on to become sous chef and head chef.
Not only did Kumar cook in earnest at the Ashok, but he also became part of the Prime Minister’s catering cell. That means not only was he looking after the Prime Minister’s Office in South Block, but he was part of every major event or state banquets that were held at Hyderabad House, Vigyan Bhavan, Teen Murti, et al.
Kumar went on to work till parts of 1996, the year he also migrated to Australia. But recalling his career, he talks about the other major events that complements his wholesome experience as a chef in India. “First of all, the name Ashok Hotel is itself a crowning glory for chefs,” he says with pride. “I worked for the Asian Games 1982, the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) meetings and I was part of many Indian food festivals abroad including Mauritius.”
And quite like the kitchen authority, Kumar was sent to the famous food fair in Cologne, Germany, which is one of the world’s largest trade fairs and the food industry’s foremost meeting place. “I went to see what the updates were, the market strategy and what products were there,” says Kumar who also worked for a special task force to increase tourism via food in different parts of India including Bir in Himachal Pradesh and Nagva Beach in Gujarat.
Kumar also channelled his food knowledge into writing. He contributed to the Ashok Book of Favourite Indian Recipes (1993) and the Royal Indian Recipes in which master chefs of the Ashok Group offer people some of their choice recipes to make eating an experience.
Arriving in Melbourne in 1996 in a city that celebrates global, multicultural food, Kumar says, “I had a job on the fifth day itself. I was enrolled in one of the agencies and I started getting jobs through them. I was lucky enough,” he recalls.
But international cuisine was something he had already trained and worked for in India. The only difference, Kumar realised, was that there were stricter food safety rules to follow, dietary requirements to consider here. “It is a very good thing. I must appreciate that we follow rules here”.
When Crown Melbourne relocated and reopened on the south bank of the Yarra in 1997, Kumar got to work there for a year after which he opened his own restaurant Darbar in Glenroy in 2000. After running Darbar for six years, Kumar shut shop in 2006. “We sold it because it was getting too hectic and the family commitment was missing. I wanted to run a restaurant but at what cost? Of course, in a restaurant you earn more money, but I thought this is not the reason that I am here. I want to enjoy life and there has to be family life also.”
So the fact that Kumar was back in the hotel industry was no surprise. Today, Kumar works mainly for events—the Australian Open, AFL footy, Melbourne Racing Club, cricket at MCG, et al—and has become part of Melbourne’s food architecture working on dizzying menus.
In an answer to a question, he says, “Yes I have catered for Indian cricketers. But If I tell you Sachin Tendulkar likes dal or curry, it does not make sense. They all love Indian food,” he says with a laugh, adding, “But when you are working for big sporting events, the demand is not only Indian food, it is multi cuisines catering to marquee clients.”
Food in Australia, says Kumar, defies stereotypes. “It is multicultural, it can be street food or high end but in these events the demand is for a mix of cuisines and we make different packages. So there can be a samosa, a pakora or a kebab, a party pie or noodles, it is a mixed menu.”
He also says that Indian food such as rogan josh and butter chicken are very high in demand and has a firm place in any menu. “There is always space for Indian food in high profile menu, people love it.”
In his 20-25 years career as a chef, Kumar says he is now seeing a change in food habits with people looking for fresh and tasty food. “People are more health conscious too, be it low carb or high protein, grass-fed beef or corn-fed chicken, there is a lot of preference.”
Kumar’s career path has been quite circuitous covering every facet of food—from restaurants, high end hotels, curating books to even doing television shows. He was featured in two episodes of Zaike Ka Safar which featured on Indian state television Doordarshan in 1996. From Australia, he also did three programs for Kitchen Tak, part of the India Today Group Aaj Tak productions. And he even cooked for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on his visit here in 2014.
It is not rare for a chef of such versatility to be experimental as with other ventures in life. As a new merchant of Qoin, Australia’s new digital currency, Kumar is looking at innovative and secure alternative to connect and interact. Built on blockchain, Qoin offers merchants and consumers an innovative and secure alternative to connect and interact.
Wearing the happy smile of a chef who “loves to win hearts with my cooking”, Kumar modestly answers he is living the dream of a chef. “Thoda moka mila (I just happened to get a bit of an opportunity)”.
— The Indian Sun (@The_Indian_Sun) December 10, 2020