Chef Profile: Meet Vijay Chandramohan, head chef at Hilton Cambridge City Centre
Vijay Chandramohan, head chef at Hilton Cambridge City Centre, tells Alice Ryan about his culinary career - and weakness for sugar
Let’s start at the beginning: did you grow up in a foodie house? Tell us about your earliest memories of food and cooking.
I grew up in a typical South Indian family home. From a very young age I was fascinated by the complex tastes which panned out in each dish, even though they were made with similar ingredients. My mum was my inspiration - she was a very good cook.
What made you want to pursue a career as a chef?
Although I rarely helped my mum in my early years, in later years I was drawn to trying different dishes in our kitchen and realised that I wanted this art of cooking to become more than a hobby.
Tell us about the first pro kitchen you cooked in. Was the famous ‘baptism of fire’?
It was in my second year of college. I was doing my six-month training at the Trident Hotel, part of the Oberoi group in Chennai. It started well; I particularly enjoyed working in the bar, making cocktails and, of course, getting lots of tips! But when my turn came to work in the kitchen, my hobby had to face up to reality and it was hard - long and intense hours. Still something in me made me choose this career over any other easier options I had.
Can you share a stand-out memory from your career thus far?
I have lots of great memories of my time with Carnival Cruise Lines. I think it was 2002 when - carrying around 4,800 guests and 1,000 crew on trips to Grand Cayman and Mexico - we could not go back to port in Miami due to a hurricane travelling that way. We were told to stay in waters for a couple more days till it was safe; with 5,800 people to feed, we had to scrape every bit of food in our storeroom possible to serve. I think it was the most challenging - and equally exciting - time in my career.
What brought you to the Hilton?
The evolution of Hilton as a brand is amazing; it’s more than a hundred years old and its core values are commendable. I believe Hilton was the first company to call its employees ‘team members’ way back in 1919, bringing in the sense of ownership; just this week we celebrated ‘team members’ appreciation week’, which is a great way to say thank you to the team. I am proud to be taken into the Hilton family and hope to make my workplace even better.
How would you describe the hotel’s culinary style, since you took the helm of the kitchen?
It’s a lovely and energetic team I have here. The hotel itself is a frontrunner on the conference and banqueting side, and our pride and joy is the Bull and Bass restaurant, which has a surf and turf-themed menu that we work seasonally. The next menu will be an infusion of flavours from my travels in Asia, the Middle East, Caribbean and Mediterranean - with, of course, my Indian touch to it.
We know sourcing locally and seasonally is important. Tell us about a couple of your favourite autumn/winter ingredients.
I love using lots of root vegetables in my menus, particularly celeriac, swede and butternut squash.
If our readers haven’t eaten at the hotel before, what should they order?
My favourite is the house special sirloin steak and grilled king prawns - and also the chorizo and crayfish mac ’n’cheese.
Within the culinary world, who inspires you?
Larousse Gastronomique is the book that made me take the next step from home cooking. Chef Paul Bocuse is my inspiration and his contribution to the culinary world is huge.
What’s the most memorable meal or dish you’ve eaten?
Biryani is my favourite dish and my most memorable one has to be made by my wife; she is a tremendous cook.
Which three store-cupboard ingredients could you not cook without and why?
Sea salt, black peppercorn and Dijon mustard. These three are, for me, key to bringing in the balance in dishes - and also adding a kick.
What are the key ingredients to being a successful chef, would you say?
Leadership skills. I strongly believe that, without a good team behind you, greater heights can’t be reached. You need the ability to inspire and excite people, with words and actions. You also need to pay attention to details and be proactive, too.
Do you have any guilty food pleasures to confess?
Of course! My dad was a diabetic, yet I crave sweets. Haribo Tangfastics are my favourites. . .
Hilton Cambridge City Centre is at 20 Downing Street, Cambridge CB2 3DT. See hilton.com and call (01223) 464491 for more.