Worthy of royalty: The restaurant showcases pan-Indian foods inspired by the kitchens of royalty, with spices aplenty and all six tastes; (inset) Founders Chef Manjit Gill in turban and Gautam Anand




At the ITC Grand Chola Hotel in Chennai, world-class cuisine, decorous service and a lavish Raja’s decor conspire to take healthy eating to celestial heights



THOUGH THE WORLD IS REDISCOVERING the richness and healthful merits of vegetarianism, it has been slow to provide meatless diners the same elite ambience offered to their meat-loving friends. Enter Chef Manjit S. Gill, Corporate Chef of the ITC hotel chain and arguably India’s gastronomic guru, a lifelong vegetarian with a passion for his nation’s food traditions and a mission to make India a gastronomic superpower.

Chef Gill and Gautam Anand, Vice President of the ITC Hotels Division, have created a restaurant at the Grand Chola Hotel in Chennai, one that would be the envy of any social or financial power player seeking to impress a client. And this elegant eatery serves no meat. Ever. Period.

Climb the wide Bollywood-style marble staircase and enter the world of Royal Vega. The hostess, decorously attired, ushers you in with a 70mm smile, offering jasmine garlands to the lady guests. Arati is gracefully waved before each guest. One feels regal.

Soft strains of sitar, flute and tabla guide you to the table. Appetizers grace a solid silver leaf beside your plate. The server offers two menus—red for the host, who pays the bill, and cream for the guests, sans prices. Guests reviewing their meal on Trip Advisor found the staff remarkably attentive, the portions staggeringly generous and the prices a bit Himalayan.

Every page on the visually rich menu card, which completely changes every eight weeks with the local seasons, features royal ornaments. The menu is divided into ten sections, each labeled in Sanskrit with English and Hindi descriptions.

So, what’s for dinner tonight? I scan the headings: Amiksha (paneer, fresh Indian cheese); Alukam (alu, potatoes); Dalika (dal, pulses, lentils); Ratna Garbha (kofteh, spicy marble-sized savories); Karhi (curd gravy); Ardra (tikiya, patty); Shalivarge (chawal, rice); Rotik (roti, bread); Dadhi varga (dahi, curd); and Mishtanam (mithras, sweets).

Let’s Dine at the Palace Tonight

The restaurant’s five opulent dining halls reflect the traditional spaces in which Indian courtiers dined. In those days people ate in separate groups according to rank and position. Thus the Royal Vega’s five chambers: Rajadhiraj Takht where the king entertained dignitaries; Niwas, where the ministers dined; Rajvansh Chowki, a low seating area reserved for second-tier royals; Rajmata Chowki where the Queen ate; and Rajrani Kaksh, a private dining area for ladies of the royal household. (The restaurant generously allows men to eat here, too.)

The Philosophy of Food

Chef Gill offers some background: “Gautam Anand and I researched the cuisine based on vegetarian traditions across the states of India coupled with religious beliefs and geographical factors. We studied the various elements which have contributed to the evolution of vegetarian food in India, like trade and ethnic influences. We delved into ayurveda and the science of spices in food, then forayed into the temple and princely cuisines of India. All these factors helped us in understanding their influences on vegetarian food preferences and how the present-day vegetarian diet has evolved. A great deal of research went into identifying the characteristics of each ingredient. Indian gastronomy is distinctive in that there are no standardized recipes in our tradition.”

The cuisine is sourced from all regions, admiting no South-North duality. Each item is cooked anew; everything is completely fresh. Masalas are hand pounded, mirchis are stone ground. Desi cow ghee is the only oil used. Foods prepared here follow the six seasons and the six tastes. Ayurveda speaks of these tastes: 1) madhura or sweet; 2) amla or sour; 3) lavana or salty; 4) tikta or bitter; 5) katu or pungent; 6) kasaya or astringent .


Worthy of royalty: Executive Chef Ajit Bangera, Chef Varun Mohan and Chef Srinivasan

Chef Gill, who authored The Secrets of Indian Gastronomy, explains: “Madhura, sweet, is ideally the first bite to every meal. According to our Vedic saints, the taste or shade of something sweet is indicative of a start, cooling down the system and increasing the appetite. This enhances the capacity of agni, giving strong digestive powers.

“The subcontinent experiences six seasons, and our food requirements are related to a particular season. Every two months (masa), commencing with Magha, the six seasons (ritu) revolve in order: shishira (cold and dewy), vasanta (spring), grishma (summer), varsha (monsoon), sharad (autumn) and hemanta (winter).”

Indian gastronomy states that the taste (rasa) of food is not incidental but an indication of its properties. Different tastes possess different effects. We correlate taste with the therapeutic properties of foods. For instance, there is a general belief that pungent food creates more heat, or agni, and that bitter foods help reduce fever.

For this reason, bland foods may not be nourishing in spite of their vitamins and minerals. Without stimulating agni, there is insufficient power of digestion. Ayurvedic gastronomy has always included the science of cooking with the right spices.


Worthy of royalty: The regal Rajrani Kaksh room for the court’s queen and princesses

It’s All About the Chefs

Fine restaurants are about ambience, food and presentation, and these derive their authority and sophistication from the team of chefs—first to the creators like Chef Gill and Anand, and then to the daily team. Chef Varun Mohan leads the food production team, who are all required to be vegetarians. Chef Tamarai Manalan, a bachelor from Chennai, says, “Every day we use high quality ingredients made afresh. Working here is an amazing experience.”

Chef Ram Lakhan and Chef Ompal, both from Uttar Pradesh and each with two decades’ experience in cooking, are the load-bearing pillars of this kitchen. Ram Lakhan is skilled in bulk cooking, making pooris and masalas, while Ompal is the saucier and responsible for presentation on the plate.

Chef Manoj serves silently and always with a smile. Deaf and mute, he is the master baker who also crafts the savory pastes, chutneys and masalas. These are so good, they have become a signature of the restaurant.

Chef Archana from Bengaluru is the only lady chef. “Any innovative initiative to change the cuisine,” she says, “involves everybody to contribute, willingly and spontaneously. That’s what I like most here.”

Before each workday begins, Chef Varun ties an apron over his coat and lights an oil lamp in the altar space. Only after prayers is he ready to go.

Sahil Raheja, the affable manager, mentions one more Royal Vega is opening in Kolkata at the ITC Grand Bangla. “Our guests have accepted the vegetarian cuisine whole-heartedly.” The guestbook tells the tale. Tamil Nadu’s well-known business magnate, Mallika Srinivasan from the TVS family, wrote: “What a delightful dinner. The food was elegantly presented, the tastes mystical and subtle, the presentation regal and the service outstanding. Kudos to the entire team. Looking forward to being here again.”

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A Taste of India’s Princely Past: The 600-room ITC Grand Chola; an all-vegetarian team; the Rajadhiraj Takht, the king’s table; Rajvansh Chowki, the ministers’ room; fit-for-a-king thali for those demanding dinner be served on a silver plater.