His culinary experiments started with the ubiquitous Maggi noodles. “I was about six years old, and, in the mid-eighties, Maggi was the new rage. We made it at home, and my mother was disappointed with the result. She said we should either throw the remaining packets away, or use them to make payasam,” says Prem Kumar Pogakula, the new Executive Chef of The Imperial Hotel in Delhi. “I still joke with my mother when she makes payasam. I tell her she should make it with Maggi.”
Chef Mogakula was the sous chef at The Imperial Hotel for several years, and has headed kitchens at The Leela Palace, Bangalore; Udaivilas, Udaipur; and the Accor Hotels in Thailand. The Hyderabad-born, 40-year-old chef, had enrolled in a hotel management course after dropping out of engineering. “I couldn’t make head and tails of math,” he says.
The memories of his mother’s kitchen — in spite of the Maggi fiasco — is what triggered his obsession with food. “I have always been enraptured by food. I can recall each and every nuance of the simple mutton curry and fish preparation that she made. She didn’t use fancy ingredients. Simple but fresh ingredients was her mantra. I live by that as well. Even now, in the dishes I prepare, there are no frills of the kind where you decorate a dish by placing one kaju on the top of another,” says the chef, who specialises in French, Italian and Oriental cuisines.
Heading a kitchen at five star establishments comes with a set of unique challenges in a country where “fusion” is the buzzword. He cites the example of pink sauce pasta that has been trending for two-three years. “It gives me the shivers,” he says. On the other hand, once, a patron sent back a pasta dish, saying that it was uncooked. “It was al dente,” says the chef.
Hosting the Le Club Des Chefs Des Chef in 2016, which is a club of the chefs of the heads of states, is a feather in his cap. “Preparing that six-course-dinner for the people who cook for the Queen and Obama was something,” he adds.
Chef Pogakula is planning a festival that will have the Delhi local cuisine at its core — but will go beyond dal makhani and butter chicken. He may also have something in the pipeline for chocolate lovers.