On the first floor of the heritage wing at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel lies what employees refer to as its "best-kept" secret. Charging a base price of Rs 1.5 lakh per meal, the private dining lounge, Chef's Studio, is also among its least accessible ones. When not in use, the restaurant that was launched in 2006, blends quietly into the brown-and-light green decor of the five-star hotel, its name inscribed in subtle golden letters. "But when we have guests, believe me, I have been to Cannes and it looks just like it," says Dipika Singh, senior sous chef at the hotel.
Typically, a red carpet flanked by candles and flowers leads to the exclusive space, we are told. Contrary to expectations, the studio itself is small. A table for eight and a compact kitchen occupy much of the room. The table is set up complete with a centrepiece of pink roses and lilies, but the studio's decor seemingly changes for each meal, based on guest preferences and the occasion. The last of the balloons from someone's 40th birthday bash, for instance, is still suspended in a corner of the studio.
There is no fixed menu, which allows for customisation. Requests have ranged from contemporary European to classical European, Japanese, Thai, Indian and futuristic, molecular cooking. The meal is usually 12-course, with a glass of Dom Perignon and at least one surprise course. Depending on the requirements, the hotel's top chefs are brought in to take charge - chefs from Wasabi for Japanese cuisine, from Zodiac Grill for European and from Masala Kraft for Indian style.
The idea for Chef's Studio came from grand executive chef Hemant Oberoi to offer a rare experience to guests "who can appreciate the finest things in life". The concept was never advertised. Entry is by appointment only, and sometimes by invitation. The studio gets around four requests a month and the number is said to go up after the monsoon. Apart from industrialists, it counts celebrities among its guests. Barack and Michelle Obama dined here. So did Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, with their bevy of children. High chairs were brought in for that occasion, Singh recalls. The Bachchans and Sachin Tendulkar also drop by.
The kitchen is fully equipped; it even includes a stock of olive oils that mature at specific points in the year. There are all the trappings of exclusivity: glasses by Versace, embellished with Gothic faces, cutlery by France's Ercuis and decorative plates by Minton. The ingredients come from around the globe: crisp lily buds from Japan, seafood and meats from New Zealand and scallops from Canada. Jolie and Pitt were particularly pleased with white Alba truffles in their risotto, Singh says.
Other than offering meals, the studio sometimes holds cooking lessons. India does not have a Michelin-star restaurant yet, but had Chef's Studio not been private, it would have been worth three Michelin stars, says Singh. Diners can also watch their meal being made on two flat-screen televisions. Experienced chefs do not feel the pressure of their moves being followed by cameras. "It is like showbiz. But there is a lot of action behind the scenes, too," Singh laughs. That, of course, will remain a best-kept secret.