I’m sitting with Chef Theo at Roadhouse, the American styled bar and grill at the Doubletree by Hilton, Mayur Vihar, where he’s the Executive Chef, also responsible for the adjoining Hilton. Roadhouse is probably the best casual dining space for everyone in NOIDA, a city that’s sadly bereft of restaurants one can look up to. Every time we meet, he has a food suggestion for me, that sometimes starts with, “This one is a very traditional Italian dish”. After meeting quite a few times, I find food makes Theodor Rudiferia happy; planning a menu for friends, shopping for ingredients, cooking it and finally serving it to people he cares for. We’re going to try a couple of burgers today that aren’t on the menu yet – French Connection – Tenderloin Mignon with Truffle Oil in a toasted, buttered brioche with Sauce Bernaise and a Greek Lamb Burger with garlic, cumin and coriander, topped with red onions and tzatziki in warm pita bread.
How did you start cooking?
My relationship with cooking started back home at a young age in the city of Merano, Italy, where I grew up. Just like India, family relationships are very intense in Italy and we had a lot of family gatherings that my mother used to cook for. I developed an interest in cooking, watching her cook. I told my mother that I would really like to learn cooking as a trade, but she wasn’t so keen on this as my family wanted me to study economics. Soon the opportunity arose to enter an apprenticeship program in one of the top hotels in my city. I asked my mother if she would allow it and we had a family discussion and everyone agreed that I should try it for one year and then make a final call; they were still keen that I should study economics. I loved it! After two and a half years I joined Hotel school full time. From that moment onward, I’ve been cooking. I wouldn’t say call it a specialty, but my favorite is Mediterranean cuisine with a highlight in Italian of course.
You mentioned family get togethers where your Mum would cook up a storm. Could you describe a typical meal?
It wasn’t always the most expensive food, but always good, proper, home cooked Italian food, which is so much better. We used quite a bit of produce from our garden (we had a big one). The menu would always have an appetizer like a small pasta dish, many times home made pasta or perhaps an antipasti platter – things to nibble like parma ham, salami, cooked ham, different kinds of cold cuts and of course lots of pickles, olives, silver onions… olives are a must! Then came the main dish, which was usually a meat item, but then it depended on the occasion. In the summer it could be fish or a lamb shank in the winter, with vegetables or potatoes depending on the weather and always a big bowl of salad; salad was a staple. There was always a good olive oil on the table, sometimes a bottle sent by relatives from places that made great olive oil. A glass of wine, white or red was served to adults. This depended on the food being served and you couldn’t get it wrong! A light pasta with a tomato sauce needed a light red wine and if game was being served, then the red wine became heavier and so on. The children drank water; we had some of purest water in the world at the time. Dessert was usually cake. A simple cake, homestyle, like a Tiramisu. Sometimes, depending on the season, it could be a cherry tart or pie, or walnuts or strawberries too. The adults would always have espresso at the end of a meal.
My mother is an amazing cook. She can cook a simple meal using tomatoes and fresh basil from the garden that would rival a sophisticated restaurant’s product. Italian cuisine is a very simple cuisine because we only use a few, ingredients, each of which we want to taste. So we must use the best ingredients! A typical example would be a mozzarella and tomato salad. The best mozzarella made with water buffalo milk, fresh beef tomatoes and crisp basil leaves from the garden and a splash of extra virgin olive oil – a combination of flavors that delights me every time.
Do you find Indians, who are used to complex flavors, appreciate Italian cuisine the way it is meant to be?
There are a couple of dishes, especially from southern Italy, that appeal to the Indian palate. For example, Zuppa di Pesce, a spicy soup that was developed by fishermen who, left with unsold catch, would flavor the fish with olive oil, peperoncini, garlic and other such ingredients and consume it themselves. Since this soup is a little aggressive and contains flavors that are quite familiar to the Indian palate, Indians usually love it. Similar is the case with Pasta with Puttanesca sauce. The average Indian however, I find misses spice in his Italian food, in which case, most chefs adapt the food to the customer’s palate. I believe recipes that are hundreds of years old shouldn’t be changed as they’re traditional and chefs should instead experiment with higher quality ingredients and different recipes to find those that will appeal to their customers. I’ve seen diners eating a seafood risotto ask for Parmesan cheese. This is incorrect as the cheese overwhelms the taste of the dish and it is our duty as professionals to guide customers. On the other hand, as professional hoteliers, we are also bound to give customers what they want.
What’s one major difference you’ve noticed between Indian and Italian food cultures?
Foraging, which I believe isn’t practised in India, though kitchen gardens are increasingly tended to and used. Back home, almost everyone forages in the forests coming back with Elderberry, forest mushrooms, raspberries, blueberries, strawberries, herbs, chanterelles and morels among other edibles available in the wild. It is of course a protected resource, so we don’t pick much, only enough for our needs.
How many restaurants have you been associated with? What’s the hardest part of setting up a restaurant?
Don’t ask me that, it’s been too many. (on being pressed) About forty, from which I’ve opened a little more than twenty. There is a whole procedure involved – from market research to concepts. Then there’s menu planning and layouts – you can write a whole book about it. The toughest part is being different from others, because you don’t want to be just another restaurant. You want to serve food that’s awesome and also deliver an excellent experience to the customer. All of this requires discipline and creativity.
How many properties have you worked with and how long have you been with the Hilton?
Over the last 28 years I’ve worked with fourteen five-star properties of which the last 20 years have been with Hilton Worldwide. Hilton is a fantastic company, with some great hotels all over the world. I’ve stuck with Hilton because you’re looked after and it’s a great company to work for.
Apart from being with your family, what makes you happy?
Apart from cooking, I have had a chance to meet quite a lot of good people in many places because of my profession. That too makes me happy. The human aspect aside, as an Executive Chef, a large part of my work involves meetings and administrative work, which doesn’t leave me a lot of time to cook. I’m the happiest when I’m behind the stove, creating dishes, training people – that is where I feel great. Some of the people I’ve trained are now executive chefs in top properties all over Asia, which is very satisfying! That, makes me happy.