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Newsletter » Letters from the past » Oberoi Grand 1997
It is now ten months and a couple of days since I have arrived here, at the Oberoi Grand and there must be a large apology for not having written sooner. What can I say; even though I came through here for the interview and had a look at the place, there is no way that any one can be prepared for the realization of Calcutta. I had heard about the position through a friend of mine who is now the Executive Chef of the Oberoi Bombay property, but who was also working in Singapore with me, and decided that working in India was certainly an exciting prospect and a challenge. A challenge it certainly has been, and a lot harder than I ever expected it to be. I have handled tough properties before, as in Kunming, where I had stress fractured my leg the day before opening and still managed 36 hours on my feet, and in Beijing where I worked right through the Tianamien Square episode, but this one has caught me out! Luckily though, I have been bought up to work hard, and taught myself how to play hard on top of it, so we are surviving, but that is about all these days.

Calcutta is a city that has totally fallen apart! There are about 18 million people here, and in actual land size not too much different from Auckland, and getting near enough the same amount of cars. As you can imagine there is a lot of poverty around, and when you go out at 12 midnight, the sidewalks are always full of sleeping people. During the day the streets are just full and over flowing with humanity, interspersed with belching mini buses, honking run down cabs, human pulled Rickshaws, coolies with assorted boxes and parcels, in fact, nearly everything except trucks, which are banned during the day. This creates one big polluted city, with 42 degree heat and above in the summer and very high humidity. Apparently it is not as polluted as New Delhi, but it is still very bad. The beggars are not as bad as I was first led to believe, - you have the same ones who tout the tourist areas, as in outside your hotel, but generally you are left alone.

On the surface, the Bengalis' are very friendly, and I have been invited around to various people's places for dinner or drinks, of which a few I have actually been able to take up, and enjoyed very much. The large percentage of population though is not very well educated and very close to base emotions, with very little setting them off. Many articles come out in the paper concerning strife in the city occurring because of something quite trivial, but are taken to extremes by the general population. This also happens in the Hotel, where a wrong word can cause large groups of the Union people to converge upon the unlucky person and can get quite physical. This was the occasion the other day with one of my supervisors, and when I stepped forward, the hate and abuse was directed to me, in a very extreme and totally out of control manner! It seems that the dislike of me with the Unions is not very far beneath the surface. I was bought in to do a particular job, and that was to bring the Kitchens and Restaurants in line with the 21st century. Prior to me the General Manager had been here about six months and both our hiring was a direct result of the new energy starting to flow through the Oberoi Group. This is a classic Hotel, very much along the line of the Raffles in Singapore, although a lot smaller in size and outlets, and was the only Hotel here in Calcutta for many years. In fact it had the cream of society come through here, including the big bands from America, Presidents, Royalty etc. This resulted in a sense of complacency with the staff that equated to a "take it or leave it" attitude, that then meant a 20% percent occupancy compared with 100 percent for the Taj Bengal Hotel when that property opened about seven years ago. Now the push is on for us to catch up! The Oberoi group is floating in money, with new Hotels being purchased for cash, so everything is being renovated, including all my Kitchens, along with a company wide project on staff development. There were also many years of bad staff management that has also resulted in the Hotel having two very strong Unions, which can severely limit the operation and the efficient running of the various departments, not to mention the lack of productivity. There was 1,800 staff in the Hotel two years ago, and now we down to 680 and still dropping.
In the Kitchen I have been able to swing the attitude of the staff around 180 degrees, and we have slowly developed a good working team here. It has taken a lot of work and effort to do this, but the results are showing. Some of my decisions have not pleased the Unions, which is why there is a strong dislike for me simmering below the surface, and I am sure they will be very happy for me to leave, but with my Kitchen team I am getting quite strong loyalty now. There is still some intimidation of the staff by the Union, but this is mainly occurring out side the Hotel premises. In a lot of ways I cannot blame the staff for the state of affairs that I found when I came here, and they are worried what happens when I leave, but I think I am slowly alleviating their fears. I have some staff here who have been here for 20 years or more and are still cooks, they have just not been given a chance previously and are now very set in their ways. This was also very much the responsibility of the Corporate Office, but again, there is a move to make sure that this situation does not develop in the future.

In China I thought that the Communists did a very good job in keeping control and bringing in a general development of the peoples, but here, the city has just gone backwards. There are some grand old buildings here that date from the British time, but apart from this Hotel and one or two others, they are mostly in a very bad state of affairs, overgrown and half-tumbled down. The roads are in a very bad state of affairs, with very few road markings, and when they are there, every one ignores them anyway! I have been in countries where the driving is quite hair raising, but here the driving is chaotic. There are no rules, except that when you knock some one down, be prepared for your vehicle to be burnt, or if you hit another car, for the driver to come over and start beating up your driver! Needless to say, I like driving too much to ever want to drive here. On the roads, the lane driving is nonexistent, with vehicles all over, including coming the opposite direction on your side of the road. Horns are continually blaring, people wander onto the roads wherever and buses, other cars and any thing else that is moving on the road continually cut you off. In other words, very bad and undisciplined driving here, and its lucky that they don't kill more people on the roads than the relatively small total that they have now.

Behind the Hotel we have the biggest market in Calcutta, where you can buy from fresh goods, provisions, flowers and so on, to materials and tourist needs. Across town there is the Fancy Market, which is supplied from the docks, so you can get all your imports there, or if your item is not available, then order it and some how it will be bought in for you! There are actually some well-known brand name shops here, so you are not actually lacking for anything. After hours every space in front of these shops is filled with stalls selling all sorts of brick and brack, and many pavements have had hawkers set up shop on them. It was actually easier to walk on the roadways than try to navigate through the pavements. There has now been a drive in the city to clear these Hawkers from the pavements and to clean up the streets a bit, but no provision have been made for the displaced people so again there is resistance there. There has been very little investment into West Bengal while the rest of the country has been moving ahead, so this was part of the drive to make the city more presentable to foreign investors. hile the manpower situation and the infrastructure is as it is, there will still be very little interest in Calcutta. Bribery is still a large part of life here, - we were lucky with the Oberoi having very good contacts at the airport, so my goods only cost about 15,000 rupees to get out, which is only about 500 dollars US. If you want your phone to work it will cost about 100 rupees a week. For a driver's license, the cost is about 1,000, and the list goes on. With the airport when we come in, we are actually met on the tarmac by the Oberoi people, who take our passports and in about five minutes we are shown through. On leaving, the passport and ticket go out ahead and we turn up about 30 minutes before the flight. If the flights are full and we have some one urgently traveling, we can 100% guarantee them a seat, and all this is arranged for the cost of a few free meals here and there. I am sorry if you are finding this letter too long, but that is what happens when I do not write do often. There is a lot of catching up to do! Part of the reason for not getting to write is the hours and effort that has gone into the job. My hours are usually about 80 or so a week, but for October and November, I was clocking up 105 hours a week or so. There has also been one project after another to do; two restaurants have now opened while I've been here, with a third closing down for renovation in April. Our pastry Kitchen will reopen in a couple of weeks, the Butchery will be shut soon for new refrigerators and renovation, the staff canteen is also being renovated and that will be about it for this year. Next year will be the Production, Bakery and Banquet kitchens, with the Stewarding and Room Service areas being done again. Enough to do, as I do all the initial plans, plus equipment ordering, and then have to try and produce a full operation while having very restricted facilities. Most of the base procedures were not in place here either, so all recipe cards are having to be made along with the entire kitchen Standards and Procedures that are required to run a consistent Kitchen. This has been what my work has been like for the last 10 months. Hours have been a fairly constant at 16 or so a day; sometimes it has been more than 100 a wee and this year we are running the computer until 2-30 or 3 in the morning to keep up with the paper work, while I'm back in the Kitchen at 8-30 the next day. Needless to say, it is fairly tiring doing this type of hours and not a lot of time has been spent writing letters. Hoping that all this settles down very soon, the result being a long lost letter finally sent to you. I have a new computer now, a desktop with Win 97 and Word 97 on it and I must admit that it is a breeze to work on compared to my laptop that was thrashed in the office. It finally gave up the ghost a few weeks ago, so that also upset my correspondence plans until this one came on line. I still haven't got it connected to the Internet yet, so a little more patience is required there!

.......Calcutta, the City of Joy is actually anything but. A very difficult city to live in especially if you are doing shift work. The position as Chef was interesting, but extremely hard, about the hardest job that I have managed so far and full of periods of ups and downs with more downs than ups at the end! There were periods when I worked months on end without a day off due to the lack of a number two in the Kitchen and then when I needed to take a break out of the country, was not able to. This came about due to Government regulations that required a No objection certificate to leave if I stayed in the country longer than 180 days in one period. What the difference is when the Hotel is liable for the tax anyway I still have not figured out, but it meant that a long needed holiday planned for May failed to materialize, and my system went a little haywire for a while in trying to cope with this. At the same time, I was placed into an apartment which was actually quite nice, but lacking on some basic services, like some one to clean, cooking facilities and a good transport arrangement to a from work! On an 9-5 job, these items can be quite easily handled, but when leaving each morning at 8 a.m. and arriving back in the apartment closer to 12 midnight, they are not so easy.....

Again in 1997
..........Terrible news about Princess Di wasn't it? At least she doesn't have to worry now, but I honestly thought it was a disappearing joke when I first heard the news. Mother Teressa's turned out to be quite a subdued affair in comparison, but I am sure both will be remember for many years hence. Funny, Di always used to remind me of Debby in a lot of her mannerisms. Still does. Life here has settled down a bit lately. Mother Teresa VIP funeral guests including the Duchess of Kent and others left very impressed with the food and service, so that made the boss happy. Also we have just had the results of the latest Gallup survey, and the Food has improved in its excellent rating to 41%, up 23 points since last time. This has now been given as the bench mark for the company, so again the boss is happy. So it seems that we are on pretty safe grounds at the moment, as far as food goes, so I suppose that is good news. During the recent visitations by all the VIP's I did ask John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, what he was working at now! He was with a group of people having a meal here, and got chatting to me about his past work in the kitchen and related industry, so it seemed a good question to ask! Actually a nice person, but when he mentioned that he used to work on the wharves in NZ, I held my tongue from commenting about the amount of industrial unrest these guys bought the country during to 70's and 80's! Turned out that he had asked the Crown Prince of Norway the same question some time back. I may be getting an apartment away from the hotel some time in the near future. Not as bad as it sounds, but will make sure that it is perfectly livable first. You realize that I have been living in Hotels now for nine years! A long time to not have too much freedom or privacy. Actually, I am looking forward to the opportunity of being able to have a good walk coming and going from work. Get too tied up living in and not enough exercise. I am heading down to Melbourne on the 15th of March next year. Will be there for about five days and have three nights in Brisbane. The trip is not confirmed yet, as there may be a problem with time off, due to my number two Chef getting promoted out, but it should happen. This trip is for a Cooks Congress like the one I attended in Israel last year. Brisbane is just to say hello to a couple of old faces. I am also just back from four days in New Delhi, where I went to check out the other Oberoi properties and happenings.
It seems there is much better facilities there and a hell of a lot more to do. More polluted in the air, but probably a nicer place to live. I had to pick Calcutta! Still not confirmed whether I sign again for another year or not. There are some details to work out, and I also have to see what the job market is doing. Would not like to jump out into nothing just yet. Will be sending out my papers very soon to check. One thing I do know, is that any promises made, I want to see actually happening before I sign on the dotted line....
Later in January 1999
..... Needless to say, my frustration level was rising very high and it had to come out somewhere and where that was, was in placing my resignation in from the Grand. Must admit that I felt a great sense of relief in doing so, even if it meant being unemployed for a while. The good thing about my life style is that I always have a few options open concerning where to plonk myself for a few months. Bali was one option in doing some long forgotten diving with Chris, there was a friend to visit in California and another friend in Crete. Add some more very old friends in Australia, including Steve, who has not been forgotten, but we have not had a beer together now in over 12 years! But sooner or later a job would have had to be found and luckily one landed on my doorstep. A Hotel owner in Calcutta had seen my work and results at the Grand and decided that I could do the same for him in his new property in Goa! The place had been left to run down, then closed by the Government before being bought my new boss. .......Calcutta would have to be one of the worst cities to live in. It is a shame really in that at one stage it was classed as the London of the East, being the second city of the Empire. Now the buildings are mostly overgrown, with only a very small number showing what they used to be like, the Grand being one of them. The roads are a mess with some of the most undisciplined drivers I have ever come across, the majority of cars are old and very polluting and there are people, people, people every where. The only time to really get a glimpse of what Calcutta could be like is on a Sunday or a public holiday. The labour problems of West Bengal (the state of Calcutta) are the worst in the country with extremely strong political unions and unrest right across the state. Most of the large industries have now moved out and business in general is dropping, as could be seen from the occupancy figures of the various Hotels.

Most of the problems stem from the Bangladesh war of Independence when huge numbers of refugees crossed into West Bengal and settled in Calcutta, becoming street hawkers and day labourers for the most part. Secondly, with a Marxist State Government, anybody with any money did not show it, therefore buildings were not painted or repaired, old cars kept and not renewed and any wealth showing was actually inside peoples homes. Some of these places are extremely nice and certainly show large amounts of money being invested. Calcutta has some of the richest people in India living there, but you would not believe it by looking at the city. Peak behind some of their walled compounds and you will see some of it! Servants are of course a matter of par and are still treated very much like in the time of the Raj. I am sure that the Indians themselves are the worst culprits as far as trying to bring the living standards of their countrymen up to a reasonable level. What money is given out by the Government, 90% or more will end up in somebody's pocket before the small remainder finds its way to the people actually in need. The Government here is actually like a Mafia and the majority of middle and upper classes do not vote at all! When there are literally millions of peasant voters to each vote of an educated person, you can imagine which way the politicians go. Appeal to the masses, organize mass rallies and make a lot of inflaming speeches, you do not actually have to worry about being accountable for great results. Just keep the masses in status quo.

........Back to Calcutta and I must say that it also has some of the nicest people I have ever come across. The amount of invitations I received from my restaurant guests and the friends I made has been one of the high lights of my time there. These people are mainly better off than the average, but their friendship was very sincere and given freely. There were only a few times that I was actually able to take up their invites due to the nature and hours of my work, but all were regular guests of mine who I was able to make a special something for when they came to dine. One of the drawbacks of being a Chef is the hours kept, and if going out in the evening, do not expect a Chef to arrive before 11-30 p.m. at the earliest! The Oberoi Grand failed to provide my Club membership for the first two years, even though it was stipulated in my contract, so over the period of my time in Calcutta, it was actually quite difficult to have a source of relaxation and socializing and sometimes also quite lonely! Water under the bridge now.

I know that this is the first letter to come across for many a month, and for that I apologize and hope that this one makes up for it in some small way. My E-mail in Goa is still not connected, but soon will be and I find that in this medium I tend to answer back quite quickly. Not the same as a nice long letter I know, but much easier for keeping in touch. I always say that I will keep in touch better, and hopefully with Marg back here, she can help take care of some of this and we may actually do what we have been saying for the last two years.

I will sign off now, as I have many friends, relatives and acquaintances to write to and let them know where I am. I would love to hear back from you with all the news and the latest with what has been happening on your side of the world. Coming up to Christmas soon, so I do hope that you have a very good one, with friends and family and that the coming New Year is both prosperous and kind to you.

With all our very best

Willi and Marg