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Fresh from demonstrating one of his signature dishes, the Malvani Jatra, Chef Maljunath now sits comfortably in Song of India’s function room. “Are the questions long?” he asks as I pull out my recorder, notebook, and pen. I jokingly replied, “No” and shows him list of questions I’ve prepared.

Just like his ever-ready attitude when working in the kitchen, he browses all the questions and asks me to proceed with the Q and A. With barely two hours to go before he re-opens his kitchen for dinner, he then begins his story on how he became a chef.

How did you discover your passion for cooking?
My family background is all doctors. But I’ve been inspired to become a chef when I took up Hotel and Restaurant Management back in college. When I went for my industrial training during college, my passion for cooking the food strengthened and that was the time I decided that I really wanted to be a chef.

Who were your inspirations?
It’s my mom because I used to help her in the kitchen when I was growing up. After my college, I used to cook food for her. She was really my inspiration to become a chef.

What was her signature dish that you really love?
A very simple dish we call Dal and Rice. It’s a very simple home-cooked food which my mom cooks from the heart. That’s why I love it so much. I remember how I used to look forward to having that for lunch or supper.

How about you? What was the first dish that you cooked?
When I started my career, the first dish that I cooked was kebabs, which is char-grilled Indian seafood or meat items cooked with a specific marination in a tandoor.

When did you decide that you wanted to be a chef already?
When I was in third year college, I won 2nd place in a chef competition at school. That was the time when I decided, because when I won the title, I knew that it was my passion and I just had to follow my heart.

What was your parents’ reaction when you decided to work in the kitchen instead of pursuing a medical profession?

They were very supportive and they never said no to my decisions. They even told me to follow my dream if being a chef is what I really wanted to do. Until now, they’re still behind me in whatever I do.

Who was your mentor who helped you become who you are now?
Back in Mumbai, my mentor was celebrity chef Milind Sovani. I trained under him for 4 years before I joined Song of India.

What were the biggest challenges you faced in the kitchen?
As a chef, you have to make sure that whatever that you serve your guests would be perfect. I always feel that whatever you cook, you cook it from the heart. It should really have the flavour and the taste that your guests expect from it. Also, the second challenge is the presentation of the food. Food is always eaten with the eyes first before the mouth, so I feel that it should always look beautiful.

How do you manage to lead a team of chefs?
When we do dishes, we make it a standard procedure to orient them on how it should be presented to the customers. We want to teach them how it should be done and how it should be cooked. We have to tell them the best way to do it so our customers won’t be disappointed with our products. When it comes to food at Song of India, we really have a high standard that they have to follow.
What’s your favourite kitchen gadget and why?
That would be my knife. I think every chef would tell you, “My knife is my wife.” It’s like my partner as a chef. You can use it in so many ways.

What is your favourite ingredient?
There are a lot of spices in India that could have been my favourite, but garlic is one thing that really stands out for me. It’s often used in Indian cuisine and most of our bases in our country use garlic as the base. It’s also very healthy and tasty.

What is your advice to people who want to become chefs?
Personally, I love my profession as a chef. For those who want to be chefs, they have to increase their marketability by gaining new skills and new knowledge in this field. Also, whatever they are making, they should make it with their hearts because it will always show in their finished product. Don’t do anything half-hearted because you won’t get anywhere.

How often do you come up with menus at Song of India?
We always come up with new menus whenever there is a special occasion such as Valentine’s Day, Christmas Day, National Day, Deepavali Festival, etc.

What’s your favourite food?
We, Indians, are rice eaters. I love chicken rice because it’s flavourful and it’s a complete dish. Most days when I am not working, I like to go out and have this dish. The good thing about it is that it’s also simple. When you have the chicken with vegetables, that’s my favourite!

Where do you go for the best chicken rice?
One stall is at Balestier. There’s also a chicken rice stall in a famous food court near Chinatown.

What are your favourite restaurants here in Singapore?
Aside from Song of India, I like to visit Thai Express, Padi’s, and Marche.

Would you say that Song of India is still an authentic Indian restaurant or have you updated to the Singapore taste already?
Yes, definitely. There is no question that our food is authentic Indian cuisine. It’s just more refined but we use all the spices that most Indian restaurants use as well. We just take note of Indian guests because we like to make our food more Indian for them. But our food can be eaten by anyone.

We also take note of presentation. Though we are Indian, our presentation is leaning more on how the French presents their dishes. That’s what makes us different.

What are the must-try dishes at Song of India?
If you love seafood, you can have our Non-Veg Kebab Platter. It’s a selection of tandoori prawns, basil chiken tika, tandoori salmon, etc. We also have the pan-seared meat kebab, lamb shank in curry, lobster moily.

We also serve Foie Gras, Scallops, which you won’t easily find in Indian restaurants. As for desserts, we also have a wide range of them because we don’t only serve Indian favourites.

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