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Corporate Executive Chef Rajeev Arora Dishes It Up

If you’re lucky enough to enjoy a celebratory feast at Civic Hotel these holidays, keep an eye open for the man in the fancy hat. No, not the red one but the tall white chef’s hat. That is the irrepressible Executive Chef Rajeev Arora, out on the floor where he loves to greet guests and connect over the mouthwatering food he and his team prepare for business and social events. “This is my favourite part. I get to come out on the floor and talk to guests and hear what they’re liking. They share so much with me. It’s where I learn and grow.”

There’s lots for Chef Arora to feel good about when it comes to hosting people in the Civic’s glamorous event rooms. Close to the top of his list is the local community’s cosmopolitan tastes and their embrace of global cuisine. “People in Surrey are all about the different flavours from countries across the world, whether it’s Asian, or French or North American. It brings a lot of diversity and allows me the freedom to work with a huge variety of foods and spices.” It’s an ideal place for him to have landed, after decades of developing his skills across several continents.

Arora’s interest in rich, colourful flavours first surfaced during early childhood, when he lived in a cosmopolitan neighbourhood of Mumbai. He recalls sharing meals with neighbours in adjoining apartments, families originating from many different regions in India. “The women would all make the same lentil curry as my mother, “ he says, “but each one created completely different flavours with the unique combination of spices they used in it. That got me thinking about making tasty food at a very young age.”

At 17, when he was working as a night auditor at a local hotel while studying hospitality management during the day, the door to a career as a professional chef opened up. “I spoke English so they asked me to help out in the kitchen, in the old French role called aboyeur. I was translating or expediting orders from the waiters to the cooks. But when I saw the chefs working and all the fire and the excitement and tempo of cooking, I thought that’s where I want to be.” He promptly switched his focus from hospitality management to cooking.

After completing his hospitality program, Arora began a life as a hotel chef with a chain in India, followed by a very formative 5-year stint with JW Marriott Hotels in Hong Kong. “My perspective on food changed when I went to Hong Kong. I would walk through the markets and see so many new and different cuts of meat and there was so much food sold on the street. For a young chef, it was amazing and it really opened up my horizon.” It was an education that continued at various international hotels over the next decade.

In 1997, he and his wife decided to move to Vancouver where he worked as a hotel chef and ran a successful restaurant for several years. The lure of his homeland beckoned, however, and he returned to India for five years, moving into increasingly senior operational and executive roles that included opening an award-winning restaurant and hosting a television food show. “That time, when I continued to travel extensively, opened up my palate even more. I tasted food everywhere and figured out how they created their flavours and textures.”

Having gained so much experience in creating pleasure around the table, over the years, Arora has developed an unerring eye for how and what people like to eat. “I love playing with local ingredients, especially seasonal foods, this is where my creativity and passion come in. You’ve got to provide for the people who are adventurous eaters. But you’ve also got to take care of people who don’t want to be adventurous in their food. I feel like I’m the host and they’re guests in my house and I want to meet their needs and expectations and take care of them.”

As for the food he cooks for his family at home, Arora confesses that for all the delectable international cuisine that he has cooked and eaten around the world, he still prefers simpler dishes. One of these is idli sambar, an Indian classic of light curry served with puffed rice cakes. He readily admits, with a twinkle in his eyes, that when he and his family visit his mother, now 84 years old, back in Mumbai, she still insists on doing the cooking and making idli sambar for him. “She says, sit down, son, I’ll cook for you. And she makes her food with so much love. Hers really is the best, I can’t match her.”