sameer taneja benares

Meet the chef: Sameer Taneja of Benares

22 Jun 2023 | |By Annie Lewis

The executive chef of acclaimed Indian restaurant, Benares, talks about his love for flavourful food, his favourite London eatery and his motivation for the future

It wasn’t until 2011 that acclaimed chef Sameer Taneja finally put his passion for Indian flavours to work in a professional kitchen. Within a decade, he had climbed the culinary ranks to achieve a Michelin-star as executive chef at Mayfair-based Benares, one of the most celebrated Indian restaurants in the UK. Quite the feat. 

Having grown up in Delhi, India, Taneja admits that, despite his home country’s vibrant gastronomic scene, his childhood didn’t revolve around food and his decision to study the culinary arts came out of not knowing what else to do. After completing his training and working in some of the finest hotels in the country, he decided to make the transition to the UK to further refine his skills. Here, he excelled, working under the likes of Pascal Proyart, Pierre Koffmann and Michel and Alain Roux while perfecting his flair for European cuisine. 

But what about the culinary delicacies of his homeland? Renowned for its radiant colour and vivid flavours, India is home to some of the world’s most popular foods, from authentic curries, naan breads and samosas to bhajis, rotis and biryanis. By blending his experience and technique with the traditions of his home country, Taneja created the Indian-inspired fine dining that has become the key to his success. 

Taneja first joined Benares – one of a handful of Mayfair Indian restaurants which have changed the way Londoners perceive the food of the sub-continent – in 2012, where he has become famous for cooking classic Indian dishes tinged with a Western influence. After a short break, he rejoined the restaurant in 2019, regaining its Michelin star in 2021 and retaining it ever since. 

Inside, the establishment pays homage to the holy Indian city it’s named after and features hand-crafted furniture and water features among an exciting, exotic interior. On Taneja’s menus, you can expect sumptuous plates of tandoori ratan (chicken tikka, kasundi king prawn and lamb seekh kebab), Batak curry (pan-roasted Gressingham duck fillet with puy lentils and leg masala) and Dal Makhani, Benares’ signature black lentil curry, alongside an extensive selection of traditional favourites and new twists. 

So, how does it feel to be one of the most celebrated Indian chefs in the country? And was it a challenge transforming traditional dishes into fine-dining fare? We find out. 

Tell me about your childhood.

I’m originally from Delhi in India and this is where I first developed an interest in food. I was academically challenged as a student, and a degree was mandatory, so I decided to explore culinary arts as a qualification at Mangalore University on India’s south-west coast. I actually never planned to be a cook nor was it a hobby, it came about by accident, and I now consider it one of the best decisions of my life!

What's your earliest food memory?

Something which is hugely nostalgic of my childhood is a drink my mum used to make: Aam Panna, a summer cooler and something you’ll find in one form or another across India. My mum used to make it with boiled mango, spices, and sweetener in a glass with lots of ice – a glass of pure deliciousness! Aam Panna is Tiger Milk, and I have used this nostalgic mix in the restaurant at Benares as a dressing for my oyster and sea bream chaat – the dish is very close to my heart and one of our most popular dishes.

When did you start your career as a chef?

My first professional cooking experience was at The Oberoi Rajvilas, Jaipur, where I had the opportunity to learn from leading industry experts and was given the confidence to improve every day. It is one of the finest hotels in India, and this shines through with the experiences and opportunities it gives its employees. I started at an entry-level position, and honed my skills to progress professionally. It was the first stepping stone into the career I have today.

What restaurants did you work in during the early years of your career?

After the Rajvilas I moved to the UK and worked with luminaries such as Pascal Proyart of One-O-One Restaurant until 2009; Michel and Alain Roux of three Michelin-starred Waterside Inn for a year; Joel Antunes of Brasserie Joel from 2010-2011 and Pierre Koffmann of Koffmann’s for a year, where I gained skills and techniques in classical French and Indian cuisine that I now use in my dishes at Benares.

Before coming to the UK, my resume was short, but in the ambition section I wrote, “I want to be a Michelin-star chef”. I wanted to earn this star 20 years ago and it’s happened.

Sameer Taneja, executive chef of Benares
How do Indian kitchens compare to those in London?

When I first came to England, I didn’t know that I would cook Indian food. Following my training, I thought I would be cooking European food, which has a real discipline. However, I soon learnt that Indian food is just as disciplined, which I found out when I started cooking it professionally later in my career, and having Indian roots certainly allowed me to explore several aspects of this. An especially important part to me is the ethos and hospitality of Indian food. India is extremely hospitable, and I try to ensure this is felt throughout my cooking with each dish and within my kitchen with my team.

What’s your favourite thing about Indian cuisine?

My style of cooking merges Indian cuisine with Western flavours. I create dishes that are deep-rooted Indian food, married with the best locally-sourced produce. I also share my experience of Western cooking, but don’t tend to create fusion dishes of different cuisines, instead working to create exciting food which has traditional flavours alongside innovation.

What drew you to Benares?

One day, when working with chef Pierre Koffmann, he said to me, “Sameer, you should be cooking similar food with spices”. Benares is one of the only restaurants that offers more than traditional Indian food through the creation of Western-influenced dishes. The ethos and skills I had learnt were easy to adapt into cooking with spices, creating exciting and experimental dishes.

How did it feel to be awarded a Michelin star at Benares in 2021?

It is not only my star, it’s a star earned by the whole team. The feeling of the achievement is indescribable, it makes you feel on top of the world. It’s an accolade every cook wants to win. Before coming to the UK, my resume was short, but in the ambition section I wrote, “I want to be a Michelin-star chef”. I wanted to earn this star 20 years ago and it’s happened. For me, it is all about pushing, pushing and pushing. At Benares, the whole team worked incredibly hard to create a brilliant menu, atmosphere and service which truly elevated the restaurant and won us back our Michelin star. It was such a proud moment for myself and the team, and a true testament to how dedicated we all are to seeing the very best at Benares.

What's your favourite dish on the menu?

I love my cured fish chaat. It has been on our a la carte menu since the day I joined as executive chef.

What is your one other favourite London restaurant?

I can’t just pick one! I love BiBi, Coal, Cinnamon Bazaar. My heart falls to Sabor though. Excellent personality through soulful Spanish food. You not only enjoy the typical Spanish flavours but you get transported to Spain. The best Spanish in town!

Are there any other London chefs you're impressed with now?

I am inspired by a number of chefs but, in particular, chef Vivek Singh from The Cinnamon Collection. Vivek hired me for a job over 20 years ago in India and since then has always motivated me, supported me and guided me. Not only does he inspire my cooking, but he has also become a friend who I can turn to when I need advice. I can’t thank him enough for all of his support over the years.

Another chef is Alex Dilling: what a personality, what a chef. He recently came to Benares and kindly came to speak to me at the end of the meal. He was friendly, welcoming and gave me advice. Meeting humble chefs helps us want to learn and grow. I hope he gets a third star soon!

How do you spend your free time away from the restaurant?

I’m always finding new hobbies, but one place you’ll always find me is with my kids. I’ve got two and while they are my stress-buster, they make me work harder and give me so much energy and keep me feeling young. As the weather is nice, we’re spending lots of time in the garden. Gardening has become my newest hobby and I’m enjoying playing around with planting vegetables and flowers.


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