Sameer Taneja


Sameer Taneja

After falling in love with European fine dining and working for the likes of Pierre Koffmann and Alain Roux, Sameer Taneja turned his attention to Indian flavours to become one of London's most esteemed chefs.

It would be strange if a chef’s style of food didn’t develop over the course of their career — cookery, after all, is a never-ending journey of learning and progression. However, for someone to decide halfway through their career to start cooking an entirely different cuisine is brave, to say the least. Until 2011, Sameer Taneja hadn’t ever cooked Indian food in a professional kitchen. Ten years later, he’d won a Michelin star as executive chef of Benares, one of the most acclaimed modern Indian restaurants in the UK.

Growing up in Delhi, Sameer never initially considered a career as a chef. ‘My parents weren’t into good food,’ he says. ‘I never had plans to pursue a career in cooking — it was just an accident, I would say. Most parents in India want their children to be either a doctor, an engineer or a pilot but I was poor academically. At the same time, hotel management was up and coming and someone had said to me that you don’t need to do lots of studying to manage hotels and restaurants.’

Deciding it was his best option, he applied and was accepted onto a hotel management college in Mangalore, on India’s southeast coast. It was here that Sameer started to acquire a real interest in food and realised he had a natural talent in the kitchen. ‘In our first practical session, we each had to make a home-style dish and somehow mine was the best,’ he explains. ‘That was how it clicked and I knew I wanted to be a cook. I don’t know how but it turned into a passion and then into a religion. I started loving it so much that I was getting connected to nature as well; I’d pick vegetables from the farm and use them in my cooking.’ Training in Mangalore was also the first time Sameer had visited the south of India and experienced a different style of Indian cuisine: ‘I grew up eating Punjabi food but this was exceptionally different, interesting and tasty.’

Fresh out of his hotel management course, Sameer managed to get a job working as a commis chef in the kitchen of one of the best hotels in India – The Oberoi Rajvilas in Jaipur. He spent the next three years here honing his skills, but it was meeting two European chefs in the kitchen which changed his perspective on cooking. ‘They injected a brightness into the idea of being a chef and showed us why cooking was so amazing,’ says Sameer. ‘When I started eighteen years ago, chefs weren’t regarded as important people in India. However, these chefs taught us about Michelin and about Michel Roux and Alain Ducasse, and made us realise it’s a profession to be proud of. Listening to them, I knew I wanted to come to Europe and cook in a Michelin-starred restaurant.’

Sameer began writing to restaurants across the globe hoping that one would sponsor him to come and work outside of India. After a year, he was offered a position in London at a Knightsbridge restaurant called One-O-One under chef Pascal Proyart. ‘It didn’t have a Michelin star but the standards were in line with those that did, and my aim was to learn about those standards,’ he says. Sameer did just that for over five years until he was offered the position of saucier at Alain Roux’s three-Michelin-starred restaurant The Waterside Inn in 2009. Sameer continued to hone his skills here and under chef Joel Antunes at Brasserie Joel but the biggest turning point in his career came when he started working for his hero, Pierre Koffmann.

‘I had read about Pierre Koffmann in India before I even started my hotel management course and I always thought he seemed like a wonderful person,’ Sameer says. ‘He was my god back then, and had you told me I would work with him one day, I wouldn’t have believed you. When Joel Antunes sent me to work with Pierre, it was like a dream come true.’ However, not long after starting to work for Koffmann, the chef approached Sameer and suggested that he stopped cooking French food. ‘At first I cried and cried like a baby because I thought that maybe I wasn’t working well enough’, he laughs. ‘But then I went back to Pierre and he said that it was because if I worked with spices and developed my own style of cuisine with them, I could make history. The only trouble was that, even in India, I hadn’t cooked Indian food professionally; up until then it had always been classical French and modern European.’

Despite having little experience of cooking with spices outside of his own kitchen, he took Koffmann’s advice and was almost immediately offered a job by Atul Kochhar as head chef of Benares. At the time, it was the only restaurant in London blending classic European food with spices, and it proved the perfect place for Sameer to develop his style. ‘I would learn and then execute,’ he explains. ‘There was a lot of pressure as I wanted to retain the star, but soon the team accepted me and guests started liking the twists I was putting on Indian food.’

After three years spent at Benares as head chef, Sameer left to open his own restaurant called Talli Joe. It was a holiday to India, where he tried as much of the food as he could from India’s many different regions, that inspired this decision. ‘After one week in India, I realised that I wasn’t cooking proper Indian food. I was just playing with spices and our guests liked it.’ The concept at Talli Joe was to serve small plates of underappreciated Indian dishes alongside cocktails in a relaxed, casual setting. This won Sameer praise from the critics but unfortunately the restaurant ended up closing in early 2019.

The chef took six months off work to think about what he wanted to do next and even considered quitting cooking altogether. However, he was then offered the chance to rejoin the team at Benares, this time as executive chef after the departure of Atul Kochhar. It was Sameer’s chance to put his own stamp on the restaurant’s style of food and he seized it. ‘I wanted it to be a very fun, innovative and different Indian experience, but to be truthful towards my mum’s cuisine and towards India.’ It proved a hit amongst customers and critics alike and in the 2021 Michelin Guide, Benares regained the star it lost when Kochhar left — a moment which Sameer describes as one of the proudest of his whole career.

At Benares, Sameer Taneja continues to push the boat out in all directions. This was demonstrated during the Coronavirus pandemic, when Benares became one of the first restaurants in London to offer an at-home service. As a chef, he is still winning plaudits for his innovative dishes which stay true to the roots of Indian cuisine but showcase his love for European cooking at the same time. One thing’s for sure, Sameer has come a long way from the boy who only started cooking as an alternative to studying.