Conversations with Indulge – Abhas Saxena

Abhas has been in the world of wines since over a decade and has served in various aspects of the wine industry but hotels/restaurants remain the major one. He is a Certified Sommelier from the Court of Master Sommeliers (among the first ones to have done it while working in India) and, more importantly, was the winner of the 10th Indian Sommelier Championship. Abhas has worked as the Chef Sommelier for a large hotel chain in India and has a deep understanding of the trade in the country. In his free time he is also an air-guitarist, rock and roll enthusiast, comics and cartoons buff, a lockdown chef (for now) and, the most daunting role of all, being BFF to hia still-not-a-year old daughter. 

How did you enter the world of wines and what inspired you?

I got into wines while I was pursuing my graduation. I never intended to go through with Hotel Management while growing up but when I joined a hotel school, I was quite certain that hotels was not my calling. Coming from Gujarat, I found the subject quite amusing and thought to myself that it could be a good option. I enjoyed the occasional tipples back in college so I figured might as well follow a career path where in I could ‘enjoy’ the job. All things led to me networking with the industry front-runners at the time. Eventually I got a break with Wine Society of India and then with Indulge. While working the ropes, I figured that working with wines was just not something I enjoyed but was rather a passion project for me. I eventually joined hotels (against my initial thought of never working in hotels) and started working with the Taj group. That was where my love affair with wines got as serious as it could. The more opportunities I got to learn, the more I understood about the subject, not just being about a beverage but a way of life wherein you get to study cultures/history/geography and so much more. That’s just how I figured that this was the rabbit hole I want to check the depth of.

Apart from wines what is the one thing you really want to introduce Indian guests to?

Having done some reading about the history of alcohol in India, it is amusing to know the kind of beverages we have made all along. They somehow have never become as popular or been considered discerning enough. I believe our homegrown local beverages like Mahua, Feni, Kesar Kasturi and many more if not straight up then maybe mixed in cocktails would be a refreshing change for connoisseurs. 

How has winning the Indian Sommelier Championship changed your life?

#Indsommchamp has been a fabulous experience for me. I got the chance to visit South Africa ,a country I had on my bucket list for a long time. But more than winning the competition I think the entire process of the competition where you see the industry coming together to celebrate the work we do and to supporting passions that people live is very rewarding. 

Given a chance to serve your favourite actor/ musician a wine, who would that be and what wine would it be?

This is a tough one. I would wanna’ have a wine encounter with Will Smith. I wonder if he would enjoy some late harvest wines from India...

What is the best thing about luxury hotels in India that can inspire the world?

Luxury hotels in India are unlike in other parts of the world. Our hotels are fairly people driven and are known for warmth over opulence (and we are known for our opulence extensively). I believe that Indian hospitality is the perfect mix of what money can buy and what it can’t. 

What is the most unique food and wine pairing you have seen/experienced?

The most unique pairing in my opinion is to match comfort food from various regional cuisines of India with not just wine. Like a Vada Pav with a Gruner Veltiner or Rajma Chawal with Rauchbier or Mysore Masala Dosa with a Champagne Cocktail. We don’t have it in our culture to enjoy food and alco-bev as a gastronomic experience. To perhaps promote that would be unique. 

What’s your favourite tipple at the end of a busy day?

I usually prefer to go with a lager or a half decent Scotch depending on weather and the company.

What qualities do you want a perfect manager to have?

A perfect manager first of all needs to be a people’s person (Both, for the team and the guests alike). Over and above that, I believe strongly that today anyone calling themselves a food and beverage professional must understand that a ‘professional’ of any field is considered to be better than the layman. So for a food and beverage professionals, they must be better than anyone in their know-how of their field. With the world travelling so often and internet giving access to information so easily it becomes difficult to be on top of the game. I guess this is where the game changer lies in becoming a better food and beverage professional and standing out in a crowd.

Apart from mastering wines, what other skills must a sommelier possess?

Sommellerie today is not just about wine but being a toastmaster/bon vivant/a story teller/jack of all trades. Just like kids today are going through courses that will give them jobs that don’t exist today, sommeliers are interacting with people from professions that they wouldnt have known to exist otherwise. To be able to connect with people from all walks of life, to be able to converse with people about their liking without being a master of the subject is what sommeliers today need to do. The skills required by a sommelier today are not just limited to them being beverage geeks or having outstanding taste buds but for a restaurant to use a sommelier well, the sommelier should to be able to sell. It’s just a matter of what to whom. 

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