He is a quiet, unassuming man, always clad in chef whites. The biggest celebrities go into raptures over his food. Well-known television gourmand Vir Sanghvi describes Chef Urbano Rego, who has worked all his life with the Taj Group, as the ‘world’s greatest Goan chef’. “I joined the Taj in Mumbai on December 8, 1970,” Chef Rego remembers, proudly adding, “I have worked for the last 41 years.” Though he retired three years ago, Chef Rego continues to work for the four Taj properties in Goa, supervising their Goan food offerings.
As a young boy from the village of Divar in Goa, Chef Rego never thought of taking up cooking as a career. He wanted to be a footballer, but an accident on the field in Mumbai ended that dream and he took the first job that came his way — at the Taj. He discovered that he had a rare gift for cooking and quickly rose to become a skilled ‘continental’ junior chef, specialising in European cuisine and cold foods.
When the Taj opened India’s first five star beach resort in 1974, at the Fort Aguada in Goa, Chef Rego was posted there. The resort’s clientele was mostly British and German at that point, which fitted his skills well. “But they all wanted to eat the local food,” he remembers, and would patronise small eateries in the nearby villages.
Determined not to let this business get away from the Taj, Chef Rego started to visit his friends’ houses in Goa, to uncover the secrets of Goan home-cooked dishes. “I even went to Canacona, on the extreme southern border of Goa, to learn Goan Hindu Saraswat home-cooking secrets,” he says.
His Goan dishes were first introduced in the Taj Fort Aguada Resort’s beach-side café, ‘Afonso de Albuquerque’, now called ‘Morisco’. But Chef Rego wasn’t content with imitating the local cuisine. “I wanted to lighten the spice and give them an international touch,” he says. It resulted in Taj menu classics such as camarao frito (semolina fried prawns on skewers), filetes enroladas de peixe (red snapper fillets rolled in prawn mince), caranquejos recheados (stuffed crab), camarao tigre con cilantro (tiger prawns in coriander sauce), balchao naan and chicken jiri miri, all of which are now known as Chef Rego’s signature dishes.
In his long career, Chef Rego has cooked for heads of state like the Shah of Iran, American presidents Gerald Ford and George Bush (senior and junior), British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, Prince Philip, Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau, Portuguese president Mario Soares, Egyptian presidents Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak, King Hussain of Jordan and, he says, numerous African heads of state. “I can’t remember all their names,” he says.
Chef Rego has also cooked for every Indian prime minister since 1970 — “except Morarji Desai” — and presidents Shankar Dayal Sharma, R Venkataraman and Pratibha Patil. Other celebs to have got a taste of his food include Microsoft’s Bill Gates, Beatle George Harrison (who especially liked the skewered semolina fried prawns) and dozens of Hollywood stars.
Asked how he decides what a VVIP would prefer, Chef Rego says he first has a talk with the protocol personnel about what his guests like (and dislike). He takes the final call at the table. “I find, almost always, that they prefer local food,” he says, adding that he always asks what spice level they prefer. “I never go out to ask whether they liked the food till I see the plates return to the kitchen. An empty plate means a satisfied guest.”
As for other high-profile individuals who are regular visitors, he knows their preferences (Ratan Tata, Vijay Mallya and Bollywood actors Salman and Sohail Khan like the tiger prawns in coriander sauce and lawyer Mahesh Jethmalani prefers clams). He particularly remembers cooking for Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi as children; they regularly holidayed in Goa with Sonia Gandhi’s mother, Paola.
Chef Rego has worked in almost every Taj hotel in India, and has held Goan food festivals at top hotels all over the world. His most memorable stints include the opening ceremony of Goa’s Taj Aguada Beach Resort in 1974, when, as a junior chef, he cooked for 1,000 travel agents from all over the world; the years he spent on deputation at the Al Gubre Guest House in Muscat; and cooking — with fellow chef Hemant Oberoi — for heads of state and captains of industry at the 2008 World Economic Forum in Davos.
That was the year his son, Boris, was tragically killed at the young age of 23 while selflessly helping guests escape from the Mumbai Taj during the 26/11 terrorist attack. Asked about it, he goes quiet and his eyes brim with tears. “He was very smart, very good,” he says. “He had done the Taj Management Training Programme and the Mumbai chefs all praised him. He would have gone much further than me. Sometimes I think I should not have sent him to Mumbai...”
Since 1990, when he became the executive chef at the Taj Holiday Village (now a Vivanta by Taj hotel), Chef Rego has turned down all offers that would take him away from Goa. He lives on the property and is happiest in the kitchen. He divides his time between Goa’s four Taj properties, supervising kitchens, occasionally doing lecture-demonstrations of Goan cooking for guests, and training junior chefs.
The foremost exponent of Goan restaurant cuisine is busy passing his skills to the next generation. He believes this is necessary if his beloved Goan food is to take its place among the great cuisines of the world.