At his Kandivali home in Mumbai, the alarm is always set for 4 am. Before it rings, Chef Rajendra Dhuri is out of bed. Fifty minutes and a ride on bus number 309 later, Chef Dhuri enters the Courtyard Marriott complex through the staff entrance. A quick Hi to the security team and he ducks into his kitchen. It is time to start the day.
Dhuri checks on his stock of spices. The consumption of adrak (ginger) last evening was high, it is time to start a fresh grind. Ginger, elaichi (cardamom), lemon grass and tea leaves from Marriott’s own stock. A normal day sees the coffee shop prepare 20 liters of tea. Chef Dhuri runs through about 20 liters of milk, 3 liters of water, 4 kg of tea leaves, 1/2 kg of adrak and 1/2 a kg of elaichi for his tea. December and January sees the consumption double. The visitors just love his masala tea in the Mumbai winter.
Today, the requests for his tea keep pouring in. The questioning concern in his eyes does not waver – do you like my tea, are you feeling better now. This service and the subsequent customer feedback saw Dhuri win the Heart of the House award, one of only seven Marriott associates in India and get nominated for the Marriott Award of Excellence. It was not always like this. Dhuri was born in Rathivde, a tiny village near Malvan, a small coastal town in South Maharashtra. He grew up with his Dadi (grandmother)and younger brother, his parents working in far away Mumbai. Not in Malvan’s beautiful beaches and not in the delicious Alphonso mangoes, Dhuri’s heart lay in cricket and tea. He picked up cricketing nuances from his many friends and his tea recipe from his grandmother. He loved the way the smell of his Dadi’s ginger and cardamom would start his day.
An indifferent performance in school and the desire to move to a big city saw Dhuri move to Mumbai in 1995 and start his first job. That got him Rs. 15 a day (about USD 50 cents in 1995). Working his way through multiple jobs and roles, he landed at Marriott in 2010. The role of a steward required him to support his chefs – from getting the equipment set up, to cleaning it to washing dishes. He assigned himself an additional role. Before starting work, he would make tea for the staff. Sometimes, he would do so in the evening as well. On one of the evenings, Executive Chef Suresh Thampy had a cup. And became a fan. When he was looking to add masala tea to the coffee shop, Chef Thampy checked with Pastry Chef Sanjay Kachave and the Commissary Chef De Partie Nadeem Sonon. Both heartily recommended Dhuri.
Chef Dhuri remembers the day – November 16, 2015 – that the senior Chefs asked him to take charge of the masala tea counter. He does not remember a lot about that day – he remembers his first customer and he remembers crying from sheer joy. Three hundred and thirty days. More than forty thousand cups prepared and served in that time. Lots of smiles and handshakes. From customers who call him from the airport requesting him to keep a cup ready and some that check in and head straight to the coffee shop for that masala tea and a chat before going to their room. One that even called from Kerala requesting Dhuri to explain the recipe to his wife. Chef Thampy simply had to intervene that day. Just as a translator.
His special cup – well, that would be his very first customer. Mr. Desai. He was down from the US, visiting his parents in Juhu. Had the Dhuri tea and built a special bond. Every 25th of the month, it is Dhuri that goes visiting the senior Desais now. They consider him family. Dhuri feels Mr. Desai blessed him, the senior Desais think Dhuri is a blessing himself.
His Dadi passed away in 2009. Dhuri guesses her age at 98 and says that she made tea even the day before she passed away. She never saw her grandson make the masala chai his calling card. She smiles from the heavens – an angel that whispers – thodi maya jasta anni ala kami – add more love and less ginger. Dhuri smiles and approaches the next guest to start a fresh innings.