Dhan Prasad - the Academy's own renaissance man | Aga Khan Academies

Dhan Prasad - the Academy's own renaissance man

In 1996, then a commis chef at the Oberoi Krishna hotel in Hyderabad, Dhan Prasad was faced with a choice. He could finish up his Bachelors in Fine Arts, a dream that well-wishers had made possible for him, or join the Indian Army, accepting a prestigious charge that had come his way. He chose the latter. In 2015, Subedar Major Dhan Prasad retired from the Indian Army having been in charge of kitchens across India and abroad for nearly 20 years. Later that year, he came to be catering manager at the Aga Khan Academy Hyderabad.

Dhan Prasad was born in Hyderabad after his parents relocated here from Nepal, and grew up in Red Hills. He joined the Institute of Hotel Management and Catering Technology, completing their Food Production & Patisserie course in the year 1993. In the following years, Dhan Prasad trained and worked at two of the premiere hotels in India, the ITC Grand Chola in Chennai and Oberoi Krishna in Hyderabad (renamed Taj Krishna). It was during this stint in Hyderabad that Dhan Prasad decided to pursue his passion for the arts. “You can call it my first love,” he says.

As a school boy, Dhan Prasad often visited the Jawahar Bal Bhavan in Nampally. The Bal Bhavan, with its high ceilings, yellow walls and large play area was created to be a place where children could hone their talents in the arts, learning music, dance, and, of course, drawing and painting. Here, he trained under artist and National Film Award winner, Thota Vaikuntam, whom he describes as his role model, guru and inspiration. “He used to encourage me by giving me big drawing charts and colours.” Dhan Prasad re-entered university in 1995, this time as a fine arts student at the Jawaharlal Nehru Architecture and Fine Arts University. His art, mainly sketches and acrylic, portray scenes of men and women, often at work, and always in conversation. The paintings are on large canvases, and though they have some of the stylistic attributes of Madhubani art, they are strikingly unique. The Bal Bhavan he went to is still active today and caters to around 3000 children in spite of being under-funded, and sharing its space with a local fire department.

“It was very tough to manage my work and my painting,” he says. Dhan Prasad was juggling university work and his job at the Krishna simultaneously at this time. As the pressure mounted, he was informed that he had been chosen to be Junior Commissioned Officer (JCO) of catering in the Indian Army, a proposition that comes from the desk of the President of India. Dhan Prasad describes joining the army as a bold decision. He remembers thinking, “I cannot ignore this opportunity to serve my country.” So he, in his words, left his white chef’s robes and donned the olive green of the Indian army.

Glad to have the opportunity to serve his country with his culinary abilities, he worked in the army for 19 years, serving in its storeyed institutions across the country and even abroad. Dhan Prasad was among the forces sent from India to be a part of the UN’s mission to maintain ceasefire between Syria and Israel. “My most memorable days were as kitchen manager of an international kitchen at UNDOF (United Nations Disengagement Observer Force), Israel,” he shares. “My most challenging work was at IMA (Indian Military Academy), Dehradun and OTA (Officers Training Academy), Chennai.” In these kitchens, Dhan Prasad organised meals and hospitality services for 2000-2500 people every day. Standing in charge of these large operations gave Dhan Prasad an understanding of the workplace, responsibilities and leadership, which make him revered by those who work under and alongside him.

“Being an army man he brings discipline to our catering,” says Head of Operations at AKA Hyderabad, David Roy. “He’s always on the dot.” Dhan Prasad and David work very closely, and often under high pressure. “In three years, we have never missed catering at a single event, and this is because of our excellent kitchen, its staff, and of course, Dhan Prasad.” It is a great compliment to him that in spite of the demanding nature of their job, Dhan Prasad has created an atmosphere of conviviality in the kitchens and among his support staff. “He understands his job, his responsibilities,” says David. “But the problem with him is that he doesn’t say no to anyone!”

The demands of the Academy’s kitchen are different from those of a military kitchen, and Dhan Prasad relishes the challenges that come with this job. “The diversity [in the students, faculty] gives me an opportunity to challenge myself and be innovative and creative in our day to day catering services,” he says. Dhan Prasad also looks forward to the holy month of Ramzan and being able provide for fasting students at the early hours of dawn. “The Global Encounters holiday camps offer other opportunities to test our calibre,” he adds.

Working at a school, Dhan Prasad believes learning about the mammoth effort that goes into their meals could be beneficial to students’ education. “Students need to have responsibility toward their food." He wants students to be informed about the processes of the food & beverage industry and also about etiquette. “Our students are future ladies and gentlemen who will go out internationally and later become responsible citizens of the nation. Table manners count for a lot when it comes to the personality of an individual.”

At 17, Dhan Prasad knew he wanted to be in hospitality. Today, he is a chef, an artist, and a retired Subedar Major. The praise heaped on him is the kind that Swiss watchmakers pine for. He is efficient, dependable and yet creative. “Art is long and life is short,” he muses. “Cooking is an art and science, it never ends and we can’t master it. The only thing we can do is try, practice and keep doing good work.”

Written by Ajay Sundaram