It was some time after 9 p.m. on what was, until then, just an ordinary November night at the five-star Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai, India, when head chef Hemant Oberoi answered a phone call. It was a colleague ringing to say there had been a shooting.
Oddly, the chef got it in his mind that he was talking about a film shoot.
But soon, it became clear that something very bad was going on.
“The first thing we heard was that something was happening in the city — a gang war kind of a thing,” Oberoi, 65, tells The Post from India. “And within minutes, [gunmen] were already in the hotel.”
The Taj was one target of a larger attack on Mumbai by 10 members of a jihadi group, Lashkar-e-Taiba, based in Pakistan.
Oberoi frantically called his wife. The words spilled out: “Where are you? Are you outside somewhere? Be at home.” Relieved that she seemed to be safe, he leapt into action at his workplace, risking his own life to protect the hundreds of guests trapped inside the hotel.
The new film “Hotel Mumbai,” in theaters Friday, focuses on what happened at the Taj during the 2008 terrorist attacks across the city. Dev Patel and Armie Hammer topline the film’s ensemble cast during the tragedy known as 26/11, which lasted from Nov. 26 to 29 and left more than 160 people dead. Oberoi is played by Anupam Kher (“The Big Sick,” “Silver Linings Playbook”).
As the grand chef for the Taj group’s entire portfolio of luxury hotels across the world, Oberoi says he never considered leaving the hotel before his guests were safe. But he did offer the option to his staff of approximately 70 people working that night, all of whom he says decided to stay and assist.
“To protect each guest was our foremost duty,” he says. “The guests came to our house. Their lives were at stake.”
Oberoi — a culinary legend in India — realized that most of the Taj’s restaurants were too accessible to the gunmen, so he devised a plan to move patrons to a more secure location: the hotel’s private Chambers Club.
In touch with the hotel’s security team, Oberoi says that he knew that the group couldn’t get to local police who had made it into the lobby without passing through the line of fire from the attackers. So he and his staff carefully shepherded hotel guests through the kitchen to the club, then barricaded the doors and waited. All the while, they reassured guests and served them sandwiches, cookies and beverages.
But as gunfire continued and no help seemed near, Oberoi had to act again. Around 3:15 a.m., he says they began an evacuation, sending staff members to lead guests out through his office, down a stairwell to an employee exit, and onto the street.
Not everyone made it out. Over the four-day attack on the Taj, a reported 31 people died, many of them hotel staff members. Among those lost was the chef’s trusted deputy.
“He was trying to come out of one of the dining room areas to tell me, ‘Sir, I think the terrorists are coming down from the steps, and they might be there now,’ ” says Oberoi, pausing to collect himself at the memory. “He opened the door, and he [saw] the terrorists standing there.”
Oberoi estimates that he and his team brought about 150 people to safety.
“When absolute horror was staring him in the face, [he and his team] rose up and did something quite extraordinary,” says director and co-writer Anthony Maras. Their “example . . . could be an inspiration for all of us, particularly in the times that we’re living in right now.”
More than a decade after the attacks, Oberoi says, “Everybody in the world should pray for peace. Everybody.”
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