23 October 2016Last updated

Features | People

‘Indianising any food makes it better’

Indian cuisine is witnessing a renaissance, and restaurateur Zorawar Kalra is spearheading it

By tania bhattacharya
16 Oct 2016 | 06:02 pm
  • Zorawar Kalra, the brain behind the hugely popular Masala Library in India and Farzi Cafe in Dubai

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  • Boldness, theatrics, and a marriage of local and Indian flavours

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  • At Masala Library in Delhi, molecular inventions like deconstructed samosas are the menu's stars

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I’m sitting smack in the centre of the newly opened Masala Library by the well-known cookbook author and chef Jiggs Kalra in the heart of New Delhi, when the dark skies open up. Zorawar Kalra, the owner of this lavishly minimalist prime property on Janpath – a stone’s throw from the pulsating Connaught Place, India Gate and the Indian Parliament – looks out anxiously. ‘The rains are the worst for business,’ he moans. ‘People just don’t turn up.’

Not that Zorawar, 39, needs to worry about Masala Library – fashionably abbreviated as ML – or the success of Massive Restaurants, the mother ship that he founded, and is now also managing. Delhiites can’t stop raving about the high-end restaurant’s gastronomic brilliance, and food critics have been lavishing praise on it.

Zorawar, however, knows that he can’t rest on those laurels. I watch as he admonishes his sous-chefs as they tweak two dishes on the menu to his taste. His chef de cuisine, Saurabh Udinia, is ill, so it’s up to the two youngsters to whip up some magic, and garner praise from the boss man.

‘It’s this dal and the real and fake scallops that diners have so far been saying aren’t up to the ML mark,’ says Zorawar, ‘so I’m here to get that right.’

He invites me to try some fermented pakodi dal. It’s exquisite, with just the perfect balance of salty, legumey, spice and fresh coriander. Zorawar agrees before turning around excitedly and breaking into the typically Delhi Punjabi-Hindi, and showers his chefs with compliments. ‘This is it,’ he grins. ‘Don’t you agree?’

The son of Jiggs Kalra, widely known as the czar of Indian cuisine, is a bit of a paradox. His sense of taste is impeccable, but Zorawar can’t cook, and doesn’t want to. ‘I truly lack the patience for the art of cooking,’ he says. ‘I make at best a pebble-smooth gourmet omelette, which I picked up for survival during my college days in Boston.’

Zorawar is a bundle of energy. He’s tough to pin down, and it’s even tougher to get him to focus on the conversation, busy as he is getting everything in his restaurant perfect. But it is his tangential remarks that give you real insight into the mind of the man who aims to conquer the world with his interpretation of Indian food.

‘Indian cuisine isn’t always understood, especially if we’re serving twisted versions of classic dishes, but people love what we’re offering,’ he says, referring to the stupendous success of Farzi Café in Dubai, which opened earlier this year at City Walk. ‘Our food has to adapt with modern times if we’re to have one of the world’s top three cuisines.

‘That does not mean we aren’t honest to the roots; all we’ve done is introduce some new elements and a certain sophistication to the menu and the way we dine.’

The Dubai outpost of the hugely popular brand, the first of which opened in Gurgaon in 2014 at Cyber Hub, with four other outlets in Delhi, Bengaluru, Pune and Mumbai, is packed out every day. More Farzis across the Middle East are in the offing. But Zorawar is unfazed in the face of chaos. He knows what he wants, and he intends to get it right.

‘Indianising any kind of food makes it instantly better, because masalas introduce flavour,’ he says. ‘In Dubai, we’ve used this formula to rejig some local dishes and present them our way.’

And the plan obviously works. Dubai’s Farzi serves up a shawarma biryani, for example, that’s as much about drama as it is about taste. Every ingredient is cooked by traditional means – dum biryani, creamy cucumber raita, slow-cooked marinated meat that’s bursting with aroma – but the presentation is the exact opposite. Placed in the centre of a platter is a palm-sized amount of rice, through which rises a tall steel skewer draped with meat, like a mast rising from a boat.

‘Indian flavours lend boldness to food,’ says Zorawar. ‘We will cater to local populations through this marriage of flavours, while staying true to our signature dishes.’

By now, the scallops are flash-seared and waiting for approval. They, however, don’t pass Zorawar’s test.

‘I love Spanish and Peruvian food,’ Zorawar announces grandly. A few weeks before our interview in Delhi, we’re bonding over the excellent stuff at Coya, Four Seasons Dubai, when the idea strikes him, and he turns to his sous chefs and asks them to make a scallop ceviche. ‘That’s also your cold dish right there for your tasting menu,’ he exclaims. ‘Perfect it by tomorrow, and think of a name.’

The latest ML serves all the goodies from its predecessor’s menu – the first one opened in Mumbai in October 2013 – as well as offers a chef’s tasting menu, which, in Zorawar’s words, is a ‘100-minute gourmet extravaganza,

a gastronomic journey through India via the taste buds.

‘All our restaurants serving Indian food showcase cuisine from around the country, not just a particular region. Be it the Naga meat or Thalassery rasam at ML, Farzified appams and vada pav, or the litti chokha, cashew idlis and tenderloin eerachi at our science lab and tapas concept MasalaBar, we’ve always wanted to promote the robustness

of Indian food from all parts of its geography.’

Zorawar is among the few Indians in the country’s restaurant business who understands the potential and limitations of molecular gastronomy, so there’s a fine sense of equilibrium between dishes that are all liquid-nitrogen smokey and spherified or reverse spherified, and those that bring together diverse and never-thought-of flavours on one plate. And while the technique may have passed through the trend-o-meter to be rendered unfashionable today, Zorawar’s restaurants, which thrive on theatrics, post-modern creations and the wow factor, have managed to stay on point and in vogue.

‘I never wanted to be a musician; I wanted to be the conductor of the orchestra,’ he says when you wonder how he bridges a lack of culinary training with avant-garde concepts. ‘The basic principle on which we established Massive Restaurants was innovation, and that’s been the backbone of everything since.’

While Farzi Café’s laid-back ambience and three branches opening in quick succession – Dubai, Bengaluru and Pune – has lent its trendy menu a lot of traction, the white-tablecloth and elite ML remains a bit of an enigma. Molecular inventions feature prominently though, such as deconstructed samosas or jalebi caviar, but the underlying theme is consistently Indian, which extends to the interiors as well.

‘We got the chandelier made in Punjab, and barring the crockery, everything is sourced from India and copyrighted!’ he laughs. ‘Experience has shown me that people have the tendency to not live up to what they say, so now I don’t take any chances.’

Perhaps being a hypochondriac and cleanliness freak adds to the desire to stay in control. He says: ‘If I bought a bottle of water outside, I’d probably buy another one just to wash the first one off!’

It’s tough to believe that Zorawar, who is enjoying his deserved share of the limelight and accolades, started Massive Restaurants only four years ago. An MBA graduate from Boston University, he worked in Chicago for a year before returning to India after his father Jiggs fell ill and circumstances forced him to think outside the box. In 2006, he raised funds from an investor and kick-started Punjab Grill as an outlet in a mall’s food court, which soon became seven outlets and a franchised store in Singapore.

‘Punjab Grill was ridiculously profitable,’ he says. ‘We had a turnover of Rs530 million (about Dh29 million) in 2012, before we sold it.’ After a hiatus of six months, Zorawar set up Massive Restaurants, and has never looked back. ‘I wanted to chart Indian food on the global map, and modernise it; make it cool and relevant, and change the ball game altogether,’ he says.

Incidentally, Jiggs never wanted his son in the food business, hoping for him to choose something more staid and stable. ‘I could have been a sportsman,’ Zorawar reminisces. ‘I was good at basketball and football, but I was never good enough to be a world-class professional.’ His heart was in food though, and the universe conspired to work things out.

‘Dad is the one person I’ve always leaned on for advice, though it hasn’t been easy,’ Zorawar adds. ‘He has his ideas and I have a certain vision of my own for food, expansion and even the menu-planning. While I have always maintained that he is the best menu-planner the country has, we’ve had our share of disagreements. But over the years, we’ve found a mutually agreeable ground to cohesively coexist, where he assists the culinary team in planning the menu, incorporating inputs from me – while I execute them keeping in mind today’s well-travelled audience

and the economics of running a restaurant venture.’

Jiggs’s contributions to elevating the level of Indian fine dining in the country, and turning the spotlight on chefs such as Imtiaz Qureshi of Dum Pukht, is the stuff of legend. As a food consultant, he changed the way the country’s top Indian restaurants served food, and as a columnist, paved the way for the discipline of food writing. Zorawar does not take this legacy lightly, and so Jiggs remains as mentor and culinary director.

‘There isn’t one day that goes by where I don’t continue learning from his vast experience,’ says the restaurateur. ‘He is a treasure trove of knowledge on all things food.’

Time is running out for Zorawar – he rues his busy schedule that prevents him from spending leisurely days down at the Buddh F1 circuit, driving around his supercars – as some investors await him a few tables away. And then he’s off to shoot for MasterChef India 2016 as a judge, which he is palpably kicked about. ‘It’s heartening to witness the younger generation take so much interest in cuisines from our homeland and their willingness to contribute to its propagation,’ he says, as the finished scallop ceviche is brought to the table.

I tell him that he’ll probably be really kind, going by how fatherly and friendly he is to the chefs. ‘That’s because you’re here,’ he guffaws. ‘I’m a very hard taskmaster and need to see you’re doing your best.

‘I bring the best chefs to my kitchen and give them the opportunity to experience job satisfaction. That and the space to grow, and hunger to learn, is what retains talent, and my staff and I are happy with the work environment and our culture of creativity. That is what matters.’

The ceviche is ample proof. Softly textured and mixed up with julienned peppers, lemon juice, fresh coriander and coconut milk, it is a wonderful window to the promise Massive Restaurants holds, and the boundaries that don’t exist for a man who only plays the long game.

By tania bhattacharya

By tania bhattacharya