When Imtiaz Qureshi saved the day...

From preparing a grand meal for a Majlis hosted by Begum Akhtar to serving Kakori kababs to Queen Elizabeth II, there has never been a dull moment in the life of the celebrated chef

June 27, 2018 01:40 pm | Updated 01:40 pm IST

Taste of success Chef Imtiaz Qureshi revived the charm of Awadhi cuisine

Taste of success Chef Imtiaz Qureshi revived the charm of Awadhi cuisine

Many years ago, in the holy month of Muharram, a frantic-looking Begum Akhtar comes running to Lucknow’s Krishna Hotel in the middle of the day looking desperately for a young cook. The cook’s mentor hasn’t turned up and all the food preparations for the Majlis have gone for a toss. Her only hope now lies with the young protégé who gets summoned as Krishna’s staff and management are at their feet as a gesture of respect for the famous Akhtari Bai of Faizabad. Begum narrates her predicament to the young cook who assures her that he would do his level best to prepare the meal on time. And he lives up to his promise. Begum is elated to see the grand meal prepared just as per her wishes. She blesses the young man, praying for a bright future for him. This was the first of many feasts that the young cook would prepare for the legendary ghazal queen.

Fast forward to the present day, an ebullient Imtiaz Qureshi, now in his eighties, is sitting on a sofa in a Delhi hotel with a radiant smile on his cherubic face as he recounts how pleased Begum Akhtar was when he delivered the meal for the Majlis as per the promise. He rejoices with humility how her blessings and prayers for him have fortunately come true. “Whatever I have achieved in my life is because of the blessings of my elders,” affirms Qureshi.

The first chef to be conferred a Padma Shri for his contribution to the culinary arts, Imtiaz Qureshi has been instrumental in the creation of the famous Bukhara brand as well as the revival of the Dum Pukht tradition in India. But, perhaps, nothing can beat his contribution to the preservation of the gastronomic taste that we associate with the mouthwatering Kakori kababs, which, as opposed to the traditional seekh kababs, tend to have a glossy exterior and a much finer texture that allows them to melt almost instantly in the mouth. He, however, attributes it to the former chairman of ITC Limited, Ajit Haskar.

Imtiaz Qureshi

Imtiaz Qureshi

Secret recipes

“The tradition of Kakori kababs had all but phased out with the nawabs of Lucknow. For over a hundred years no one knew the secret recipe outside of certain well-known households of Lucknow. In those days my forefathers would prepare them for the rich households on special occasions. There were no shops where the kababs could be sold. But, those people were addicted to the taste of the kababs and so it meant good business for my ancestors. The leftovers after making the kababs were enough to serve the family for a couple of weeks. Also, the money made from the kababs provided for the family’s other expenditures. It was a system that in a way was self-sustainable but it was dying a slow death.”

So, the actual credit for revival of Kakori kababs, he continues, goes to Ajit Haskar who personally brought him to ITC. “Credit must be given where it is due. It was his vision to revive the authentic Awadhi cuisine. He wanted me to put a food line-up in place in the tradition of the walima — the wedding banquet that follows Islamic weddings. He had a big heart and was fully aware of the labour and sacrifice that would go into preparing such a line of cuisine. The cuisine went on to cement ITC’s reputation in the culinary world,” explains Qureshi.

Change of image

After joining the ITC group in the 1970s, Qureshi came in contact with another doyen of the Indian culinary circuit, Jiggs Kalra, who played an important role in establishing Qureshi as the face of ITC. One of India’s foremost food columnist and author, Kalra was appointed by ITC, which was still seen as a cigarette brand back then, to help market the brand better so that it could compete with the might of the Taj Group of Hotels. “I met Jiggs Kalra at a time when there weren’t many journalists around who wrote about food and had considerable knowledge about different cuisines. The only restaurants that ITC had at the time were Mayur and Bukhara. Kalra interviewed me and the interview created a lot of buzz. It paved the way for our subsequent interactions on food and beverages that culminated in a book that Kalra wrote. While the book did create some differences between us, there is no denying that his penmanship was remarkable and I can only praise him for what he did for me,” reveals Qureshi.

After ITC hired Qureshi, he received an even better offer from the Taj Group of Hotels which too wanted him dearly. “I got summoned by the chairman of the Taj at the time. He was surrounded by the area general managers who had come from Bombay. He made it obvious that they were quite keen on hiring me. He was willing to pay a salary that was considerably higher than what ITC was offering in addition to other perks. While, out of courtesy, I did ask him to give me some time to consider the proposal, the truth is that I never really considered his offer. Now, had I been greedy, I could have easily renegotiated things with ITC, but, believe me, I didn’t even make a mention about the offer. The only complain that I have today is that when I wanted to resign, the company didn’t let me go. They kept on reiterating that I was ITC’s face. But after I was awarded the Padma Shri, the company suddenly decided to relieve me of my services,” says Qureshi.

Chef Qureshi has served several official banquets including dinners hosted by the prime ministers as well as the presidents of India including Jawaharlal Nehru, Zakir Hussain, Indira Gandhi, and Atal Bihari Vajpayee. He has also served the likes of Queen Elizabeth II, Bill Clinton, and Tony Blair. “At a very young age, I got an opportunity to prepare food for Queen Elizabeth II. In those days I used to cook food for NCC Cadets stationed in the outskirts of Lucknow. When the Queen came to India, the cadets were invited by Jawaharlal Nehru to greet her. I travelled along with the cadets but when the prime minister learnt that a team of cooks has come from Lucknow he insisted that we served the queen as she was fond of the Indian food. We prepared everything ranging from Kakori kababs to biryani to whatnot,” recollects Qureshi.

Special vegetarian meal

But it is not merely his non-vegetarian preparations that have given Qureshi his unparalleled reputation as a chef. At the height of the 1962 Sino-Indian War while working at the Krishna Hotel in Lucknow, Qureshi was presented with the challenge of single-handedly preparing all-vegetarian food at the residence of the then Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Chandra Bhanu Gupta. “I was invited by C.B. Gupta to prepare a vegetarian menu for Jawaharlal Nehru who was to be accompanied by Zakir Hussain, Lal Bahadur Shastri and Indira Gandhi. I was given ten days for the same. I improvised to use an assortment of carefully chosen vegetables for the preparations in place of meat. While everyone enjoyed the food, it was Zakir Sahab who loved it the most,” rejoices Qureshi.

Pizza with kababs

Having successfully put the Mughlai cuisine on the world’s food map, Qureshi’s attention is now fixed on inventing new ways to Indianise foreign food. “There are palatable ways in which we can indigenise even the burger and the pizza to an extent that even the respective natives would be surprised to see it. Just imagine pizzas stuffed with mouthwatering kababs. What I am trying to say is that we can easily make it happen.”

Chef Qureshi has also incorporated changes so that the health conscious people don’t have to compromise on their gourmet ways. “In order to make the preparations healthy, we try and remove all the animal fat and replace it with desi ghee, butter, or, even better, vegetable oils, thereby cutting down on the calories.”

Ever since his retirement from ITC, Chef Qureshi has been busy setting up new menus for various hotels and restaurants across the country. Over the years, Qureshi has mentored several young chefs and till date he continues to play an active role in keeping the great Indian culinary tradition alive. Next, he would be seen as the chief guest at the India Foodex Culinary Challenge in Bangalore that marks the tenth anniversary of India Foodex—the largest Food Business show in the country—to be held alongside Hotels, Restaurants and Catering (HRC) Expo 2018 from 31st Aug - 2nd Sep ‘18 where Chef Qureshi will also be presented with a lifetime achievement award for his immense contribution in making cooking a modern art form.

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