I play to win: Zorawar Kalra

Being second, in his opinion, means being the first among losers. Zorawar Kalra, Founder and MD of Massive Restaurants Pvt Ltd, does what he loves — building sustainable food concepts. He speaks to Deepali Dhingra about his fascination for Indian cuisine, his love for fast cars and how he used his famous father’s name to gain entry at the world-famous restaurant El Bulli

Zorawar Kalra, Founder & MD, Massive Restaurants Pvt Ltd

It was the year 2006. Zorawar Kalra had recently tied the knot with his sweetheart, Dildeep. The couple planned to honeymoon in Barcelona — a beautiful destination, no doubt, except that Zorawar had more than romance on his mind.

Zorawar Kalra

“In July, I called up El Bulli, the famous Spanish restaurant (renowned for molecular gastronomy), and requested for a reservation in October. The lady on the other side of the telephone laughed. The restaurant, after all, has a one-year waiting period for reservations! I coolly told her it was my honeymoon, that I was coming to Spain only for the restaurant, and that my father’s name is Jiggs Kalra. She called me back in an hour and confirmed my reservation!” he guffaws.

Zorawar Kalra
Zorawar Kalra’s future plans include taking Masala Library and Farzi Cafe to Dubai. “We’re also trying to do something luxurious with sweets,” says the restaurateur. Pics/Satyajit Desai

A grown-up dropping his celebrity chef father’s name for favours; isn’t that quite a low? “I’m shameless. I got what I wanted and that’s what matters,” laughs Zorawar heartily. “That’s also how I built Masala Library (the Bandra Kurla Complex-based restaurant that specialises in molecular gastronomy). Otherwise I would have never thought of experimenting with this area of food,” adds the 37-year-old on a serious note.

We are at Masala Library, indeed. As we sip a delicious Wild Mushroom Chai — a consommé of mushrooms, topped with truffle and dehydrated mushrooms — we know what Zorawar means.

Food on his mind
For Zorawar, growing up amid diehard foodies in Delhi’s Navjeevan Vihar meant that every lunch and dinnertime conversation revolved around food.

“At breakfast, we discussed lunch; at lunch we dreamed of dinner. Dinner involved passionate voting on what would be served for breakfast the morning after,” he recalls. Zorawar’s childhood seems like the parathas-dripping with-ghee-in-the-tiffinbox kid. Was it? “No, ours wasn’t a typical Punjabi household. There were more sandwiches than parathas in my tiffin,” says the restaurateur, recalling how he would often gobble down his South Indian friend’s lunch in exchange for his. “My grandmother was a fantastic cook, but there was no way I was going to wake her up at 5 in the morning to cook for me,” he rues.

The entrepreneur remembers being wide-eyed with wonder as he accompanied his father to the best restaurants in the country and abroad. “When I was in the Class 10, we went all over Scotland and Wales on a road trip and stayed at eight or nine bed-and-breakfast inns. Our hosts plucked fresh produce from their backyards, cooked it well, and served us generously,” remembers Zorawar. No wonder his father’s ‘job’ held eternal fascination for the teenaged Zorawar. “I thought he had the most glamorous lifestyle,” he confesses. But Zorawar reveals that it was not until 1985, when his father’s television show on Doordarshan became really popular, that he realised that Jiggs Kalra was a celebrity.

Creating concepts
It didn’t take him long to figure out where his true calling lay. “The sole reason I pursued an MBA at Boston University was so I could learn how to run a restaurant business,” says the food enthusiast, adding that he was clear that he wanted to be as involved in the business of food. “I don’t have the temperament to cook,” he says simply, “I like to create concepts, nurture them over time and build a strong system.”

After working in US for a year as a business analyst in Chicago, Zorawar intended to open a restaurant there, but destiny had other plans and the entrepreneur had to return to India in 2004. “My father was unwell and I returned to take care of the business. I was dejected for a couple of months — my plans had gone awry. But now, when I look back, I am glad they did,” he smiles.

Zorawar’s maiden venture, Punjab Grill, started as a small food-court outlet in 2006 at Metropolitan Mall in Gurgaon. Soon after, though, he realised that he needed to notch things up a bit and got the brand, Dabur, on board to make Punjab Grill one of the most profitable restaurant chains in the country. “We opened seven Punjab Grills in quick succession and bagged a number of culinary awards within six months,” he says with an unmistakable hint of pride in his voice. In March 2012, after receiving an attractive valuation for his business, Zorawar sold his stake in the company and started Massive Restaurants Pvt Ltd in September that year. “I am an entrepreneur and it was important for to have full control over my domain,” he says.

Making Indian cuisine ‘cool’
The first restaurant to open its doors to the public under his company was Masala Library by Jiggs Kalra in October 2013. The fact that it  is full of diners at 4 pm on a weekday is testimony to its popularity. The restaurant’s next destination for the restaurant is Dubai, sometime later this year, Zorawar tells us.

In December 2013, Zorawar launched Made in Punjab, a casual dining restaurant at Inorbit Mall in Malad, and in July 2014, they launched Farzi Café at DLF Cyber City, Gurgaon, a restobar that food critics have hailed as a must-visit, and which he soon plans to launch in Mumbai.

What gladdens Zorawar the most is that he has achieved what he hoped to with Indian cuisine — gatsby it up enough for even the most die-hard world cuisine lovers to be curious about.

“I think Indian cuisine is one of the most amazing cuisines in the world but it suffers from a perception problem — in a world where everyone is consuming Japanese, and American cuisine, Indian food just doesn’t seem cool enough. I hope to be known as someone who cared enough about his home cuisine to put it on the world map,” he says.

Zorawar’s future plans include becoming a Rs 300-400 crore listed business in the next five years. “I don’t like being number two. If we are nominated for an award, we want to win it. Being second, in my opinion, is being the first among losers and I don’t like that,” he emphasises.

Full speed ahead
Launching three brands in one year comes at a price, and for Zorawar that has meant spending long spells away from his family. “There is no ‘me’ time, there’s only ‘she’ time,” Zorawar candidly admits, referring to his wife. The father of two tries to keep Sundays aside for his family, when he isn’t racing sports cars at the Buddh International Circuit in Noida.

“We are a club of 12 sports car enthusiasts who love to drive down the circuit once a month,” says the adrenaline junkie. They also go on regular drives around the city. “We tried taking our wives along with us a few times, but they couldn’t deal with it. Which is okay with me because if she sees the way I drive, I probably won’t be allowed to drive after that,” he says with a smile. But he did promise his wife that he will never drink and drive, and that’s a promise he intends to keep.

His other favourite sport is golf. But isn’t that too tame compared to sports car racing, we wonder. “Not when you play with me, I’m extremely competitive. I play to win,” he grins.

My favourites
Tim Robbins
Film: Chariots of Fire
Sport: Race car driving
Destination: Spain
Strangest dish ever tasted: Horse meat and tripe

Inside Track
Born: May 26, 1977
Education: MBA from Boston University
First job: Business analyst in Chicago
Mantra in life: Figure out something you like doing and then figure out a way of making money from it best advice i ever got: From my grandmother, who told me to give everything my best shot and not to worry about the result

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