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Padma Shri awardee chef Imtiaz Qureshi recounts his culinary journey

The first Indian professional chef to win a Padma Shri in the Culinary subcategory, 80-year-old Imtiaz Qureshi recalls introducing copper vessels in a five-star kitchen and how the world-famous Dal Bukhara was born

Wearing a maroon jacket over a silk kurta, formidable chef Imtiaz Qureshi greets us with a radiant smile, reflecting the one in a photograph of him holding a hookah, adorning one of the walls of his plush Bandra home. Even before we can congratulate him on winning the Padma Shri — he's the first Indian professional chef to be honoured in the Culinary subcategory (till date, only Tarla Dalal has won the award in 'others' category) — the octogenarian offers us a cold drink and slice cake.

At home in Bandra. Pics/Sameer Markande
At home in Bandra. Pics/Sameer Markande

In fact, throughout the hour-long conversation, he interjects often, insisting that we eat. Having spent 50 long years in hospitality, starting with Lucknow's Krishna Caterers at the age of 16 to creating world-famous brands like Delhi's Bukhara and Dum Pukht as the Grand Master Chef of ITC Hotels, the mehman nawazi from the Lucknow-born chef is hardly surprising. His humility is inspiring: "Usually, it's only the engineer who is credited for constructing a building, and not the worker who mixes the cement. I continued to work hard, without expectations. I am thankful for the recognition. I have reached here thanks to my parents' blessings."

The legendary chef with Ishtiyaque Qureshi, his eldest son and managing director,  Kakori House
The legendary chef with Ishtiyaque Qureshi, his eldest son and managing director, Kakori House

Rewind mode
From cooking a lavish spread for banquets and catering to the likes of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi during the '60s to introducing the world to dum pukht (the slow-cooking technique), chef Qureshi is a force to reckon with when it comes to Indian cuisine.

"In Lucknow, most food is cooked in copper vessels and I was the first to introduce them in a five-star hotel kitchen," recalls chef, adding that for his job interview at Delhi's ITC Maurya, he created a menu that included everything from Afghani and Kakori kebabs to Shahi Tukda and Sheermal. "I wanted to bring in variety and change the mindset that an Indian chef can only cook tandoori chicken or handi biryani. The owners loved the food and I was hired. I created the menu for Bukhara in one night, while running 104 degree Fahrenheit fever. Till date, the menu remains unchanged."

A world-famous bestseller on that menu is the Dal Bukhara comprising black lentils (urad dal), tomato puree, ginger and garlic, simmered for eight to 10 hours. "Earlier, the dal was part of the banquet menu that I had created for the hotel. Though we don't consume black lentils in Lucknow, I adapted the cooking technique from Khichda (a one-pot meal which is Hyderabadi specialty) and it works perfectly for the dish. Plus, it's the only dal which is served without tadka (tempering)," he says.

Legacy continues
Carrying the chef's legacy forward is his eldest son, Ishtiyaque Qureshi, through their restaurant chain, Kakori House. He hopes to make Awadhi cuisine accessible to the masses. "It's a great feeling to see my father being honoured for his selfless dedication to his art. Through Kakori House, we wanted to honour and carry forward his legacy. All the recipes are his creations. But sustaining his legacy is definitely hard work," admits junior Qureshi, who swears by his father's words of wisdom, "Put your heart and soul into cooking and don't serve what you can't eat."

The Padma celebrations
To celebrate chef Qureshi’s honour, Kakori House has announced 20 per cent discount on their signature dish, Kakori kebabs till February 4, at all outposts across Mumbai. A grand celebration in the legendary chef’s birthday on February 2 is also in the offing at the brand’s Bandra outpost.


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