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A king among chefs

india Updated: Jun 22, 2009 20:40 IST
Ritujaay Ghosh

He could easily have caused a war among maharajas, eager to acquire his services. Happily, he wasn’t born five centuries ago. Even better, he was born in the modern era so India and the world would not miss out on the magic of Imtiaz Qureshi. India’s original celebrity chef, Qureshi has been delighting us with his skills for decades. And at 82, those magic fingers show no signs of tiring.

Today, Qureshi is a name to reckon with not just because he has taken Awadhi cuisine to the world but for his relentless attempts to innovate on traditional recipes. Born into a family of chefs in Lucknow, Qureshi, like his ancestors, has been a favourite with the who’s who. And the best part is that Qureshi never went to them.. instead, his food lured them to him.

Though it was an obvious decision for Qureshi to join his family profession, cooking was a passion that raised its head when he was merely nine.

“I loved cooking. You need to think a lot before you cook,” says Qureshi, currently holding his vegetarian food festival, The Other Side of Imtiaz, at ITC Hotel The Sonar, Kolkata. He has remained loyal to the hotel chain ever since the WelcomGroup hired him in 1976. Over the years, his name has become the kind of brand that few hotel chains boast of. And he has been a driving force in the group’s bid to get its food to match international standards.

“Anything edible can be made into a tasty dish. It’s all about innovation. Even Jawaharlal Nehru, who loved non-vegetarian food, didn’t realise I had served him kathal biryani and not mutton,” Qureshi chuckles.

Of course, Nehru was only one among many dignitaries served by the master chef. He has been in charge of some of India’s most lavish and high-profile celebrations.

Whatever the occasion, Qureshi has one formula: “Use the brain to cook.” That dictum is certainly the secret of his success. Known primarily for his dum pukht recipes, he is a whiz at vegetarian food, too.

“Panditji had asked me to cook for a party where Lal Bahadur Shastri, Indira Gandhi and Zakir Hussain were also
present. Since Panditji was the only non-vegetarian, I had to cook something different. So I served a dish made of gourd but garnished it to look like fish. No one could believe it was gourd,” Qureshi smiles.

The octogenarian’s tryst with his inventions continue. The touch of Qureshi in the food makes all the difference, agree even the trainees at WelcomGroup, proud to have worked with the icon.