Rude food by Vir Sanghvi: The legend of Jiggs Kalra
He was never a chef but he created the cult of the celebrity chef and transformed restaurant cuisine foreverUpdated: Jun 15, 2019 23:05 IST
All too often we don’t realise how much esteem the world has for our friends until it is almost too late. I was reminded of this a week ago when Jiggs Kalra went off to that great kitchen in the sky.
The last time I saw Jiggs was some months ago. Manav Thadani, who organises the Hotel Operations Summit India (HOSI) every year, asked me if I would conduct a conversation on stage with Jiggs and his restaurateur son Zorawar.
I said I would be happy to do it but there were practical difficulties. It was no secret that Jiggs had not been well. He had been confined to a wheelchair for years, and his various ailments meant that he was often not in a talkative mood. Would he be willing to turn up at the appointed hour and speak to a roomful of hoteliers?
Manav said he had asked Zorawar who had checked with his dad and they would both be glad to do it. I was a little surprised and decided that if Jiggs was not in great form that morning, I would steer the conversation towards Zorawar and we would be okay
Jiggs came along at a time when Indian cuisine needed someone to take it to global standards. He became that person.
The day of the conference, I turned up in the green room to find a bright and bubbly Jiggs, full of laughter and jokes. It had been years since I had seen him so cheery.
As it turned out, the conference session was a spectacular success. It was as though the Jiggs of 20 years ago had suddenly returned. He told stories, revealed culinary secrets, was characteristically irreverent and had the audience eating out of the palm of his hand. Zorawar and I were supporting actors in the Jiggs Kalra Show.
When the session ended, the audience (many of whom were of a generation that had never seen Jiggs before) rose to its feet and gave him a standing ovation that wouldn’t stop.
Zorawar had tears in his eyes. Even Jiggs was nearly crying when we wheeled him off stage. For Zorawar, it was the joy of seeing his father recognised by the industry.
For Jiggs, it was the reassurance that even though he had been out of action for years, the notoriously fickle hotel business still honoured his enormous contribution to the Indian food scene.
When news of Jiggs’s passing broke, I was not surprised by the massive outpouring of grief that followed. I knew by then that Jiggs had become a legend in the hospitality business. His family loved him of course. His friends loved him. But we were not alone. The world loved him too.
When I first met Jiggs in the early 1980s, neither of us had any idea of what a big deal he would eventually become. Jiggs had started out in regular journalism (with Khushwant Singh’s The Illustrated Weekly of India) and had moved on, nearly a decade later, to becoming a full-time food specialist. While his food journalism was fine, there wasn’t much call for food writers in those days.
So Jiggs became an all-round food expert. In that era (the 1980s), Indian food was divided into three categories: what we ate at home, what the great cooks of the streets and the traditional restaurants served up and the cuisine they taught at Catering College. Nearly all hotel kitchens were run by Catering College graduates who were all content to turn out roughly the same sort of food at restaurant after restaurant.
Jiggs is the man who broke that pattern. He had enormous respect for individual chefs at hotels but little patience with the standard Catering College menu. Fortunately, he found managers who were willing to experiment. As he told us at HOSI that day, Rajiv Kaul (now of the Leela; then with the Oberoi group) was one of the first hoteliers to encourage him to discover great home cooks and wonderful traditional chefs and to organise food festivals based on their cuisine. Later, both Ajit Kerkar and Camellia Panjabi of the Taj group began hiring Jiggs to rejig their menus and to break with the hotel food of old.
Jiggs loved it. He travelled all over India, discovering such institutions as Lucknow’s Tunde Kababwalla whose fame had not spread beyond their own cities and bringing them and their dishes to national attention. He struck up friendships with the more talented hotel chefs (Arvind Saraswat of the Taj, for one) and worked with them to develop food ideas.
A TV show and a definitive cookbook (Prashad: Cooking with Indian Masters), based on the recipes of the masters, emerged from those adventures And Jiggs’s most successful collaboration was probably his time with ITC.
The chain always had superlative Indian food. Bukhara was famous even in the mid-1980s and the cuisine at the Maurya’s Mayur restaurant was excellent. But ITC had never quite learned how to take its food to the next level.
That is where Jiggs came in. He worked closely with Manjit Gill (who was then executive chef of the Maurya) to create a new restaurant to be called Dum Pukht. The inspiration came from the Lucknow style of cooking (mainly biryani) in steam but Jiggs and Manjit worked together on many new dishes such as a raan in pastry, a sort of Goat Wellington. (It had rum in the marinade and cocktail onions in the stuffing.)
Jiggs persuaded ITC that all great restaurants needed to be helmed by chefs. ITC already had Imtiaz Qureshi, a former Lucknow wedding caterer, who was chef at Mayur. Imtiaz was (and still is) brilliant but he had never been given the platform that Jiggs and Manjit gave him. They designed the Dum Pukht concept around him and ITC even put his photo in the ads for the restaurant – a pivotal moment for Indian chefs who had never before been granted this level of recognition.
With Imtiaz as its face, Dum Pukht revolutionised Indian food, popularising the use of single servings of purdah biryanis (till then biryani had been made in large pots, not in individual servings), creating the craze for kakori kebabs and teaching us that the cuisine of Lucknow was far more advanced than the bogus Punjabi food most North Indian restaurants served.
Jiggs did not always have it easy. He was as short tempered as he could be charming and eventually nearly every chef he worked with began to resent him, believing that it was their talent that counted for everything and arguing that they did not need Jiggs.
It was a foolish argument that ignored the great contribution that Jiggs had made. Few of the resentful chefs realised that Jiggs was professional enough to create restaurants that would outlive individual chefs. It is years since Imtiaz has cooked at Delhi’s Dum Pukht, for instance, but the food just keeps getting better. And most of the angry chefs have been forgotten while Jiggs became an institution.
In later years as his health began to fail and his mobility began to be restricted, Jiggs was less adventurous but just as influential. He welcomed the 1990s and the era of liberalisation (and food ingredient imports) by creating the Salmon Tikka at the Hyatt’s Aangan restaurant in Delhi. Few Indian chefs had much experience with such cold water fish as salmon but Jiggs adapted his style to global ingredients and the Salmon Tikka is now cooked by chefs everywhere, most of whom don’t realise that Jiggs invented it.
Just when his old friends thought that ill health would put an end to Jiggs’s activities, the Kalra name suddenly had a new lease of life. His son Zorawar opened the successful Punjab Grill restaurant chain (which he later sold to Lite Bite Foods, its current owners) and freely acknowledged his debt to his father.
Then he opened Masala Library in Mumbai and though the restaurant focused on modern Indian cuisine of the sort that was never Jiggs’s forte, Zorawar insisted on calling it “Masala Library By Jiggs Kalra ”. When the restaurant became a success, Jiggs’s reputation soared among a new generation.
I asked Jiggs a couple of years ago how it felt not to be remembered so much for his greatest achievements (his role in bringing the food of the streets to restaurants, elevating Lucknow’s cuisine at hotels, the Salmon Tikka, etc.) but to have become a household name on the basis of Zorawar’s later success. “He has made me so proud,” he said emotionally.
And certainly, Jiggs could not have asked for a better son than Zorawar and a better daughter-in-law than Dildeep, Zorawar’s wife, who looked after him with touching care and devotion. No matter how successful he’s become, and no matter that his success was his own, Zorawar never stopped crediting his father.
Jiggs came along at a time when Indian cuisine needed someone to bring it all together and to take it to global standards. He became that person.
And so every time you go to an Indian restaurant anywhere in the world and read the menu, think of my old friend Jiggs Kalra.
Had he not been around, that menu would have been very different.
From HT Brunch, June 16, 2019
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