© Ravi Wazir, 2020

The Culinary Time Traveller

A Profile of Chef Imtiaz Qureshi

Anyone with a white handlebar moustache can hardly walk past people unnoticed. Couple that with a well groomed beard to match and a graceful gait and you can’t help thinking of a regal white tiger. Passers-by know he is someone special but are often not quite sure whom. In the hotel industry, he is highly regarded for his wonderful contribution to heritage Indian cuisine through the study and representation of authentic Mughlai recipes. His business card reads Grand Master Chef, Haji Mohd. Imtiaz Qureshi of the ITC hotels associated with restaurant brands like Dum Pukht, Peshawari and Bukhara.

When little Imtiaz was just nine years old, he became the understudy of a reputed caterer in Lucknow for nearly twenty years... his brother-in-law Haji sahab. It was here that Imtiaz began his journey in the preparation of traditional food.

Over the next twenty years of his career, he began getting recognition as a chef in his own right in Lucknow and outside. He recalls with great appreciation the platform of reach that the Tandons at Krishna coffee house gave him then... and smiles with amusement at not having got an increment on his one hundred rupee monthly salary for five years.

During his tenure at Krishna, Chef Imtiaz was called upon to cater to a high profile party attended by the who’s who of the Indian political scene then... including Jawaharlal Nehru, Lal Bahadur Shastri and Indira Gandhi hosted by the then Lucknow Chief Minister, C.B.Gupta. The Chief Minister had advised Imtiaz to keep the menu strictly vegetarian on that occasion. The challenge of making vegetarian food in a culinary style that was distinctive on account of its non-veg fare, forced him to do some very innovative thinking. He strived to rise to the challenge like never before and supported by the blessings of his mother who kept a special fast and prayer for his success... got their attention.

After the meal, when Pundit Nehru complimented C.B.Gupta on the “non-vegetarian” fare, the embarrassed Chief Minister summoned Chef Imtiaz. The chef mischievously explained that the fare was as promised purely vegetarian; only disguised to look and taste like non-vegetarian food. Even today, chefs at these restaurants pride themselves at being able to dish out vegetarian fare just as tasty and delectable as their non-vegetarian counterparts.

In those days, he reminisces, weddings were really grand: processions of elephants, horses, kinsmen with swords and all the finery that went with the occasion. He speaks of the experience of making a breakfast of fruit salad, halwa and puri for five thousand people at a time when gas and sophisticated equipment did not exist.

Serving General Manekshaw and fellow officers a Barbecue meal of Kakori kebab, Sikandari Naan and Afghani chicken with drinks around the time of the Bangladesh war earned him the reward of a case of a dozen bottles of Rum – a tribute to his work otherwise reserved as an appreciation of great performing Bandmasters in those days.

His long tenure with Krishna coffee house was followed by a one year stint at The Clark Avadh in Lucknow. It was after this that his exciting career with the ITC group began. Initially on a one year contract with The Mughal at Agra, the Chef was offered full-time employment with their Maurya Hotel at Delhi.

When he was first assigned to work at the Searock Hotel around 1991, two years before the serial blasts in ’93, he fell in love with Bandra. The free mingling of its people, who seemed to have the ability to stay private yet help one another when necessary, along with the fact that it was a clean place and near the sea, sealed it for him. Years later, when he was asked to work at The Maratha in Mumbai, he chose to decline residing at Hiranandani in favour of Bandra, where he really wanted to be... and stays even today.

I wondered what a chef of his tastes likes to eat. It turns out that while he loved to gorge on food of the kind he prepared for his guests in his younger days; considering his age he now finds lighter foods like fish and vegetables more apt. His meals are usually prepared at home where his wife is in charge of the kitchen.

Each day, this culinary time traveller looks forward to his work – meeting with his guests at the hotel whenever possible, he doesn’t smoke or drink, maintains his regular routine of prayer and enjoys walking with his friends at Carter Road.

His eyes light up as he speaks of his children, five sons and a daughter, with whom he has shared his hard-earned kitchen secrets. Each one of his heirs works hard every day at carving an independent niche for themselves in their own catering and restaurant businesses.

The Master gives the credit of his success at ITC to chairman Haksar and all of his successors who recognised his talent and continued having faith in his abilities. Despite very lucrative offers to join some of the best hotel brands in the country, he chose to stay with the ITC Group on account of the mutual respect between him and the team. He gratefully acknowledges the support of Dilip Kumar, Sunil Dutt, Raj Kapoor and so many other celebrities over the years who appreciated and propelled his work.

Chef Qureshi believes that success at work happens when one unhesitatingly throws himself into the process of making an effort and contributing productively to his team. He feels that in today’s fast paced life, many eateries tend to superficially replicate one another rather than focusing on delivering a single item of quality that is genuine. He points out that while Chinese cuisine has truly proliferated internationally, there is much work to be done on the Indian front. He prays that young chefs in India be readied to challenge themselves to create a more worthwhile space for Indian food on the world map in future.

After due thought on what secret I could ask this active septuagenarian, I decided upon that of his own vitality. He spoke of his love for wrestling during his youth and shared with me the recipe of an interesting Indian concoction – Badam, Char magaj (Tarbooj, Kharbooj, Lauki, Kaddu), Rose flowers, Saunf and Kali Mirich... ground in a stone mortar and pestle with a neem stick. The cream of this extract is strained and blended with milk and sugar. The Grand Master believes that this magic portion offers an inner power that beats any of the western power drinks available even today.