|Out of the 17 awards to be given|
away today at the Top Chef
Awards 2014, the only one
disclosed so far is the Lifetime
Achievement Award to be
conferred upon Executive Chef
J.P. Singh of the Bukhara.
By Sourish Bhattacharyya
THE DELHI Gourmet Club's Top Chef Awards 2014 kicks off in less than ten hours today (July 22) with just one award, out of the 17 being given away, being disclosed by the founder-members of the Facebook group (in the interests of transparency, I must say I am proud to be one of them). It is the Lifetime Achievement Award, which will be given away by the chief guest, Parvez Dewan, Secretary, Tourism, Government of India, to J.P. Singh, the man at the helm of ITC Maurya's (and indeed, India's) top-grossing Bukhara restaurant.
This is one of the three awards that were decided by the jury, headed by Manjit Gill, Corporate Chef, ITC Hotels, and Founder-President of the Indian Federation of Culinary Associations. The idea to honour Singh and Bukhara, which is celebrating its 35th birthday in the first week of August, came from Varun Tuli, owner of the much-awarded Yum Yum Tree restaurant and now also a very successful A-List caterer. Being an observer at the jury meeting, I was surprised by how the decision was wholeheartedly accepted by all the other members, including Manish Malhotra, who has pioneered a style of cooking that is taking Indian cuisine in a direction that is completely different from that of Bukhara.
The other members of the jury were Chef Bill Marchetti, eminent food critic Marryam Reshii, Chef Girish Krishnan (JW Marriott, New Delhi Aerocity), Chef Mickey Bhoite (Le Cirque, The Leela Palace New Delhi), Neeraj Tyagi (The Claridges) and Magandeep Singh (India's first French-certified wine sommelier). Top Chef Awards Delh-NCR 2014 is being co-presented by Pullman Gurgaon Central Park, powered by Le Cordon Bleu-G.D. Goenka University, and supported by Elle & Vire, Delverde, Torani, Granini and Nestle Professional.
A graduate of the famous Dadar Catering College (Institute of Hotel Management, Dadar), J.P. Singh has spent all his life in the hotel chain that was created by ITC's first Indian chairman, Ajit Narain Haksar, primarily as a vehicle to earn hard-to-get foreign exchange during the high noon of the licence-permit raj era. A passionate foodie, Haksar was also responsible for creating Bukhara in the then-uncelebrated Maurya Sheraton in 1978. It was he who poached Madan Lal Jaiswal (J.P. Singh still can't get over his colourful language!) from a now-defunct hotel named President on Asaf Ali Road, at the intersection where New Delhi meets Purani Dilli, which was famous for its tandoori preparations.
Jaiswal was given the task of running Bukhara, which he did with great flourish (he even opened the New York Bukhara), till he died in a car crash. It was under Jaiswal that Chef JP, which is how everybody knows Singh, joined Bukhara in 1991, and like everyone and everything associated with the restaurant, continues to be a part of it -- like the 17 chefs working with him, including Purshottam Singh and Balkishen, who has travelled the world, from New York to Ajman to Hong Kong, with the Bukhara brand. Prem Rajput, the maitre d' who would charm his guests into coming back — again and again, and Jaiswal formed quite a formidable team. Together, they scripted the early success story of the Bukhara.
Interestingly, Jaiswal's 'gurubhai' Todar Mal was the leading light of The Oberoi's Mughal Room, which Haksar almost disabled by poaching a dozen chefs from what was then Delhi's premier Mughlai-Punjabi restaurant in a five-star hotel. Haksar wanted to move the centre of gravity from the contemporary market leader (and not the caricature of the original that it has become today), the colourful Kundal Lal Gujral's Moti Mahal, to Bukhara.
In Bite the Bullet, his autobiography, Haksar devotes some pages to the Bukhara, where he says he got the idea of people eating with their hands and wearing aprons, instead of spreading a serviette on the lap, after seeing a BBC TV drama based on the life of Tudor King Henry VIII. If English royalty could eat with their hands, why couldn't we, he reasoned with himself, and the practice has been in vogue since the day the Bukhara opened its doors. The practice has even survived one of the early (and rare at the Maurya) European manager's attempts to do away with it! Apparently, his argument that international visitors were being put off by the practice found no takers in the higher echelons of the ITC.
According to Haksar, the seating (which I find highly uncomfortable -- conspiracy theorists insist the design is driven by the idea of making people leave as soon as they finish eating!) and decor were inspired by a World War II film set partly in the North-West Frontier. There was a scene in it, Haksar writes, where British officers were seen dining at a rugged local eatery. The image stayed in Haksar's mind when he was planning Bukhara with Rajinder Kumar, the architect who became famous after the Maurya came up. Haksar borrowed the idea of the glass-fronted kitchen (which was a novelty in its time), or so ITC insiders whisper, from Rama International, a hotel that ITC managed for Iqbal Ghei and Pishori Lal Lamba in Aurangabad.
Bukhara started as a 60-seater and its entry, oddly, was through Amrapali, the 'coffee shop' that was subsequently renamed Pavilion. The strange layout had an adverse effect on the image of Amrapali, for there would always be a little crowd of Bukhara diners awaiting their turn hanging about in the 'coffee shop' or ordering starters from their favourite restaurant. Thanks to the 1982 Asian Games, when the hotel underwent a major refurbishment, this layout was changed in favour of what we see now.
Chef JP, who was toying with idea of becoming a doctor before listening to his heart and training to be a chef, joined ITC Welcomgroup in 1981 from the lowest end of the pecking order -- as management trainee at Mumbai's Ambassador Hotel and then, Demi Chef De Partie at the Sea Rock Sheraton, which was bombed in a terrorist attack in 1993. He was a Chef de Partie (CDP) at the Patna Maurya before he joined Bukhara, where he's now the hands-on executive chef -- even as he and his team feed more than 400 people a day, and make more money than any other restaurant in the country (Rs 8 crore a month, one hears from the competition!), his constant exposure to the tandoor has no effect on his even temper.
Like his temper, Bukhara thrives on consistency. The restaurant's mutton supplier has been at it for more than 25 years and so have the vendors respectively supplying the tomato puree for its celebrated Dal Bukhara and the brass vessel in which it is cooked on charcoal fire; its sole fillets unvarying weigh 300gms and its jumbo prawns, sourced from one of the ITC subsidiaries in Visakhapatnam for as long as anyone can remember, uniformly weigh between 80-120gms. Similar weight specifications are followed for capsicums and potatoes, and a mutton leg piece meant for a raan is never used for a burra! The butter and cream content of the Dal Bukhara, moreover, has never been allowed to exceed 6 per cent of the total portion size. Consistency of quality and an even-tempered chef -- you can't get a more winning combination.