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Posted at: Jan 14, 2017, 1:51 AM; last updated: Jan 14, 2017, 1:51 AM (IST)

The true-blue masterchef

A revivalist chef, who made dum pukht popular again, and a Padma Shri awardee, Imtiaz Qureshi is the legend of the Indian food industry

Shashi Sunny

When you make a profession out of your passion, you never age, never get tired. Boredom is out of question. “You look forward to each day. And each day, you aim to make a new beginning,” says octogenarian Chef Imtiaz Qureshi. But the recipe for success, as he says, entails not just the staple ingredients — hard work, passion — but also humility. “Never forget where you started from. That helps you value success even more.” And he hasn’t forgotten any bit of it, not how he started his career from Krishna Caterers at the age of 16 in Lucknow, not how he was inducted in the ITC chefs’ team. 

The year 2016 gave him another reason to celebrate, he was awarded the Padma Shri. Here, he talks about food and the undying love for it. Excerpts from the interview.

What does winning a Padma Shri mean to you?

I have devoted 60 years of my life to professional cooking and after so many years when the country’s government recognises your labour, it feels great. The joy of the achievement is such that it cannot be explained in a few lines. I have always worked hard, without any expectations. But recognition is always welcome. 

Do you cook by instinct or you prefer to follow a recipe?

Recipes are mere reminders. I cook food only with instinct. Cooking is a living art-form that is forever evolving. A good cook puts his heart and soul into cooking. The only rule I follow is that I serve what I love to eat. 

Who do you consider your teachers?

It was my father Murad Ali Qureshi who taught me how to extract flavours from ingredients. Cooking is our family profession, it is also a passion. 

You were a pehelwan as a young man, how did you develop interest in cooking?

Professional wrestling was my favourite pastime. Cooking came to me as a heritage. My forefathers were chefs for over 200 years but that is not the reason I took to cooking. It was my love for flavours that kept me going for six decades.

What exactly is dum pukht cuisine?

Dum means pressure or steam and pukht means cook. You cook food by dum, especially biryani, in copper utensils sealed with dough. I was the first chef to introduce copper vessels in a five-star kitchen of ITC Maurya when I bought a few for Rs 20 per kg. Dum pukht is associated with the Awadh region. The history of Awadhi cuisine is 250-year-old. During Muharram, the Nawabs would eat khichdi and halem. Khichdi was made with the dum technique. Water was first boiled with firewood and then the vessel was sealed to slowly cook the food over coals. It can take as much as eight hours to cook a simple dal using dum.

What is your secret ingredient? Have you shared it with anyone as yet?

It is not a secret ingredient that lends magic to your food, but knowing about every ingredient and its utility make all the difference.

Which is your favourite memory associated with food and cooking?

Cooking vegetarian food for former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru during Navratras is a memory I cherish. (Imtiaz’s culinary association with the Nehrus started in 1962 when CB Gupta, the then Chief Minister of UP, invited Nehru, Indira Gandhi, former President Zakir Husain and Lal Bahadur Shastri for a vegetarian state banquet. Krishna Caterers and Imitiaz were asked to cook a vegetarian meal for Nehru, who was otherwise fond of non-vegetarian food. Imtiaz cooked lauki mussalam, kamal kakri ke shammi kebab and paneer pasanda much to Nehru’s delight.)

Which important personalities have you enjoyed cooking for?

I enjoyed cooking for Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. They were all kind enough to relish what I served them. 

Do you feel it is okay to modernise traditional heritage recipes?

Contemporary is just a chef’s take on a traditional dish. If it tastes good, then it’s all good. A cuisine must evolve. Stagnancy kills the dish. 

What do you feel about the food industry today?

Cuisines aren’t bound inside geographical areas. In this age of globalisation, the world has become a small place. Every cuisine is just a step away. You have access to all ingredients and you can taste dishes of all continents. All recipes are on the internet and you don’t need a professional degree to be able to cook well.

You are an inspiration to many aspiring chefs. Any advice for them?

Cook with your heart and eat with your mind.

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