When did you first start cooking? Did you always want to work in a restaurant?
It started in the summer of 1983 while I was waiting for my high school results, thoroughly bored at home due to the long wait for the results and college admission. I found my way to the kitchens of Moti Mahal as a paid intern. Initially it was a little challenging being confined to the hot kitchens for long hours, but eventually it became my play area and all the chefs my friends. I trained under the watchful eyes of my legendary grandfather who insisted that I should go for early morning vegetable and fish markets to learn about the quality of the raw materials. The stint that started as a summer job eventually became a lifelong passion. I continued to learn and cook while I studied business at Delhi University for the next three years. By the time I graduated I was a fully trained chef, and the next two years while I studied hotel management I trained at the front office at Moti Mahal.
Moti Mahal was created in Pakistan in 1920, before it moved to New Delhi after Indian Independence. Who founded the restaurant? How have you kept your roots and traditions alive?
Moti Mahal is an iconic name in modern Indian culinary history. It began in 1920 as a small restaurant in Peshawar in undivided India, reopening in Delhi in 1947 following the partition of the subcontinent. Its matchless signature recipes and smoky Frontier flavors soon made it a name synonymous with authentic North Indian cuisine. The restaurant soon acquired landmark status with illustrious visitors; heads of state, foreign dignitaries and Hollywood stars placing it high on their itineraries when visiting the capital.
There are only a handful of chefs in the world who may be credited with the creation of a single dish, let alone an entire cuisine. Shri Kundan Lal Gujral who founded Moti Mahal is that rare chef who conceived, created, and gave the world one of its most well-loved cuisines; Tandoori food.
I realised in the late ’80s that to keep the brand alive and rolling we needed to adapt to the changing times and expand it pan-India and globally. This posed several challenges of consistency, capital, and back-end strengthening to make my new avatar Moti Mahal scalable. Being a trained chef and having learnt all the tricks of the trade at the early age of 17, I was able to achieve my goals through sheer dedication and hard work. Besides this, since I was a keen writer I was commissioned to write columns for popular newspapers and tabloids that helped me get recognition for my brand and of course myself. I wrote a few books in the Moti Mahal trail series which were awarded the best cookbooks in the world by Gourmand. This also helped me preserve and promote our Moti Mahal culture.
You have expanded from a small restaurant to a national corporation – why do you think Moti Mahal has been so successful? And how have you expanded to many Indian cities?
In 2003, Monish Gujral, grandson of Shri Kundan Lal Gujral, created Moti Mahal Delux Management Services (now a private limited company) with the objective of expanding the business into franchises across India. In the following seven years, Moti Mahal grew from four stand-alone restaurants to 100 company-owned restaurants and franchises; 88 in 22 cities of India, and others in the Middle East, Canada, South East Asia, China, Europe, and the United States. That number is projected to double over the next five years, covering an area of more than half a million square feet, with plans for diversifying into other segments of the food market. We also reinvented the menu. While it remains true to its USP, the traditional Punjabi Pathani recipes, Moti Mahal has adopted multiple formats for its outlets to target different consumer segments.
We also pay particular attention to our ethics. The hallmark of the Moti Mahal ethos is its uncompromising standard of quality and consistency. It is the first food franchise in the world where all chefs and F&B staff of every franchisee unit are trained by the mother company. A contingent of back-up chefs are retained at the headquarters at all times to ensure uninterrupted consistency.
What is authentic Indian cuisine to you?
India is a diverse country embracing multiple religions, castes, cultures, languages, geographical regions, climates, and cuisines. India has witnessed the rules of Mughals from central Asia, British, French, and Portuguese, etc., which have made a profound impact on our culinary history. Indian cuisine has been and is still evolving, as a result of the nation’s cultural interactions with other societies. For me Indian cuisine derives its authenticity from the scientific use of spices rendering unique aromas and tastes to the recipes involving authentic cooking skills.
How would you describe your style of cooking?
Being a frequent global traveller, although I received conventional training in North Indian and Mughlai cooking at Moti Mahal, I’ve adopted a modern and healthy cooking technique involving certain techniques such as air-frying, baking, steaming, and of course my speciality, North Indian aromatic cooking.
Do you have a signature dish you are particularly proud of?
The one and only Butter Chicken: ‘the dish that placed Indian on the world culinary map.’
What are the core ingredients for your recipes?
Cardamom, saffron, cloves, asafoetida, and cinnamon are my favorite spices; I love to use them in my dishes whenever cooking North Indian or Mughlai dishes.
Do you have any particular influences or role models to whom you aspire?
The one and only one Mr Grand Father Mr. Kundan Lal Gujral.
You have received many accolades – what is your proudest moment in the restaurant business thus far?
When I received the Gourmand Best of Best Cookbook award for the Moti Mahal cookbook at the Frankfurt cookbook fair in 2015 . This was the award for best cookbook among the best cookbooks in the world over last 20 years.
There is also a Moti Mahal cookbook. What do you like about the fact people can recreate your dishes at home?
Why not? We have been in this line for nearly 100 years, and this is our way of saying thanks to the world for patronizing our restaurants and food.
What can we expect from Moti Mahal in the future?
I dreamt of having 100 outlets before Moti Mahal turns 100, which I achieved much earlier than the deadline. Now I aim to be in every country, bringing Moti Mahal food to the world on their doorsteps.
Is there a specific dish you can recall from your childhood which has influenced you?
Always Butter Chicken, as I was proud of our invention and the way my friends would compliment and thank my granddad for having invented the best dish in the world.
Where do you buy your ingredients? Is there a particular go-to place for local produce?
Speaking personally for my own kitchen, I love to shop in INA market and for the spices Khari Baoli in old Delhi.
Do you consider a country’s cuisine when you select your travel destinations? If you could take a culinary tour across one country in the world, where would you go?
Recently I have been travelling to different countries for research work for my books and setting up Moti Mahal. However, while selecting countries to travel to during holidays I select countries to experience their cuisine. I travelled to Sweden to understand Nordic cuisine, China to learn about its diverse cuisine, Turkey to learn about the kebabs. Similarly I have travelled to most European countries, the Middle East, and Asia. Russia and African countries are next on my list.
If you could have a meal cooked for you by one chef in the world, who would that be?
When I visited Stockholm, I was invited to Chef Mathias Dahlgren’s restaurant. I enjoyed a memorable meal there, and some day I would love to have a meal prepared by him especially for me; it would be an honour.
Where would you advise foodies who visit India to travel to experience authentic Indian food?
I would advise foodies to travel to Rajasthan to savour the special Rajasthani cuisine, and Kerala for South Indian cuisine, Punjab for spicy Punjabi food.
Where would you advise culture lovers to go in New Delhi?
Redfort, Dilli Haat, and Chandni Chowk are musts while visiting Delhi.
Moti Mahal Restaurant is one of the winners of The Culture Trip’s India Local Favorite 2015 Award. The Local Favorite badge is awarded to our favorite local towns, restaurants, artists, galleries, and everything in between. We are passionate about showcasing popular local talents on a global scale, so we have cultivated a carefully selected, but growing community.
Interview by Isabelle Pitman