The Hindu "The inheritance of Gain "Anindita Chatoopadhyay

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Inheritance of gain

May 2nd, 2009 | By editor | Category: Delhiwaalah, Newsmakers
Restaurateur Monish Gujral takes ANINDITA CHATTOPADHYAY through his tandoori chicken trail

Monish Gujral says his biggest challenge is to keep the flag of the Moti Mahal Tandoori Trail flying high. Photo: S. Subramanium

Restaurateurs and chefs, who inherit family recipes, are often known to guard their kitchen secrets zealously to further their culinary legacy. But Monish Gujral, the proud inheritor of Delhi’s Moti Mahal restaurant, decided to do otherwise. He wrote two books, “Moti Mahal’s Tandoori Trail” (2004) and the recent “Moti Mahal On the Butter Chicken Trail” – brought out by Penguin – to share with masses the recipes of his legendary kitchen. Yes, the same kitchen that has given the world tandoori and butter chicken; one in whose praise Maulana Abul Kalam Azad had reportedly said, “Going to Delhi and not eating at Moti Mahal is like going to Agra and not visiting Taj Mahal.”

If the first book recorded the story of his granddad Kundan Lal, a man who set out on a culinary adventure in Peshawar to please his master who wanted to eat something light and non-greasy and eventually put India on the global map by inventing tandoori chicken (before that tandoor was used only to bake breads like naan and roti), the second book is about Monish’s success story and how butter chicken has internationalised the Indian taste.

“The books are my way of giving loyalty bonus to guests who have patronised Moti Mahal for so long. In fact, the second book happened because readers complained that the first did not have the butter chicken recipe,” smiles Monish. Isn’t he worried about giving away the recipes when food business is all about competition? “No, eating at Moti Mahal is not about food but about enjoying an experience. It is not easy to take that away,” comes a matter-of-fact reply. He should know. After all, he sells over 1,00,000 butter chickens a year and proudly announces that recession has not hit his business.

Monish’s story is one of childhood fascination turning into passion. As a young boy who often accompanied his granddad to Hyderabad House (Moti Mahal usually handled the catering there) to collect autographs of film stars (“I was a Rajesh Khanna fan then”) and foreign dignitaries, he was fascinated by the glamorous side of food business. Then when his grandfather introduced him to the art of cooking, it became a passion. Today, he can cook every single dish on his menu and using the same basic tandoori chicken masala has invented new delectables like tandoori salmon and tandoori lobster among others to suit the new-gen palate.

Recounting how he started out, Monish says, “After the class XII board exams, I got a summer job in Oxford Bookstore. Dadaji asked me ‘what would they pay you.’ ‘Rs.600,’ I said. ‘I will pay you Rs.700, come and work in my kitchen,’ he said. He made me go through rigorous kitchen training, but I learnt that food has power – to inspire, delight, attract and impress.”

Those who know Monish will tell you that this soft-spoken, well-mannered, gentle guy is an astute businessman. Kundan Lal may have made Moti Mahal popular in Delhi, but he never thought of registering it as his family’s brand. The story goes that Kundan Lal fled Peshawar during Partition with his family and stayed in a refugee camp initially, all the while thinking of setting up a dhaba to tantalise the palate of Dilliwallahs with his tandoori chicken. He finally bought an open space, barely a few square metres, in a street corner in Darya Ganj facing the outward move of the crowd from the Old City. Thus the Capital’s Moti Mahal was born. Its popularity soared so much that within a year Kundan Lal bought the adjoining area and the dhaba became a 400-seater restaurant. He made dining at Moti Mahal a singular experience by introducing live qawwali music and a see-through tandoor kitchen. Not to forget his warm approach of welcoming every guest personally. Soon Moti Mahal became a social hotspot where Delhi’s glitterati hobnobbed over tandoori delicacies. But what he in his simplicity ignored was the spawning of Moti Mahals. When Monish took charge, armed with a degree from the Institute of Hotel Management, Pusa, he “first branded Moti Mahal by rechristening it as Moti Mahal Tandoori Trail, created a core team of master chefs and standardised quality” before appointing franchisees to branch out when the retail boom happened. Result? He inherited one restaurant and now owns 72 outlets.

Monish admits his biggest challenge is to keep the flag of this historic brand flying high. And his greatest ambition? “To take Moti Mahal’s tandoori trail, which started in 1920 in Peshawar and reached Delhi in 1947, to far corners of the globe. We will soon open Moti Mahal in the Middle East. Talks with a master franchisee are on. Singapore and Hong Kong are also on the cards. London may be a year down the line,” he signs off as I concentrate on the recipes – a sure shot way to win hearts of family and friends.

First chef from India to be invited to Le cordon Bleu to demonstrate in Paris. Monish is credited with the trailblazing turn-around of Moti Mahal, from being a small but iconic presence in Delhi, to becoming a multi-national corporation that is well on its way to defining how the world eats Indian food. A traditionalist, Monish has remained true to the signature dishes that made Moti Mahal a legend, while reinventing the dining experience into one that is exciting and avant garde to suit modern sensibilities.

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