THE MASTER OF ALL CHEFS
Manjit Singh Gill Corporate Executive Chef, ITC Hotels
From a ‘Western’ Chef to an ‘Indian’ Chef
Arrived yes, as the turn of events were to set a parallel journey for Chef Manjit Gill. His new path would set him on a course where alongside being the top man, he would explore the art of cooking Indian food and be its flag bearer.
Realizing that almost seventy-five percent of the food business came from Indian cuisine, Manjit Gill made a significant shift from being a trained chef in Western food towards being a chef preparing Indian food.
Apart from business, the other significant reason to trigger this drift was that during his travels and interactions with top-notch global chefs, almost everyone would ask him that whether he knew how to cook Indian food. ‘I like a fool would boast that I don’t know about Indian food, but I’m an expert on Western, French and other international cuisines, after which people would ask me, where did you learn that? Of course in India, I would reply,’ says Manjit.
The insight happened when they would say ‘Oh! But you don’t know their language, their culture, nor do you live overseas, how are you aware of their food?’
The combination of the above two factors was not only to shape Manjit Gill’s culinary journey towards acquiring knowledge and expertise in Indian food, but also set him on a unique journey to land it on an international arena. He now began to apply the learnings of ancient Indian cuisine in his menus and became a great believer in the sustainable philosophy of Indian Vedic knowledge and slow cooking of food (over low fires).
The ITC website, the group of which he is now the corporate chef, describes him as a chef of high acclaim not without reason. His new mantra was in complete sync with the ITC’s philosophy of giving its guests a stately experience in Indian gastronomy, hospitality, and culture.
Singh was on a roll, his rise paving way for young Sikhs to actively consider hotel management as a career. With his team of chefs he steadily set the course of a culinary journey, which would make ITC Maurya the most sought after destination in food inspired from the Indian subcontinent. For instance, when Bukhara, the restaurant now renowned the world over for its cuisine from North West Frontier was on its journey to become the icon it is now, was because of the sheer hard work that was going on in the kitchens to perfect every recipe. Not only perfect it, but also maintaining the uniform taste in every spoonful, especially the velvety texture of its famous Bukhara Dal (lentil), was no mean achievement. ‘My role was to add value to the process. You cannot be the face of everything. There are specialty chefs who know their job very well. My job was to help the chefs achieve their potential by providing all kinds of support, be it culinary, technical or administrative,’ talking proudly about his team, and the people he has worked with.
He cites a recipe for the Seekh Kebab, after which he graciously invites me for a sumptuous lunch at Bukhara. ‘Why is the Seekh Kebab at Bukhara inarguably the best in the world?’ he says. ‘It is because each of the Seekh Kebab weighs one hundred grams whereas the other restaurants do not cross forty grams. This recipe was created after a lot of research. A lot of science was applied as to which cut and mince would work the best and under a particular heat. How much weight would keep it the juiciest and most appetizing? Through this recipe, we set the standard in the industry. This is my role. To add value and set top standards,’ he says.
Known for his exacting standards, hotel insiders vouch for Manjit Singh Gill’s commitment and confess that ITC’s flagship hotel Maurya is one the few hotels in the world where people including heads of state, diplomats, tourists and business honchos book the hotel specifically to dine in its restaurants.
For this endorsement, one just needs to read about the former US president, Bill Clinton and what he has to say about Maurya Sheraton. The rest is self-explanatory and retreating. The Financial Express writing about Manjit Gill’s ability to transform ancient recipes into signature dishes states: ‘So Chef Manjit has transformed the rough and ready Sikandri Raan into a delightful recipe that is rightfully Bukhara’s signature dish. It was served to President Bill Clinton when he visited Delhi, and now forms part of the restaurant’s Presidential Platter. It goes well with the tough, macho image that underlies the Bukhara concept, the chef says with a grin, and proceeds to show us how he gets the Raan to your table’.
It is amply clear that the chef had started handling and tasting meat with comfort even though his heart still lay in vegetarianism. As Manjit became one to reckon with in the gastronomic world, he became the first Indian chef to appear on a cookery show on television. The year was 1983, one that also coincided with the advent of food journalism and the rise of many eminent chefs. Called ‘Mini Meals of India’ Manjit would appear on a weekly programme on Doordarshan, showcasing the vast repertoire of Indian cuisine that existed across the length and breadth of India. However, he soon quit the show after a thought dawned on him that he needed to be a great chef in reality, not in the virtual world. That he needed to focus on the food in the restaurants to make them the best.