In a relaxed chat with Abid Mohammed, Chef Harpal Singh Sokhi talks about taking the risk of being thought of as a ‘Halwai’ in the beginning to going on to open the first Instagram friendly restaurant in Mumbai, one among many others to his credit
Were you fussy about food, as a child?
Not really, because I still remember that we had a small kitchen and I would sit next to my mother who would serve us hot food. The sheer experience was not worth complaining.
When did you decide to become a chef?
The journey actually started not out of choice but the need to get a job and support the family. I had this neighbour who had done hotel management and who would always come well dressed which impressed me and my elder brother. My brother thought that I must give hotel management a try as it was something that was job oriented and I readily agreed. I joined a course in Bhubaneswar and within the first three months decided that I loved the profession of a Chef and would pursue it with zeal. Profession and passion blended perfectly for me, and the rest is history.
What was your family’s reaction to your wanting to be a chef?
I come from the family of carpenters and people in the Government services. The latter always spelt safety and security. Moreover, no one from the family had ever ventured into a restaurant as eating out was not really done. So, the initial reaction was not very well accepted, especially because in the small towns of twenty years ago, a Chef was basically a ‘Halwai’! But as I grew famous, it brought recognition and respect for the family and my hometown Kharagpur, in West Bengal. People would now talk of my family with pride. I cherished looking into the eyes of my father, then.
What would you be, if not a chef?
In Kharagpur at that time, people would expect you to be in either the IIT or in Railways. However, both these did not excite me at all. Kharagpur also had a great Airforce station and I was fascinated by the sorties of the MIG’s and Fighter Aircrafts. I did have a dream of becoming a fighter pilot at one point.
Is there a food item that you don’t like?
I think food is God’s creation and is a basic need of mankind. Forget not liking any food, I do not like to waste food in my plate too. I try that my children follow that outlook too.
Which talent that you don’t possess, would you most like to have?
I must share that I went on to play an under nineteen cricket tournament in my District and many people had asked my father to allow me to play cricket as they thought I had potential. However, there was this notion that sports was an option for backbenchers and that we should pursue more serious professions. Now, singing and playing an instrument is something which I would like to learn.
How would you describe your style of cooking?
I was employed as a Chef in a popular Hyderabadi restaurant when I released that I need to pursue the art of the ‘Indian Kitchen’ more deeply. I began by learning Hyderabadi Cuisine and mastered it under the guidance of Ustad Habib Pasha and the legendary culinarist Begum Mumtaz Khan. Then on I took every opportunity of learning from the Gurus of cooking across India, and mastered various regional cuisines of the country.
However, when I look at what I do now on TV it is familiar cuisine, something which anyone can cook easily at home. That ‘ease factor’ is what I have achieved, I think, be it professional or personal cooking. I love to see smiles on people’s faces when they cook.
Do you have a signature dish which you enjoy cooking?
There are plenty. Some have been created for my restaurants and people love to go especially to eat them. For example there is Michi ka Halwa, the Dal and a few unique breads that my customers relish. Earlier when fusion was not so much in vogue, I remember having created Black Currant Kulfi, Ginger Orange Kulfi and Rasmalai Tiramisu to name a few.
What new trends in food are you most excited by?
The Back to Basics or return of Desi food across the country, is what is exciting. Indian food is emerging globally, not just within the country. Then there is the experimentation with gourmet ingredients and new flavours.
The concept of super foods is interesting. At my restaurant, Dhadoom, we serve Instagram friendly food – Poutine (French Fries topped with gravies) has been given a new dimension as we now have Fries topped with Pav Bhaji, Chilli Paneer and Paneer Makhni, just to name a few variations and people are loving them.
Are there any ingredients that have fallen out of fashion for you?
Yes, there are many and that is worrisome because I think people are looking more at convenience and ease of cooking. As there is no demand for some things anymore, it is no longer profitable for farmers to grow them. It feels like these will soon become extinct. Globalization has also led to this change of habits and it is changing the produce too. Traditional vegetables like Suran or Jimmykand, Yams etc. are not seen nowadays except in a few places.
I remember Laasodey or Ganda Kairi sabji which my mother makes is not much used these days except in pickles. Similarly Kachnar from Kashmir is not visible any more.
Apart from your restaurants, Dhadoom, Twist of Tadka and BBjan, what else are you working on?
We endorse and develop brands for various Fortune 500 companies. We also have our own Kitchen Appliances brand called Happy Chef. My TV show, Turban Tadka is popular on the Food Food channel. I also do a food truck travel show called Desh Da Swaad on ZEE NEWS and BUSINESS. We have produced a series called Happy Dancing Chef for TATA SKY and now have a show called The Great Indian Global Kitchen.
We have already written three books and are looking at publishing five more this year. Work is on currently on a book on Diabetic and Cardio Cooking.
Who are the chefs you most admire?
On TV I admire Ainsley Harriot and Emerald Lagase for their sheer sense of humour while cooking. In India there is Sanjeev Kapoor who has brought in lot of respect for Chefs in general. His marketing skills are worth learning. Then there are legends like Satish Arora, Manjit Singh Gill and Imtiaz Qureshi to name a few known for their art.
What should people eat in this season?
People will eat what they get (laughs). February has become the month of love and happiness. You see a lot of great food revolving around cakes, strawberries etc. Traditionally it’s the time for spring to settle in and slowly the green leafy vegetables will make way for veggies with more water content.
What’s your favourite street food?
Can’t limit this to just any one thing. The Indian street food market is huge and currently unorganized. Some of the classic Indian flavours have evolved from street food across India. I remember when I first came across the Noodles Burger in Patiala and I was like Wow! What creativity! I put the same in the menu in my own restaurant BROASTERS GFC. I pick up lot of ideas from the streets and try to showcase them in various formats.
What is your favourite food city?
Again cannot name just one. Each city is known for something unique and traditional be it Amritsar for Kulchas and Fish, Ludhiana for Cream Chicken, Lucknow for Biryani and Kababs, Varanasi for Kachoris, Cochin for Ghee Roast Mutton… the list is endless. The one who travels gets to enjoy great food. So go ahead and pack your bags.