How tech is redefining Indian food in the UK

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Growing up under the guidance of his legendary father Jiggs Kalra, also known as the “Czar of Indian Cuisine”, restaurateur Zorawar Kalra has created an Indian restaurant empire of his own.

As the founder and managing director of Massive Restaurants, Zorawar oversees 37 Asian restaurants across the world, including Farzi Cafe London, and continually works to innovate Indian cuisine by incorporating his curiosity for advanced culinary technology with his reverence for ancient cooking traditions.

The Independent caught up with Kalra as he seeks to expand his business and further express his love for Indian cuisine on the world stage.

1. When did you first know that you wanted to follow in your father’s footsteps?

The passion for restaurants has always been deep within me. Growing up, I was thrilled to watch my father’s lifestyle, his work on great concepts and especially the respect he commanded from the industry at large. My father was the biggest influence in my life. Around the age of 12, I decided that this is the only thing I want to do. But I didn’t want to do something boutique, rather my entrepreneurial bent of mind was more focused on a larger enterprise that would put Indian food on the global palate permanently.

My father had instilled this huge responsibility towards Indian food in me. I grew up in a household that was very food-focused. It got us all together. All of us used to meet together on the dining table. As a child, holidays meant tasting new flavours at the best restaurants across the world. Somehow, something just struck a chord with me.

2. What is the most important lesson that you learned from your father?

My father’s work ethic was something I always admired. That and his deep sense of responsibility for Indian food. It was unparalleled. He spent entire days working on his computer, researching multiple sources and then combining them to formulate his version of the perfect recipe. His attention to detail is another thing I learnt from him the most. He also taught me to pursue perfection, while letting me know that you will never really achieve it.

3. What is the biggest obstacle you have faced in your career?

The current pandemic has been one of the biggest shocks to the entire human race. The food and beverage industry has been hit the worst. Restaurants were not operational for a very long time and the staff in our industry did have the option to work from home. It impacted everyone in the industry in a big way.

But lockdown offered us an opportunity as well. During Covid-19, we had to look at other avenues as restaurants were shut down. Before the first nationwide lockdown, we didn’t have a very robust delivery system. Delivery and takeaway became a vital part of our dine-in restaurants.

I believe, there are challenges in every business, but if you enjoy your work, they are just minor hurdles along the ride.

4. What common misconception do Londoners have about Indian food?

Indian food initially had a perception problem overseas. It struggled to get the love it was receiving in India. It was considered post-pub cheap food doused in chilli and with two or three basic gravies forming the entire menu. Nothing could be further from the truth. Over the years the perception has reversed, especially in the UK where it’s arguably the most popular cuisine now.

With innovative dishes and bold flavours, the food at Farzi Café London is a journey across India through your taste buds. Marrying global influences with an unapologetic Indian twist, it has been welcomed in the city and we are overwhelmed by the response and deeply grateful for it.

5. Farzi is known for its use of advanced cooking equipment. What is one tool, in either the bar or the kitchen that you are especially fond of? What does it do?

The techniques used in Farzi Cafe are quite advanced. Our techniques include the juxtaposition of both the modern and the ancient. The use of fire and slow (also known as dum) cooking along with the use of modern techniques involving sodium alginate, liquid nitrogen, lecithin, etc, give our guests a gastronomic experience unlike anything before. Even the cocktails on the London menu have been created using the latest equipment including centrifugal machines and a sonic homogeniser (perhaps one of a handful in the entire UK).

6. What did the pandemic teach you about the restaurant industry?

The pandemic has taught us that nothing is permanent and we always have to be prepared for the unplanned and the unforeseen. The key thing is to always ensure that you have a lean ship, you have a company that does not have added costs.

But perhaps the most important lesson learned is that agility is one of the most important tools a company’s management can have.

7. What excites you the most about your plans for the future?

We have a couple of launches lined up, which is very exciting. The idea of serving well-curated, innovative and progressive menus to a new country/city is always challenging as well as very exciting. Currently, we operate 37 outlets of our restaurant brands Farzi Café, Made in Punjab, Younion, Masala Library, Bo-Tai and PaPaYa. We have 10 franchise outlets in the pipeline in Chennai, Kanpur, Nagpur and Gwalior. Most of these will be of Farzi Café, while the rest will be Made in Punjab and Younion. Our goal is to open at least 15 outlets every year – an equal mix of franchise-owned, company-operated and company-owned, company-operated models. We aim to increase our restaurant footprint to more than 100 over the next three years.

8. On Instagram you follow dozens of car accounts. How is a luxury vehicle similar to a delicious meal?

A delicious meal enhances someone’s experience. It’s a fabulous way to spend an evening. It is an art form. In the same way, a beautiful car enhances the environment it inhabits. Pleasure is the common thread between the two.

9. What is one cuisine, other than Indian, that you can’t live without?

My two favourite cuisines are Indian and Japanese. Although they are completely opposite, the finesse and balance of flavours in each of these cuisines is intricate. I find myself drawn to the simplicity of Japanese flavours and also to the complexes of the Indian recipes.

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