Thursday, January 24, 2013

Thoda namak shamak

Once in a way, you meet a person so passionate about their work that it is reflected in everything he says, everything he does.

Harpal Singh Sokhi is one such.

When he was first introduced to me, I had no idea who he was. Except that he is a chef who’s worked with Sanjeev Kapoor, now opening his own chain of restaurants.

Big deal.

It was only when the food started arriving on the table that I realised yahan kuch alag funda hai. First came the lassi in cutting chai style. Four different kinds.

Then, the starters. Kya gazab! Not the usual paneer tikkas and hariyali kebabs but some amazing variations. Like 'beetroot and amla'.

I looked at Sardarji more carefully and understood – yeh bhaisaab kuch khaas hain.

Harpal Singh Sokhi is a celebrity chef, but the nicest possible kind.
He is popularly known as the ‘namak shamak’ chef because that’s the trademark phrase on his cooking show ‘Turban Tadka’.

It’s something he chose – deliberately and intelligently. In a world where chefs talk in terms of teaspoons, he picks up a chutki (fingerful) of salt and sprinkles it on his cooking – just like your mother does.

Endearing him to aunties and beejis and didis of all varieties.

“I always look at what is the season, what are the vegetables available in that season. And I plan what to air on my show, accordingly.”

No exotic, hard-to-find ingredients. No Masterchef pretensions. Only an incredible love and understanding of food.

“I have an ayurvedic doctor who is my consultant, he has helped me to create a Punjabi food menu which is lighter on the stomach, easier to digest.”

Is such a thing possible?

Harpal elaborates,”See, if we cook in white butter (butter without salt), that is better for digestion. Adding black pepper also makes a difference.”

I loooooooove white butter. Jai ayurveda, jai Punjab.

Harpal has been in the hospitality business for over two decades. And he has a really sad but funny story to tell about what happened when he decided to take up cooking – as a career.

“I grew up in Kharagpur, where there is only one ambition of every parent – my child should join IIT.”

The second best option was to become an Air Force pilot.

The last (respectable) option – join the Indian Railways (Kharagpur’s only other claim to fame being its endlessly long platform).

Since Harpal showed very little interest in studies, all the above options were ruled out. His father thought a clerical option in a bank might be worth a shot.

“I was sent for typing classes in the middle of the afternoon,” he laughs. “Yes, I can type really really fast even today.”

One of Harpal’s seniors had joined a hotel management course and started working at Sinclair’s hotel in Darjeeling. When he came home for vacation – smartly dressed in suit and tie – Harpal was impressed.

And he too joined IHM Bhubaneshwar.

When he came for vacation his father wanted to know wahaan kya sikhate hain. Tu kya banega?

“(S)hef,” replied Harpal.

Yeh chuff kya hota hai.”

“If I tell you will get mad,” replied Harpal.

Nahin, batao to sahi,” urged papaji.

Chef matlab bawarchi.”

Papaji was mad and stayed that way for a long time. Over time, he accepted that this work is like any other work – pays well and worth doing. But it was seeing his son on television that really made him proud.

Parents are like that only.

In his 20 odd years as a ‘diplomewala bawarchi’ Harpal has seen it and done it all. Travelled and worked around the world, collected the oddest of experiences.

“People abroad are fascinated by my turban. There was one restaurant in Luxembourg where I worked. Guests would come into the kitchen to touch me and see if I am ‘real’.”

Well, I can tell you this guy is for real. His food is for real. Really really good.

The starters at ‘The Funjabi Tadka’ were so good we never got to the main course. We only had space for some home-style khichdi. And of course, dessert.

What I liked best were the chocolate-mango lassi, the Lahori aloo and the ‘Mirchi ka halwa’ (yes, you read that right and it’s amazing! (pictured alongside)

But the entire menu is full of such interesting things (familiar and yet different). What’s more they have a separate menu for vegetarians which I think is a wonderful insight into the mind of us shakaharis..

It was a pleasure to meet Harpal and share this meal. I can tell that this restaurant is going to be a huge success. Because it’s all about the food, the food and the food.

'The Funjabi Tadka’ (TFT) opened in Kolkata on Southern Avenue on 19th of Jan. Will open in Mumbai (Bandra) and very soon in other locations across India.

The meal I had was a preview, arranged for by my friend Aneeta Arora. Many thanks to Satyaki Mukherjee, business brain behind TFT. Coverage by The Telegraph newspaper on the 17th of January featured above.

Advice to wannabe 'chuffs'

Hotel management was not so well accepted as a career around 20 years ago, but that’s changed.

I see hotel management as the only course from where you can fit into any stream -it’s like one size fits all. You will see hotel management graduates heading retail chains as well as sitting in senior positions in sectors apart from their own domain.

Not to forget that if you graduate from a hotel school your entrepreneurship skills are at their best. Because the first thing in the mind of a person just about graduating is ‘I will have my own restaurant someday’.

The secret of success in any field is to work hard. Though many complete the course, later they change their profession as it involves long hours of work.

You need to fall in love with your profession to become successful.

In hotel management one has to reach out to people as it is service oriented. You need to make your presence felt in everything you do. You cannot sit behind and wait for things to happen.

As a chef, apart from cooking good food, I always reach out to the guests and talk to them, get to know them, their likes and dislikes. This helped me when I did my shows too. So I strongly advise everyone who intends taking up the course should be an extrovert – friendly and approachable.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

So you want to write a bestseller?

The Economic Times ran a story yesterday on ‘How Amish Tripathi’s success is prompting MBA grads to become novelists'.

The article – and many others like it – imply that MBAs have a higher chance of success in the writing profession than non-MBAs.

In support of this theory the article quotes this fact: Of the top 10 books in the shortlist for The Economist Crossword Book Award in October 2012, seven had been penned by MBAs, six of whom were IIM alumni.

I think the more important fact which readers will miss is the part where Amish mentions he comes from a ‘typical middle class family;’. The top-selling authors in India today would all use that phrase to describe themselves.

It’s typical middle class - writing for typical middle class - that’s selling.

The other qualities that I believe make for success are:
1) being pigheaded (believing in your story and way of writing when no one else will)
2) being ahead of your time (what you’ve written has not been seen before or done before)
3) being I-don’t-give-a-damn (I started doing this for fun, not to make serious money or a big career).

These are the qualities you should look for in yourself when you ask – can I make a career in writing. If you are any old boring MBA writing a book that sounds very much like Chetan or Amish or Ravinder or mine, it is not going to work.

If you are confident, crazy and committed to writing – you have a shot.

You will need to collect life-experiences and opinions and attitudes but it need not be at a bschool.

Most importantly, you need to train yourself to connect with a source higher than yourself. Because the best artists of all kinds freely acknowledge – they are but instruments through whom the words, the songs, the art and ideas flow.

Robert Louis Stevenson (‘Treasure Island’) conceived of entire novels through dreams.

Elizabeth Gilbert (‘Eat, Pray, Love’) gives a brilliant TED talk in which she argues that creativity is divinely inspired. I love the part about ‘genius’ being like Dobby, the house elf.

Amish Tripathi says that writing his books is like a ‘joyful ride’.

The book itself would just keep coming. The only thing I had to do was to listen to music, which (matched) the mood of the moment that I am writing in. So if I were writing a war scene I would listen to the music of Eklavya (starring Amitabh Bachchan, Saif Ali Khan and Vidya Balan). And somehow that used to help the flow. When I would write a love scene I'd listen to the music of Don (starring Shah Rukh Khan).

That's all I had to do: play music and somehow the story would just start flowing. And there wasn't any logic to it. Sometimes I would write chapter 25, the next day I would write chapter five. The next day something of book three would come. I learned not to question it and would write just what came to me. I first wrote summaries of the three books and then I started expanding them into the books.

I don’t mean to say that if you switch on your favourite music a bestseller will flow out of you. But at some point, it can.

The tension with being a creative professional is that you have to work very hard in order to hardly work at all.

If you can understand that, you can be a writer. And your books will sell.

What you need is not an MBA but to discover the true power – of your mind.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Follow Every Rainbow - my 5th book!

Happy to share with you news of my new book on women entrepreneurs, which releases on the 8th of March, 2013. Here is a sneak peek of the cover (even before it goes up on flipkart :)

The title 'Follow Every Rainbow' is inspired by one of my all-time favourite songs, from 'The Sound of Music'.

Climb every mountain,
Ford every stream,
Follow every rainbow,
'Till you find your dream.

A dream that will need
All the love you can give,
Every day of your life
For as long as you live.

I chose this title because I think it describes the way women look at their lives and careers. We don't want to climb *every* mountain. Just because it's there.

We need to see that rainbow over the horizon. To pursue a dream with beauty and hope and inspiration. And not just power, status, money or 'success' - at any cost.

Incidentally, the cover of 'Follow Every Rainbow' is designed by the talented Amrit Vatsa, who also designed 'Stay Hungry Stay Foolish' and 'Connect the Dots'.

Deciding what colour to use for the cover was a challenge. We didn't want a girly pink but neither did we want stark white. I think the 'deep purple' we finally chose is a beautiful, royal colour. Quite like the women entrepreneurs themselves.

I also like the motif of the 'rainbow' foot. It's symbolic of moving ahead, taking a step in the direction you want your life to go. (I might even do some t-shirts to give away!)

For all those of you who ping me or mail me asking when I will update the blog, the answer is - very soon. Writing a book is work. Writing two books a year is a LOT of work. By the way, I plan to write three!

So I have to be disciplined. There are days when I just want to quickly write a blog but restrain myself. Because it will take at least an hour (or more) of my time. I tell myself to focus, focus, focus. And it works.

I work from an office (borrowed from a friend). I often switch off my cellphone. I don't keep facebook or twitter 'always on'. Just check in once or twice a day.

But now the book is pretty much done. And I will have time and freedom.

Here's wishing you a wonderful 2013 and that we connect through this space regularly once again.

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