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November 2023, Issue"Dancing with Flavors: Chef Harpal Singh Sokhi Spills the Spice on Karigari and Culinary Adventures"

Chef Harpal Singh SokhiCelebrity & Energy Chef of India

Karigari, a chain of fine dining restaurants by Chef Harpal Singh Sokhi, embodies the essence of a showman in the kitchen. Each element in Karigari illustrates the chef's gastronomic journey around the world. Chef Harpal Singh Sokhi, known as the "Energy Chef of India," has transitioned into the "Dancing Chef of India." Renowned for his vibrant personality and culinary expertise, Chef Harpal has left an indelible mark on the Indian food scene. He graduated from IHM, Bhubaneshwar, and spent his initial years learning different international cuisines but later realized that his interest lay in unearthing authentic regional Indian food. His achievements include being honored as the Chef of the Year 2012 by the Golden Star Awards and being recognized as a Global Influencer at the Global Influencer Summit in 2018 and 2019. Through his various ventures and TV shows, Chef Harpal continues to inspire and delight food enthusiasts across the globe. In an exclusive interview with Ekkta Bhargava, Publisher of Better Kitchen, he highlighted his culinary journey and the new venture of Karigari restaurants.

What sparked your interest in the culinary arts?
Well, when I think of the spark, I would say that it came across from my mother and father, both were good in cooking and I would closely watch them do meals that left memories in my mind. However, the spark was not felt unless I was pushed to do hotel management out of necessity and not by choice. I had to take up hotel management as a skill course guided by my brother so that I could get a job immediately after passing and support my family. It only when I joined IHM Bhubaneswar did I realize the details of subjects and what all was being taught there. It is there that I got the spark of becoming a Chef in the third month of my first year in IHM and there on I never looked back and only wanted to become a Chef.

Were there any specific influences or experiences that motivated you to become a chef?
Being born and bought up in a place know for IIT Kharagpur and Kalaikunda Airforce, a major railway township known for its longest platform in the World, we had only these choices to choose as a career option. Each boy or girl would at least look out for three attempts before he decides to move on to regular graduation courses. I also was in a similar process when I could not get through in the first attempt, I moved on starting to the next attempt. That is the time my elder brother mentioned that I should also think of taking up something that would be a skilled course and try IHM. We had a neighbor who completed IHM and had immediately got the job in 5-star hotel and would come suited booted back to Kharagpur. We all felt that he had done something right and he became one of the forces to make me decide to join IHM. I gave the JEE and got selected for Bhubaneswar campus. It was there that I realized that I wanted to become a Chef. It was like a God sent signal and there was no looking back from there on.

Could you share a brief overview of your culinary journey from the start to where you are now?
Having completed my course, I could not get through campus interviews initially and choose to take up a job in Oberoi Bhubaneswar as a Trainee Cook. I had earlier realized during my course the pre requisites to become a great Chef. It was hard work, long hours of work, Focus, patience, perseverance and these things I followed religiously. I could master the art of everything that Oberoi Bhubaneswar Kitchen had to teach me and I requested my Executive Chef to transfer me to a bigger hotel so that I could learn more. However, that did not happen and I choose to move on. During that period, I got selected as a Kitchen Executive Trainee program in Centaur Group of Hotels at the Juhu Mumbai unit, completed four years, the urge to learn more and more, I moved for a short period to Europe, where I mastered of managing a full kitchen, stores and dish washing alone for a 40 cover restaurant and I tell you that was one of the best periods. Upon coming back to India I joined Vintage Hyderabadi specialty restaurant which was first of its kind specialty restaurants in the country. I got enough publicity and coverage across the country and also mastered the art of Hyderabadi cooking through Ustad Habib Pasha. I then moved to Tuli International a proposed 5 star hotel and joined there as an Executive Chef and at an age of 27 years only I had managed to reach those levels. During that period, I also got opportunity to do TV show Khana Khazana, Harpal ki Rasoi on Cable TV, I got much acclaim as a Chef across the country, moved further after a period of 4 years to The Regent Mumbai as a Chef and continued to be there for four more years, after which I joined as a co-founder of Khana Khazana a company started by Master Chef Sanjeev Kapoor. After a long period ten years of association, I moved on to start my own company Turban Tadka Hospitality Pvt. Ltd. and continue with the same now. During this period, I learnt to become an entrepreneur, a Great TV Chef Presenter, a brand owner, an appliances brand owner and a consultant.

What were some significant challenges you faced during your career, and how did you overcome them?
I remember having started at the lowest level as a Trainee Cook in Oberoi Bhubaneswar many times I would be dejected and my parents would also tell me to change my career, however I had learnt early that life is going to be difficult and I need to overcome all those challenges. At times I also gave Railway Board exams as I faced pressure from my family to change the line, however the struggle was sweet and worth the wait.

When you are focused and continue to acquire knowledge through various resources be it on the field, through books or learning with colleagues and great Chefs I don't think you will fail. You also need to have a great attitude to continue being humble and learn at all times. I still do it and these attributes helped me overcome all the pressures that I faced. Many a time Ustads would not teach and we were not living in an internet era so you had to actually do all the dirty job that you were asked to do by these legends however nothing stopped me to win over the hearts of all these Ustads and thus I mastered the art of great cooking. Learnt the art of winning over people in my early days as a cook and then as I kept growing, I would continue to work closely with all great Chefs. For any Chef I believe it is important that if you assist any great Chef just keep doing what he wants you to do and you will keep learning. If it is wrong do not point it to the person but when you have to do it yourself try to rectify and do it the right way.

What defines your culinary style or philosophy when it comes to cooking?As a Chef in my early days I was a Chef at Gardemanger, Soup Section and cooking Western food, however it was after period of 5 years that I was put into Banquet Kitchen and then Indian Specialty kitchens where I realized that being an Indian it was important to master Indian Cuisine. I feel that journey of learning Indian Cuisine so vast that I still continue to learn.

During the course of learning I met Ustad Habib Pasha and mastered the art of Hyderabadi Cooking, went further on to learn Hyderabadi cooking fine points from Begum Mumtaz Khan and Mehboob Alam Khan. Also learnt Awadhi Cuisine from Nawabs of Lucknow and visited many princely states to master their cuisines.

When It comes my style of cooking I would say that it clean food with natural flavours. Things that I learnt from my journeys and spending time with various Ustards who taught me details of using ingredients and about taste of good food. At the end of the day food has to be tasty and kept natural. I also tried to make things simple so that more people could learn and various variety of food could enter the kitchens of many Indian Households and I believe through my show Turban Tadka on FOODFOOD TV I could manage to do that very well. And with my jingle Namak Shamak Namak Shamak dal dete hain people singing that all over the world while cooking I managed to reach to people across the world and teach them Indian cooking.

Are there any particular cuisines or cooking techniques that inspire your creations?
I would say that there are many such dishes that I created during my television show which went on to be well accepted by the world and also are still featured on many restaurant menus across the Indian restaurants in the world. My art of blending ingredients was well accepted and you can do that only when you understand ingredients and their tastes very well.

I remember during my days at the Regent Mumbai I accidently cooked Kiwi in Tandoor and made Kiwi Ka Panha which is so popular across the world, I made Orange Ginger Kulfi, Blue Berry Kulfi and incorporated them in the menu in my hotel. Rasmali Black forest was one such dish which people would from across the country to eat. The black dal that I would cook my style in Tuli International I remember was very famous all over the country and is still famous at the restaurant there.

Today at Karigari all dishes that I have created some of them have become so well recognized and accepted that I am thankful to people and God, the Mirchi ka Halwa, Margherita Paneer Tikka, Parmesan Chicken Tikka all these dishes are something that people come for eating my restaurants.

How do you continually innovate and stay creative in the kitchen?
As the world is constantly evolving, more people travelling, taste buds of people are maturing and they are tasting various foods and are also learning about various ingredients from across the world, the subject of innovation becomes more important. Now innovation does not only mean changing a dish and creating your own twist to it, for me it keeping it in original form that you have learnt from an Ustad, a dish that most guests have not heard could be innovation for some when you present it to people. The other way around for me is also blending ingredients to traditional dishes and making them quirky and creative. Like the regular paneer tikka is changed to Margherita Paneer Tikka in my restaurant. Innovation is fun but you have to learn one very important thing that at the end of the day the dish has to have a global acceptance and be understood well by people. When a man reads a quirky dish on the menu he is already making an image of the same in his mind and if that image and the way the dish is presented does not match then there is an issue and the guest will not like it. I remember when I did Rasmalai Black Forest early 1999 people did not understand well and acceptance was low but to some it was just wow. So innovation also comes with risks and you got to take those calculative risks.

Could you tell us more about your new venture with Karigari restaurants?
Well Karigari by Chef Harpal Singh Sokhi is venture that was conceptualized during Covid along with a few investor partners. During Covid one we took all the risks of locking a great location in Noida and what started initially as a brand and expertise extension we went on to become business partners and now Karigari is like a home-grown baby that I nurture very closely.

During Covid I also had lot of time to create and conceptualize the concept and create a unique brand that offered food from across my journey, my mother's kitchen, my father's kitchen, my mother in law's kitchen, my wife's kitchen and from legendary places known for various dishes from across the country. We opened our first outlet in early 2022 when Covid was just phasing out yet not over in some sense and during that period I remember working in the kitchens with masks on and managing whatever manpower was available. I stayed focused and put in all my energies in ensuring that we create something legendary and a place to recon with, by the Grace of God we managed to do it and people loved everything we did. We remained focused for a year and I did not allow any of investors/partners to expand any further for a year till we could establish the brand and only after a year did we expand and that too with top speed. In 2023 we managed to open about 6 more Karigaris across up North and continue to do so in the coming 2024 with another 10 lined up to open.

What inspired you to launch this specific culinary endeavor?
Restaurant is something which I have creating, opening and exiting. I opened The Funjabi Tadka about 10 years back created the concept, opened about 5 of them and then exited from the company within 15 months of operations. Then I had lounge bars and QSR's opened exited after opening many. This way I kept my learning on and concept creation kept happening. However, after I opened Karigari I have been hooked on to it and loving creating every thing around it. I think it something when you love it seriously you keep working around it and Karigari is not just about me, it is about my mother's journey, recipes from my household kitchen, recipes from my Television show turban tadka, recipes from legendary restaurants and Ustads, recipes from my mother-in-law's kitchens and my wife's kitchen. All this put together we created a complete story telling restaurant which went on to be a great place. I would also say that our architect Som Sengupta created some unique elements that went on to become iconic features of the restaurant.

What vision or mission drives Karigari restaurants?
We have a vision to become the largest Indian restaurant chain in the country with a unique storytelling concept. At Karigari, we envision being the epitome of luxury Indian dining, a trailblazer in culinary innovation under my leadership. In the last year, we have reached over 500,000 individuals who have become our brand spokespersons.

Our mission is to expand across the country and share the delightful creations crafted by me. We aim to showcase more legendary dishes and bring more small businesses into our network to elevate their status nationwide. Additionally, we intend to build a team that will benefit from our growth. We also aspire to carry forward this legacy, making our country and cuisine proud by opening restaurants internationally.

How do you intend to distinguish Karigari from other culinary establishments?
We are a story telling restaurant a place where each dish has a story. Each dish comes from either my mother's kitchen, my father's recipes, my quirky recipes that I did on my Legendary Television Show Turban Tadka, recipes from ustads, legendary places from across the country. We also bring in iconic ingredient's from across the nation that help us involve more people into our eco system.

When we build our restaurants, we also define that the place should have iconic features that are relatable like the spoon chandeliers, the unique selfie points, the brasswares from typical Karigars from Moradabad. We keep innovating and developing things that help us bringing in USP's.

How does Karigari restaurants incorporate cultural elements into its menu or dining experience?
We are quite particular of growing our eco system of small businesses around us and at the same time highlighting legendary places from across the country as we share their recipes served our way and style, maintaining authenticity as much as possible.

We definitely look at unique cultural activities that our country is known for and represent such dishes through our menu and food. We try to source local ingredients like Laal Saag, Regular home grown vegetables through farmers markets.

Are there any upcoming projects or plans for expansion in the culinary world that you can share with us?
Yes in 2023 we had a target to open 10 restaurants we managed to open 7 and yes 3 are in pipeline and would open by March end 2024, there on we take a small break to build our team, learn more about our mistakes and then move on to open 10 more by March 2025. We are also looking at options of international locations.

How do you see the future of Karigari restaurants evolving in the next few years?
We look forward to be the largest Indian restaurant chain in the next three to five years. The target that we have in our mind is to reach to 60 plus restaurants and a sizeable to turnover that will help us move to list on the stock exchange through right resources.

What kind of dining experience do you aim to provide at Karigari restaurants?We claim our selves as aspirational fine dining where in providing an atmosphere of five start hotels and top food quality which is our core focus and there is no compromise there. The pricing is kept affordable and within reach of the mass market as we consider that if you have grow in numbers then this is the only route you can take.

How do you ensure consistency and quality across different locations or branches?
This is the most challenging tasks we have in our hand. Being a Chef Driven restaurant people love to see you at all times. We have a very strict audit policy, we have also created a core team in service and training which keeps moving across to all our restaurants periodically and we continue our process as of now through internal taste audit teams, standards recipes, follow up on standards weights and measures. We also have standard supply chain of ingredients hence we do not intend to spread wide and thin. I personally ensure that we look at the policy of zero to one, one to ten and ten to hundred so and so forth, when it comes to expansions.

Do you believe it's important to preserve traditional cooking methods while introducing modern culinary trends?
It is very important to preserve traditional methods as much as possible and the tastes are definitely different. The policy of grinding a chutney in on stone grinder and hand ground is different to the one blended in a blender. When you pound garam masala in a mortar pestle and when you grind in an electrical blender it smells different. Cooking on slow charcoal flame in brass and copper vessel the tastes are different. So it is important to learn the right format of cooking and implement the same as much as you can.

What advice would you give to individuals aspiring to pursue a career in the culinary arts?
I think the policy that I followed hard work, smart work, patience, perseverance, focus these things need to be followed closely.

Are there any key lessons you've learned that you'd like to share with those starting in this field?
I think the most important thing is not take short cuts, build your roots to be a legendary Chef.