Chef Sunil Tyagi
Growing up in a huge joint family under the wings of a very dynamic father, a landlord and a special magistrate in the plains of Uttar Pradesh, Sunil Tyagi had a privileged life.But a tsunami like flood near the Ganges in the 1950s wiped away acres of land and cattle in a flash. “Overnight my family lost everything but we didn’t lose our spirits,” says Tyagi. Suddenly the huge family had to make decisions and chart out careers. Tyagi wanted to study medicine and fulfil his father’s dream but modestly admits to sitting for the entrance exams many times, each time without success.
At that time, a friend of Tyagi’s father, who was a doctor, and his elder brother visited the US and came back with innovative ideas and introduced vocational studies and training in apprenticeship to train the new generation. That was the 60s and the hotel industry was coming up. “He told my father why don’t you put a couple of children into this industry, I am going to send my children as well,” recollects Tyagi. And so for the next four years, Tyagi found himself at the Oberoi Intercontinental training to become a chef. He would go on to become proud owners of some award winning restaurants.
Of course it was a decision that his grandfather, a politician, would not have been very pleased with, says Tyagi, who grew up in a household of 10-12 chefs himself. “It was something he would not have dreamt of.” But endowed with the mind of an artist, Tyagi found himself immersed in the properties of coriander or cumin, thoroughly soaking up the chemistry of food and rubbing shoulders with some of the best chefs that India has produced.
The Oberoi proved to be the toughest learning ground. Coming from a strict vegetarian family not familiar with even the smell of an egg, he had to cut and chop meat. “At times I used to cry thinking what am I doing,” he recalls. Add to it, the trainers, generally not literate, resented the boys from the privileged backgrounds, and pushed them hard. “Because the hotel industry needed at that time qualified and upgraded skills to run the operation and utilise labour at a different level, we were there and did four years of hard training,” says Tyagi.But he decided to put his heart and soul into the industry.Being young and eager to learn he worked 13-14 hours at a stretch. “When the teacher saw the desire in us to learn they used to teach us slowly. Stay another two hours, I will teach you something else, he would say.We were greedy to learn and they were greedy for labour.”
Some of his great teachers, Tyagi recalls, are people like Chef Imtiaz, Lala Hansraj, Chef Ismail who took cooking to a different level and exposed him to the best traditions of food beginning from Mughlai. Blessed with creative minds, they came out with genuine recipes that became famous such as the Bukhara leg of lamb. Tyagi believes a teacher does not want to die taking his art with him; he wants his name as well and so is always seeking his best disciple. “But learning is not for everybody, if you have the desire, you can learn anything and that is another art.”
After training at the Oberoi, Tyagi worked at the Maurya Sheraton for a year and then went on to work at Amsterdam, London, Japan, Hongkong before being roped in to work at the Tandoor in Chapel Street, Melbourne in 1980. Interestingly, he claims to have invented the famous chicken tikka masala. “It was my dish which I gave to England and it is flourishing now in London.”Tyagi explains his maestro Chef Ismail, who was head chef at the Oberoi Intercontinental, used to cook a dish called tandoori chicken masala in London but a lot of people didn’t like the bones in the dish. So what Tyagi did was make a variation of that dish minus the bone with a tweak of the recipe at the Diwan-E-Am Tandoor restaurant in London where he worked. “A lot of people were doing chicken jalfrezi but I created chicken tikka masala which is fillet of the chicken marinated and cooked in the tandoor. It comes out 80 per cent cooked, after which you shallow fry onion, add butter chicken and rogan josh sauce, chopped ginger, garam masala, fenugreek leaves, etc. There is a lot of mix and match. With proper utensils and equipment you get the right mix.” Tyagi also helped launch restaurants in Hongkong before being offered a job in Melbourne.
Melbourne in the 1980s had a handful of best Indian award-winning restaurants, says Tyagi. “We gave them a boost, good name, good work and then I started on my own in 1985.” Credited with running successful restaurants, he is currently enjoying his stint at Moonee Ponds having set up Indian Star in 2000. “Thebeauty of this restaurant is everything here is original. Our mind and soul does not allow otherwise. Nomatter if the restaurant is empty (though it is always full) we still have our own traditional fixed recipes.”
Tyagi judges a cook on his ability to cook a good biryani. “From the texture of the meat to the coagulation of rice to moisture in the dish to aroma and presentation, it is an intricate job and the hardest,” he says, adding, “Biryani also depends on which rice it is being cooked and if anyone can cook biryani with young basmati rice, then he is a master.”
For a chef who is passionately involved with food, Tyagi rues the fact that the richness and beauty of Indian food is being given a bad name by people who have set up joints everywhere and starting two dollar meals. “How can you make dal maharani and serve for 2 or 7 dollars? I can fill up restaurant making a 6-7 dollar dish but I will ruin it.”Similarly the introduction of packet food in super markets saddens him. “Every food is becoming so commercialised that the name of the chefs will disappear soon and will remain only in books. Nowadays you get rice and butter chicken in packets, it is so disappointing. You feel the slow death of a profession.”
But he wants to pass on his traits so he is busy teaching others to carry on the tradition of Indian cooking. “The profession has been good to me, I have been admired and also made money,” he smiles. So entrenched is he in cooking that his mind is always wondering what combinations can go and he looks at western cooking with interest too.
Given his long association with food, Tyagi has patrons who have been following him over the years. He has preserved testimonials of friends and customers from the 1980s – postcards, compliments, certificates, awards. His restaurant he expresses is “a culture based on grace, ritual and colour.”Like a true artist, this chef is not hungry for money, he only wants appreciation.
By Indira Laisram