Born in picturesque Lumbini in Nepal, the birthplace of Lord Gautam Buddha, Nar Bahadur Khatri Chef/Owner of Indian Mahal Indian Restaurant grew up in a farm household. It was a happy childhood; he loved the green fields, went to the local school and worked hard. But like his two brothers and his other compatriots, going to India was a natural progression of life.
Job opportunities were plenty and there was also the attractive prospect of joining the Indian army. So after finishing his Class 10, he left his hometown for Banaras to enrol with the Indian army. He had cleared almost 90 per centof the exams when he realised it was not a profession he wanted to be in. At that time, he recalls seeingthehuge Taj Hotel outside the army camp. Having heard of stories about chefs who had made it big and were travelling abroad, he knew there was value for chefs.
Curious,Khatri walked into the five-star hotel to find work as a kitchen hand. “When I entered the place, I knew exactly this is where I wanted to be in,” he says, adding, “I left all dreams of being in the army that moment.” From Lumbini to Banaras, Khatri found his enlightenment soon enough to travel the world as a skilled chef.
Working at the Taj Hotel for a few months gave him tremendous insight into the makings of a chef. He knew it was not an easy profession but he had the interest and the energy to pursue to further hone his skills. So he travelled to Delhi and found jobs with lesser known small restaurants. “It was a very tough environment,” says Khatri. There was certain resentment against Nepali chefs or any other new chefs so people were not willing to teach, he says. “I learnt everything on my own by observing and putting in long hours.” The years 1970 to 1982 proved to be his learning period, where he struggled. But he went on to become head chef looking after the entire kitchen operation of the hotel he worked in. Finally he mastered the art of cooking good food – from tandoor dishes to varieties of Indian cuisines.
Khatri’s big break came when he applied at the Le-Meridian in Delhi, a five-star hotel where his cooking skills opened new windows of opportunity. Here he particularly enjoyed cooking all kinds of kababs and the biryani. “It is not a simple exercise and requires a lot of creativity,” he says. Besides he had the burning desire to learn everything. That earned him good compliments.
Le Meridian’s Pakwan restaurant was where Khatri was regularly stationed. “There was a live tandoor and new varieties of kababs every other day.” One day a team of 4-5 restaurant owners in Japan were dining at Pakwan when Khatri was in charge. They liked his food and one of the owners approached him.“He did a trial run of my cooking at a private function in his place. I passed the tests and interview,” says Khatri.The next thing he knew he was boarding the flight to Japan where he built his home and career for the next ten years of his life.
Japan proved to be a lucrative career stint as well as challenging. “Moti Indian restaurant in Tokyo was a very busy place and I churned out dishes after dishes. All the customers were Japanese and they loved Indian food. I was cooking rogan josh, tandoori chicken, garlic kababs, etc. Those days there were few restaurants with very good chefs,” he says. Often, his patrons told him “Oishii”, which he later found out meant OH MY GOSH, tasty or delicious.
During this time, Khatri even served a record 850 customers one sunny, normal working day. “We opened at 10 am and till 11 pm there was no break in the line, the queue was non-stop.”That was a big learning curve for Khatri.
Based on the strength of his cooking skills, Khatri was approached yet again by former Japanese ambassador to Pakistan who was his regular client to work at the restaurant he was setting up near the royal palace in Tokyo. After five years at Moti Indian restaurant, he shifted to Ganges Indian restaurant and helped build the restaurant from scratch.He spent another five years there when he decided to come to Australia.
Australia offered more opportunities for Khatri. He even enhanced his skills by enrolling in a hospitality college to learn western cooking. He got a lot of offers for work and started working in Indian restaurants before opening his own Indian Mahal. He even worked on the sets of Salaam Namaste for five months catering for the entire team.
Looking back, Khatri says, “I never get tired of cooking, this is my profession and I love to please people’s palate.”He reveals that his long standing success as a chef comes from his versatile experiences. One thing that he is very particular about is getting fresh raw material and putting in his own work into it. “I don’t take any chances with food.”
Khatri does not think becoming a chef is easy.Even a simple thing as making tea needs detail and precision, he says. “You have to add the right amount of milk, sugar, water and tea leaves. If sugar is more, tea becomes sweet, if tea leaves are less,it becomes mild, so there has to be precision.”
Cooking is a limitless experience, says Khatri.“There are so many types of food, so it becomes an endless learning and experimenting process.” To be successful, he thinks it is very important to garner the practical experience working in restaurants. He likens a good chef to a player who trains consistently to reach the finals. “There is no short cut; you can’t take risks with food. Perhaps everybody can cook but maintaining the consistency, style and flavour is not everyone’s cup of tea.”
By Indira Laisram