Kathakali has been a journalist for a decade and a half, working previously with The Telegraph and Times of India. An MA in political science and a Chevening Fellow, she writes on various themes--the business of sports, pop culture, startups, innovation--and co-produces the video series, From the Field. She is also part of the desk, editing, rewriting and putting the print edition to bed. Kathakali is a sports nut and collects autographs as a hobby. She enjoys travelling and music, and you'll often find her humming completely out of tune.
Zorawar Kalra has turned traditional Indian cuisine, his father’s forte, on its head and introduced molecular gastronomy in Indian kitchens Image: Madhu Kapparath
Zorawar Kalra has a need for speed. When he is not racking his brains to trump up flavour profiles that could shock food gods or have them in awe, the 39-year-old can be found zipping around Noida’s Buddh International Circuit in his Mercedes-AMG. “I clock good timings too,” he says. Often, when he is at home, Kalra is fiddling with computers. He buys the best hardware, assembles them and amps them up to perform at superfast speed, so much so that the processors need to be cooled with liquid nitrogen. It’s no mere coincidence, then, that speed is of essence when it comes to expanding his F&B footprint as well.
In 2006, Kalra, back from the US after an MBA from Boston’s Bentley University, started Punjab Grill as a kiosk at the food court of Gurugram’s MGF Metropolitan Mall. The authentic Punjabi food that he served there “tasted great, but lacked innovation”. He raised some money from Lite Bite Foods to jazz up the brand, one that could live up to the reputation of his author-columnist-restaurateur father J Inder Singh ‘Jiggs’ Kalra. Over the next few years, Punjab Grill became synonymous with gourmet North Indian food that had big, bold flavours yet sat light on the palate.
But Kalra wasn’t resting easy even during the heyday of Punjab Grill. “I knew this format had a finite life. The only way to get a young demographic interested in traditional cuisine was to modernise it. Innovation was the key. People were bored with katoris of daal with cream on top, however fancily you served it,” he says. In 2012, he sold off Wrapster Foods, the parent company that ran Punjab Grill, to Lite Bite Foods, and, in December that year, set up Massive Restaurants, an F&B company that, he felt, would upend all existing notions of Indian food and be the last word in inventiveness.
Four years on, the company has posted revenues of Rs200 crore for FY17, a growth of 400 percent from the previous fiscal, and also registered “high profits” in the year (it refused to disclose the number). It already has five restaurant brands with 16 outlets between them, including one in Dubai. A sixth concept, Kode, that will serve “cuisine-agnostic, freestyle food” has just opened in Mumbai.
Kalra, meanwhile, has become a household face by appearing as a judge on the fifth season of MasterChef India. So, despite an apologetic “I’m just kidding” that follows, you better mark Kalra’s words when he says he is gunning for “global domination”.
That he would get into the F&B industry was a given when Kalra was growing up. For one, his father—once celebrated author and journalist Khushwant Singh’s mentee at the Illustrated Weekly—was an illustrious gastronome who ran a food column at the now-defunct The Evening News. Later, he moved on to food consultancy, collaborating extensively with top Indian chefs and serving dignitaries like Princess Diana and former US President Bill Clinton, and authored multiple cookbooks, including Prashad: Cooking With Indian Masters, his seminal work.
But Sr Kalra doesn’t remember formally grooming Zorawar to be a restaurateur, except that travelling with him on work assignments exposed his elder son to a variety of cuisines. There’s another influence that Zorawar squarely attributes his epicurean interests to: His Punjabi lineage. “Even if my father was not in the food business, it wouldn’t be any different. We always talked about food at home,” he says.
But what changed his approach to food, turning his concepts inside out and steering it in a direction opposite to his father’s, was a visit to El Bulli, a multi-hatted restaurant in Spain recognised as the godfather of haute cuisine. In 2006, Kalra went to Spain for his honeymoon and, without divulging as much to his wife, dropped his father’s name to jump the waiting list and book themselves a table at El Bulli. The meal that followed was the definitive moment for his food philosophy, not in terms of taste, but in terms of techniques and innovation—foams, spherification, what have you—that could be applied to everyday restaurant food. “One of the dishes I had was chicken feet with algae that someone had picked up from the bed of the sea the night before. I hated both the components individually, but was blown away by the innovative way in which it was presented. I figured the taste won’t work in India, just gimmick and no flavour won’t survive, but I could apply similar techniques of molecular gastronomy to Indian food,” he says.
The food that he would plate up would be Indian in taste, yet global in essence. Rasmalai tres leches, for instance: A dessert that would taste like the Indian rasmalai but would be prepared deploying the Mexican technique of mixing three types of milk and cooking it for 24 hours. He would stuff arancini balls with the regular daal chawal and make it one of the most popular vegetarian items on the menu. Or make a jalebi caviar—tiny beads of jalebi, shaped like fish roe, floating in pistachio rabdi and saffron foam—that could easily become the stuff of hashtags.
Kalra set up his first venture under Massive Restaurants, Masala Library, in Mumbai’s Bandra-Kurla Complex in 2014, eight years after returning from Spain. “One week after we launched, the first Friday, we got 400 calls. The service was poor, we couldn’t keep up with the diners, but they kept coming. I knew I had hit the jackpot,” he says. Following the success of his fine-dining format, Kalra expanded his reach to the younger demographic with Farzi Cafe (a modern, Indian bistro), Pa Pa Ya (South Asian fusion), MasalaBar (molecular cocktails and drinks) and Made In Punjab (fine-dining North Indian food).
While Kalra is aware that he isn’t a chef himself, he sets an extremely detailed brief for his team to execute what he has on his mind. Right from the decor (green walls replicating those of French castles at his bistro-style Farzi Cafe outlet in Gurugram’s Cyber Hub), to quirky motifs (mini red telephone booths for cheques at Farzi and cocktails served in lightbulbs at Pa Pa Ya) and precise flavours (spaghetti in coconut cream), he goes through multiple iterations till it reaches the diner.
Saurabh Udinia, executive chef at Massive Restaurants, recalls his incredulous feeling when Kalra first spoke of the jalebi caviar. “Sitting in his office, he drew a dot on the table and asked me if we could make jalebi like this. It was the first time I even thought of attempting something like that,” he says.
Sameer Sain, co-founder and managing partner of Everstone Capital, which has a 37 percent stake in Massive Restaurants, calls Kalra the best artist in the space. “In the whole F&B landscape, we’ve only done one investment where we don’t have a majority stake and where we don’t have our own team running it. And that’s Massive [Restaurants].”
Despite his breakneck speed of growth, Kalra isn’t going to stop soon, with international destinations next on the line. He asserts there is much to explore in the post-molecular phase with centrifuges, magnetic stirring and rotary evaporation, techniques beyond the scope of “traditional molecular”. And for every summit that he braces to climb, he goes back to the first day his then-traditionalist dad had come to Masala Library for a meal. “He ate and gave me a hug. We aren’t the hugging kind, you see, so that meant a lot,” he says.