Jiggs Kalra: the legacy must live on

Hoihnu Hauzel

“Why are you using spoon and fork to eat Indian food? Use your hands; else you will never know the flavour. Indian food is best eaten with hands,” these words kept playing loud and clear into my mind the moment I heard that he has proceeded to the next world.

Flash back to 2000: where I was a young reporter with the Hindustan Times and, followed a strict mandate to cover all that’s cooking in the city. Food reportage was just gaining ground and, chefs were beginning to crawl out of their domain – the four walls of their kitchens to interact with media. If there was an Indian food festival, it was news. If it was curated by Jiggs Kalra, it was a big deal and a must-cover event. 

So, there I was seated next to the legendary at The Park in New Delhi. A flurry of starters followed by main course made way to our table. There were three of us including the lady PR who was the host for the evening. Not just the memory but the aroma of what we savoured that evening wafts vividly in my mind as I write this.

As the lady PR pulled out her cutlery to dig into her plate, Jiggs stopped her and said those words. Quickly, quietly and slyly, I held back my hands from reaching the folk. I dirtied my hands and thoroughly enjoyed the meal. Never mind that it’s a five-star hotel, Indian food must be relished with hands no matter where! That was his approach and his stand when it came to relishing Indian food. He believed not just in the wealth and rich repertoire of Indian food, he always thought it was equally important to have the correct approach even in the manner it is cooked, presented and relished. In that, there was compromise.

Jiggs was real. He wore no air of pretence. He was confident.  He was kind and gregarious and, dignified. He was polite. He was a man of patience – I could tell this by the manner in which he precisely explained the nuances of the cuisine to a newbie like me who was just finding my feet into the realm of food. Despite the age and the knowledge gap – he allowed me to call him “Jiggs” – perhaps to put me at ease.  And he treated me as his equal right from that meeting. If there was no looking back after that meeting – it was because there was something so pure and genuine about Jiggs.

He had a simple but strict approach to Indian food. He had bankable knowledge gained through deep interest and research.  In the process, he could be a student at times just imbibing everything there is to learn and understand.  To say that he was an encyclopaedia would be an understatement. He was much more. He was a visionary who foresaw and knew the potential and future of modern Indian food.

To those who counted on him, he never failed them as an important source of information.  He always made time even when deadlines were sharp and close. That he was always accessible to me meant that I never missed out on my deadlines if I was working on something where I needed his inputs. He was prompt, patient and painstakingly explained whatever there is to understand of the subject as if he was passing on that knowledge to the next generation. He was also curious to explore food from the Northeast. He encouraged me to look deep into it, something I must continue to do so in sheer remembrance of him. And long after he became my constant source of information all through my writing particularly on food – what stayed on was the bond that was built not just with him but with his wonderful family.

He was generous and hospitable. He opened the doors of his home on so many occasions. I first landed up at their Navjivan Vihar home in a south Delhi colony near Saket. That’s where I met his wife – the most dignified lady whose love and devotion to Jiggs was evident even to a first-time visitor. During one such visit, I met Zorawar, Jiggs younger son, for the first time. A bright young lad who was finally home after his higher studies in Boston, Zorawar was full of ideas. My visits to the family home whether at Navjivan Vihar or later in Gurgaon was always heart-warming with their hospitality. Delicious home cooked food was a part of the affair. One particular evening I had taken my husband’s cousin (Anand) who was visiting from the Gulf, to Jiggs’ home. We were treated to delicious kebab et al and by the end of it; Anand could not believe that we were actually dining with the legend.

But that was the most endearing quality about Jiggs – he had a heart of gold and he was always generous with people.

There are so many qualities about Jiggs that are visible in Zorawar even then. Zorawar is extremely sharp and zealous about taking forth what his father has researched all his life. Many of my conversations with Zorawar veered around the wealth of Indian food. He was observing, learning, and imbibing whatever he could under his father’s tutelage. If Zorawar took his time to dive into the culinary business, it would be because he wanted to be sure. Sure enough, he has made a great name for himself once he dived into the pool.

And when Zorawar finally brought home the most beautiful lady from Chandigarh, it was meant to be the best match made in heaven. I never saw Jiggs as happy as he was on Zorawar and Dildeep’s wedding.

Some of my visits to their Gurgaon home will remain etched in my mind. With Jiggs mostly confined to his room, Zorawar and Dildeep took over and played perfect hosts with the same warmth and affection. Jiggs towering presence was always there to guide the family. The last time I visited them was to ring in Zorawar’s son’s birthday. There were too many guests and I did not want to interrupt Jiggs who was resting in his room. Months later, when he was in and out of the hospital, I had told Zorawar that I must come and his see his father.  I never made it and I now regret. I took for granted that Jiggs would be always around.

In retrospect, I feel Jiggs is one of the few lucky fathers who saw in Zorawar that entire dream playing out so beautifully. The successful positioning of Indian food in the right place is what he had always dreamt of. While he was very much around, Zorawar started his culinary venture and more than succeeded in putting Indian food on the global palate with such élan that earned him name and fame.

The father-duo synergy was anyway a lethal one. Zorawar brought forth the management and strategic acumen that was dismal in Jiggs’ DNA. While he was knowledgeable he was not a good businessman simply because he was too trusting.

Delivering one masterpiece after the other, Zorawar is breaking all records – and he eventually broke away from his fathers’ shadow only to elevate it to another level and league. If Punjab Grill redefined modern Indian dining, how would one even describe the success of Masala Library, the first Indian restaurant to introduce molecular gastronomy to Indian cuisine? Modern bistro Farzi Cafe is a by product of great mind. This is where innovative is the name of the game and, where the very depth of their work and wisdom allows Indian food to retain its spirit and soul whist it has a very creative and playful interpretation in terms of its presentation. Dildeep once told me, Farzi Cafe is all “farzi” meaning ‘fake” the concept behind it is to play around with Indian food without deviating from its spirits. Farzi Cafe never disappoints.  My husband and I love its food and we swear on their unwavering standard and quality. Farzi Cafe already has multiple outlets in and out of India. Few days before Jiggs made it to his final journey, Zorawar had posted on his Face book, the opening of the second unit of Farzi Cafe in Dubai.

All these ventures that represent modern Indian cuisine in ways that one cannot imagine and fathom are the real legacy that Jiggs leaves behind.  He created and built his legacy which is there for the world to see. In Zorawar now lies the promise to keep and deliver what his father has left behind. Zorawar, along with Dildeep, is already delivering big hits. May the rich legacy of Jiggs live on forever!

Jiggs, I owe you this.

Hoihnu Hauzel is a journalist and, founder of www.northeastodyssey.com