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Chef Imtiaz Qureshi: The Passing of a Lucknowi Legend

Credited with reviving and popularising Awadhi cuisine, Chef Imtiaz Qureshi pioneered numerous aspects which, today, are benchmarks in India’s culinary landscape.

Slow cooking. It’s almost a byword for fine dining in the current milieu, for quality, for meticulousness and tradition, for a range of superlatives actually.

Chef Imtiaz Qureshi

And if there was ever a person who exemplified it, it was Chef Imtiaz Qureshi, who presided over the legendary Bukhara and Dum Pukht at ITC Maurya, restaurants that are held up as the gold standard by which to measure other eateries, even decades after they opened their doors. He was awarded by the Indian government with the Padma Shri, one of the country’s highest state honours, incidentally an accolade that only a select few chefs have achieved. Indeed, he was the first.

Just last week, I was invited to Dum Pukht to mark its 35th anniversary. It seemed inconceivable then, as it does now, to think of the restaurant without its presiding deity.

Born in Lucknow on February 2, 1931, Chef Qureshi’s culinary journey had an early start when aged just nine, he became part of his uncle’s retinue to cook for a British regiment serving in India. He caught the attention of no less than the then prime minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, in 1962, while cooking for a state banquet, and was tapped by him to cook for the opening of ITDC’s Ashok Hotel in Delhi. It is here that he is said to have created his most famous legacy, the Dal Bukhara.

In 1979, he joined ITC Hotels, where he would remain for the rest of his working life, becoming the institution that he is. At ITC, he is credited for reviving the Awadhi Dum Pukht slow cooking tradition and creating brands such as Bukhara (opened 1977) and Dum Pukht (opened 1989). Such has been the success of the two restaurants that incredibly enough, the menu remains unchanged.

Besides the Dal Bukhara, he is known for initiating or popularising dishes such as the Lucknawi Biryani and the Kakori Kebab, again originating from his hometown of Lucknow, and noted for its finer texture compared to the Seekh Kebab.

Definitely an old school with an elfin charm, Chef Qureshi’s recipes ask not for precise measurements, but rely on feel or instinct. His way of measuring ingredients by his palm has elicited much desire to standard this imperfect science, without matching success. In an interview to The Financial Express, he said, “There is no such thing as biryani. Every dish is a pulao. In every so-called biryani, rice is three-fourth cooked when added to either raw or cooked meat. So technically, all of them are pulaos.”

Chef Imtiaz Qureshi

Chef Qureshi’s demand over the years has grown and he has been responsible for presiding over kitchens when the Indian state wanted to impress global dignitaries including UK’s Queen Elizabeth II, American president Bill Clinton, and British prime minister Tony Blair. He collaborated with fellow chef Jiggs Kalra on various columns and later a book that made the Awadhi cuisine more widely known.

Chefs have poured in with tributes. His son Ishtiyaque, who owns Bombay-based Kakori House, has called him a ‘guru’, and shared with The Indian Express that his work was worship for him. “He was a gifted man who showed a path to thousands of people. In the past eight years since his retirement from ITC Hotels, we sat together and wrote things, performed experiments and played around with recipes. Even in the hospital, he was making plans of what we would do together once he returned home,” he said, adding that he taught his children the art of ‘dum pukht’, that it “can’t be contained to a menu but needs to be deep-dived into and further explored and expanded”.

Chef Ranveer Brar has posted, “As a Lucknow boy with dreams of becoming a chef, the folklore of Imtiaz Qureshi is something I grew up with. It was around 1998-1999 when I was working as a trainee chef at the Taj Palace in Delhi. I remember once taking the Rs. 612 I had earned to ITC Maurya next door and having only the Galouti Kebab at Dum Pukht. The fact that I was eating @LegendOfImtiaz Qureshi’s food in an ITC hotel was life changing for me. Not only had he pulled the dum pukht technique out of Lucknow, he had given it a personality, an unmistakable refinement.”

“Very few chefs in the world have attained the status of institutions,” said Chef Vikas Khanna. Chef Kunal Kapur paid tribute on X, “His culinary legacy and contributions will forever be remembered and cherished. May his soul find eternal peace and may his memory continue to inspire us all.”

Chef Qureshi had five sons and two daughters, all of whom have followed in their father’s illustrious footsteps by creating their niches in culinary arts.

He passed away on February 16, 2024, in Mumbai, at the age of 93, after being admitted to Lilavati Hospital two weeks earlier. The show of course will go on, but for the moment it seems an irreplaceable loss for everyone who learnt and imbibed from him, or just delighted in the food he prepared.