Aurora Magazine

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Masters of the kitchen

Published in Nov-Dec 2014

Chef Mehboob Khan and Chef Zakir Qureshi in profile.

In the last five years, TV has spawned a slew of celebrity chefs who went on to become some of the most instantly recognisable faces in Pakistan, albeit not quite in the same league as ‘real’ TV stars. This changed in 2014 when MasterChef Pakistan picked two of Pakistan’s top TV chefs to judge the show. And every week we watched these chefs sometimes scold, sometimes encourage the participants, all the while putting them under intense pressure to deliver their best cooking.

Chef Mehboob Khan

In 1987, after sitting for his Intermediate exams, Mehboob Khan secretly enrolled himself in a hotel management diploma course.

“When my father discovered what I had done, he thought it was going to be temporary while I waited for my results. He did not think anyone would take this seriously.”

When his results came out, Khan passed with flying colours and could have got into medical college and studied to become a doctor. Yet, he opted to continue with his hotel management course and become a chef – a decision that did not sit well with either his friends or with some of his family members.

“Everyone wondered why I was doing this when so many other doors were open to me. But I had been cooking from a young age. In fact,

I remember cooking a mean prawn masala for my aunt when I was eleven. Even then I knew my passion.”

That only a few people from his conservative hometown of Zhob would not understand what in their eyes was an unconventional decision was to be expected; however, Khan also found himself at the receiving end of snide remarks from contemporaries in Karachi.

“My father did not oppose my decision, although he did wonder what I was doing. Some of my friends laughed at me, but what do you say to people who behave like sheep by trying to get into the ‘right’ profession and then end up becoming mediocre professionals? If you are going to spend one-third of your life at work, you had better like what you do.”

After two years training at five-star hotels, Khan moved to Lahore and opened a restaurant called Oriental Palace. Next he went to Germany and opened a Pakistani restaurant there. Success, however, did not come easy and it took Khan 16 years before the tide began to turn.

“Many people advised me to change course because I was not earning much. I didn’t own a house and I had no savings. But I had burnt my boats and despite my difficulties I led a calm life, mainly because I was happy with my profession.”

In 1998, the first signs of landfall arrived when Khan was approached to host a cooking show on NTM. Four years later the ball started rolling in earnest when Geo asked him to host a series of cooking shows. Four more years later he moved to ARY Digital and then to ARY Zauq to host the popular Zauq Zindagi and Good Healthy Life shows.

Well entrenched in the TV circuit, Khan then took another bold decision which would come to define him.

“My father died of heart related problems and this initiated my interest in health issues and I started reading about how food affects health. Around the same time Masala TV offered me a weekend cooking show and I told them I would do a show on healthy food.”

The channel executives were not keen on the idea, as they did not think that the show would attract the necessary eyeballs, but not one to walk away from a challenge, Khan persisted and finally Masala TV agreed to doing a health-based cooking programme on an experimental basis. The show did well and continued for a year.

Mostly self taught about health and nutrition matters, Khan has a library of over 2,500 cookbooks (most of them on healthy cooking). He even inducted a doctor on his show to endorse his views. When Eva (the cooking oil brand) asked him to write his cookery book, Food for Life, he only agreed to do it provided “I could stand by my focus on healthy cooking and not be asked to add half a cup of oil to all my recipes.”

Then just as he was about to sign a contract with another channel for a series of cooking shows, along came MasterChef Pakistan.

“When MasterChef Pakistan approached me to be one of their consultants and eventually a judge, there was no question that this would be my next step. The scale was huge, as were the budgets and Urdu1 did not cut corners; they did justice to the international format of the show and I understand that in the first season we did a better job compared to many other countries in terms of production quality, layout and the quality of our talent.”

Now that the first season of MasterChef Pakistan is over, Khan has become the brand ambassador for brands such as Ariel, Bake Parlor, Dawlance and National Foods. He is also in the process of setting up his own healthy food delivery business. The initial plan is to prepare meals for people who want to lose weight and then eventually move on to delivering specially prepared meals for cardiac patients and pregnant women as well as to provide gluten-free meals.

As Japanese and Lebanese cuisines top his list of favourites, Khan has recently enrolled as a trainee chef to learn how to cook Lebanese food.

“People found it strange to see me in a trainee’s uniform back at the Sheraton [now Movenpick], the same hotel I left 26 years ago, but there is nothing like firsthand training to open one’s mind and I am glad I did it. I have always done what comes naturally to me and nurturing my passion for food is one of the reasons why I can sleep well every night.”

Sleep well he does, but not before dipping into his considerable library of cookbooks for his bedtime read.

Chef Zakir Qureshi

It is ironic that the judge who received the most flak on MasterChef Pakistan happened to be the one who was voted in as a judge by Urdu1’s audiences.

“I was told that on social media people were calling me names such as jallaad (tyrant) because I was the strictest judge on MasterChef, but as we neared the end of the show the negative comments lessened as people realised that because we were sticklers about even the smallest of details, the right contestant won.”

Zakir Qureshi insists that his no-nonsense approach to cooking was not an act cultivated as part of the role of the obligatory tough judge. Instead he was just being himself.

Unsmiling and unperturbed he explains that “when you joke about your profession your commitment to it becomes fifty-fifty.”

One is not surprised then, when he reveals that his first choice for a career was the army.

“I was fascinated by the armed forces and wanted to join. However, when that did not materialise, I reluctantly became an apprentice at the Sheraton (now Movenpick).”

That was in 1980 and it was a decision prompted by his family, who come from a line of traditional cooks.

So it came about that a reluctant Qureshi spent a lot of time in a hotel kitchen moping about his fate. Although he doesn’t recall how old he was when he started working, he says he was “very, very young.”

“I would look at army officers and compare their lives to mine, which at the time was at the bottom of the hierarchy in the kitchen of a five star hotel.”

“I was shocked by the power of television. After my show, so many people called me and I realised that I could share my cooking knowledge with a wider audience.”

Qureshi eventually threw himself into his work, giving himself pretty gruelling hours; in addition to his day job, he was also working for free at another kitchen in order to learn all that he could. He doesn’t recall having had childhood friends or playing games. Unemotionally he adds, “I don’t have any other interests apart from cooking.”

Thirty-four years on, Qureshi’s energy remains unabated in the kitchen and even today he does not pay attention to hours or days.

“When I work, I don’t keep a time piece next to me. I have lost out on several annual leaves owed to me; in fact I can’t remember the last time I took a break. When I turned up for work on the day of my valima my supervisor got angry and sent me home.”

He admits to feeling lost outside the kitchen.

His stoic nature spills over into his personal preferences, and paradoxically, for a man who brings all manner of culinary delights into people’s homes, his meal of choice is a plate of daal, chawal and vegetables. He also shuns going to restaurants, especially the high-end ones.

Surprisingly the reverence he has for his profession does not translate into reverence for traditional recipes.

“Recipes are not sacred. When chicken karahi became popular there was only one way to cook it. Now there are nine types of chicken karahi, which is a good thing because it is important to experiment and develop new takes on old recipes.”

His work has taken Qureshi to hotels and restaurant kitchens in locations a diverse as Botswana, Dubai, the Caribbean, Sharjah, Singapore and South Africa.

Having spent 27 years abroad, Qureshi hosted his first show in Pakistan in 2005 on Indus TV. He regards this as the turning point of his career.

“I was shocked by the power of television. After my show, so many people called me and I realised that I could share my cooking knowledge with a wider audience.”

In 2006 he started working for Hum TV and then moved to Masala TV in 2007 to host the long running and popular cooking show Dawat. He has now moved to DawnNews where he hosts his eponymous show Zakir’s Kitchen.

In Qureshi’s opinion, the popularity of the cooking channels and their TV chefs is what made MasterChef Pakistan contestants “so aware of the different kinds of ingredients and cooking techniques, something which would not have been the case 20 years ago.”

In many ways the controlled format of MasterChef appealed to the army officer in him:

“In Pakistan we start shows without thinking too much about what we are doing; with MasterChef everything was spelled out. We had a roadmap.”

In between doing shows and writing cookbooks Qureshi opened two restaurants in Karachi; Shaan-e-Mughlia in Gulshan-e-Iqbal and the Clifton Grill, both of which he eventually sold. At the moment he is in the process of opening a new restaurant in Defence in Karachi called CZ Grill, which will offer Pakistani, Italian and Chinese food.

Shahrezad Samiuddin is a pop culture junkie and an aspiring screenwriter.