June 28, 2020
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Munnabhai, Cordon Bleu

Munna Maharaj, the man Mittals have trusted their food with

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Munnabhai, Cordon Bleu
Munnabhai, Cordon Bleu
Sixty years ago, the town of Gaya in Bihar was not as spectacularly filthy as it is today. But the prospects it offered were still poor enough to drive Mahabir Singh to Calcutta. The sweet-seller set up a small business catering to local Marwari business families, which earned him just enough to keep a wife and five children in a tiny space in north Calcutta’s congested Muktaram Babu Street.

Even that life looked threatened when Mahabir died young, leaving the family near-destitute. When Dipak, the second son, failed his exams, it only added to the woes of a cash-strapped family. Yet today Dipak, now better known as Munna Maharaj, is the man entrusted with preparing the food for the spectacular wedding of global steel billionaire Laxmi Mittal’s daughter. The rags-to-riches story of a struggling student who became one of India’s finest chefs is a remarkable tale of 24 years of hard work and unprecedented success.

Dipak used to accompany his father to his clients’ homes, and after Mahabir died he worked these contacts. With just a few exceptions (he catered for Michael Jackson when the pop star visited Bombay), he has stayed focused on this Marwari clientele. As his reputation grew, he was able to ramp his operations up to a point where he could prepare over 120 dishes for up to 15,000 guests. It’s the sort of scale he needs to work on given that his clientele is almost Marwari royalty—families like the Bangurs, Birlas, Jalans, Modis and the Singhanias.

His first really big break came in 1988, when he catered for Kumarmangalam Birla’s wedding in Mumbai. Marwaris are traditionally vegetarian, and Munna is rated as one of the most creative vegetarian cooks in the world. His strength, say cognoscenti, isn’t so much in how he does well-known dishes as it is in the innovations that make his dishes special. "The range is breathtaking," says author and foodie Moni Shanker Mukherjee. Munna will use orange paste to turn the humble Dum Aloo into something rather exotic. He dips kanchagollas (sweet cheese balls) into the sauce that comes with jalebis and fries them to a crisp, blending new tastes and flavours. "He’s constantly looking for new recipes, rare fruits, herbs, roots, and vegetables, here and abroad," adds Mukherjee. The search for exactly the right ingredients is critical for masters like Munna. "He was up to his ears in work, wondering where he could get the kind of milk he needed for his sweet dishes," says his brother Sanjay, after speaking to him in Paris.

Yet, perhaps unsurprisingly, for someone who spends long hours immersed in cooking up gastronomic extravaganzas, the 38-year-old himself is a simple eater. His family says it’s rare for him to eat anything more than rice, chapatis, dal and boiled vegetables. His clients and their guests get much luckier.

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