Zorawar Kalra compares some of his business endeavours to jumping out of a plane first and thinking of a parachute later. He rents out prime property in Delhi and keeps it vacant for six months. He launches a restaurant that is more a ‘showcase’ of the best his company can offer than a business venture. He claims to be the one who will put India on the global gastronomy map.
Man on a mission, huge risk appetite, enterprising Punjabi, audacious, legendary genes—call it what you will, but with a string of successful Farzi Cafés and a second Masala Library just launched in Delhi (with more planned at global destinations), Kalra is clearly all of the above.
“I am a perfectionist who has OCD. I need everything to be perfect. For this restaurant (Masala Library, Delhi), we have trained our servers in ballet so they move about gracefully. Others train their staff to pour out beer correctly; my staff is trained even to pour out coke in a certain way to retain its fizz. Ashish Soni has designed the restaurant; we have spent a fortune on crockery alone,” he tells us proudly, as we sit in the heart of Delhi where Masala Library has just opened.
But there’s obviously more at stake than this being just another restaurant to his credit. He has managed a prime location, hired designers, bought expensive stuff, trained his staff and promises to offer high-quality food with the best of ingredients, but with a steep rent and limited seating (only 60), how sustainable is the idea? “It will be a landmark restaurant. The food will be the next level of the next level, something the country has never experienced before, an experience that is unforgettable,” he offers at first. Then he gets to the point. “My father, Jiggs Kalra, is the man behind many successful restaurants in the country. But we never owned any of them. So this is my showcase to the world. I am making a statement with this restaurant, which has my father’s name.”
That might seem crazy, but Kalra is also an astute businessman and knows when to hold back. Which he does by keeping Masala Library exclusive. “We were clear that there will never be more than two in India. We want the long waiting, we want it to be a place people travel to eat. That can’t happen if you open three restaurants. We are okay with 60 seats. It is difficult to make money in 60 seats, but we are hopeful that if we provide the quality, people will keep coming back and we will be able to recover our costs.”
With chef Saurabh Udinia in the kitchen, the food cannot be faulted. Not only is the food bang on in terms of flavour, it scores well too when it comes to ‘theatre’, the new dimension of food that completes the ‘experience’ of a meal—the presentation, the theatre, and the flavour. There are levitating chocolate balls, smoky pots offering sorbet, rocks for plates and orange ‘trees’ to adequately wow the diner and keep them busy clicking before digging in. Which is another culinary trend—shooting before eating.
Surrounded by five-stars in a city that houses its main competitor (and inspiration?) Indian Accent, Masala Library could be called a risk by many. But Kalra is ready to take the dare. “I know comparisons with Indian Accent are inevitable, but our food is more playful, more fun and more experimental with molecular gastronomy, whereas Indian Accent is more rooted in tradition. Plus, we have a better location,” he says, adding, “But we are not competing with Indian Accent. We are competing with Noma, with Osteria Francescana, with the best in the world.”