‘Turban Tadka Hospitality’ – the name was written in bold outside the office. Happy to have found his office at last, we rang the bell with an anticipated look on our face. After all we were meeting a Celebrity Chef that we grew up watching on National Television and an invite to visit his studio in Goregaon is what we could not have expected at the first place. A guy opened the door for us and ushered us in.
As we entered the office, Chef Harpal Singh Sokhi, who was working on his system, rose up from his seat to greet us. Behind the garb of the Chef, Harpal Singh Sokhi is the usual fun-natured, jovial and gentle guy that we get to see on TV. I was overjoyed as well as astonished to have met a celebrity like him who is so grounded and down-to-earth and who would not let go off his warm smile even for a moment.
The aesthetically built studioin which most of his shoots happen was there just in front of us and we justcould not believe our eyes. As we settled down to start the interview, the chef told us of how building this dream kitchen had always been a priority for him. “Today it has become a reality. In fact I also bring over my family here – wife and my 2 daughters – to spend some time together, order food, do our work and then go back home. I also get many guests who marvel at my kitchen and say that they wish to have one of their own,” he says.
But the journey till here has not been very easy for the Chef. He did not hesitate to tell us that he did see many rejections initially at the start of his career, but those were all short-lived as he tasted success very early in his career. As we talked, the story of his Chef life slowly unfolded, and he seemed to have enjoyed reminiscing about his television career while sharing his story with us.
“For me Television happened long back. What many in the country do not know is that the Khana Khazana series started off with me, as I was the one to have shot their first episode. The production house Mehta and Merlin was looking for chefs at that time to shoot for Khana Khazana. Sanjeev Kapoor was coordinating for it anda total of 23 Chefs were shortlisted for the series. I was not directly interacting with the channel but I happened to get an entry through the production house and Sanjeev (Sanjeev Kapoor). After evaluation, Zee saw the potential in the show’s innovative concept and they wanted to start off with me as the program begins. Eventually after 23 weeks of telecasting, 3 people were shortlisted out to take the program forward – Sanjeev, me and another lady from UP,” muses Chef Harpal.
Sokhi recollects that in the first ever episode, he cooked Kamal kakri ke Shami kabab with Hyderabadi Paratha, the latter becoming quite famous after the show. There is a very unique technique to making these parathas, as Harpal explains, and this was something viewers at that time found it very interesting.
However, even after getting such a big break, Chef Harpal felt that there was more he needed to explore in food and that he was not yet skilled enough to showcase his talent. He chose not to focus much on TV at that time and went about honing his skills in the Hospitality industry. “I felt that whenever I do something on TV, it has to have an impact and needs to stay on with the viewers. However, I kept coming to the TV once in a while and also produced my own TV series for SITI Cable, Harpal Ki Rasoi, besides doing programs for Star Plus,” he says.
‘Namak Shamak’ brings the much-needed fame…
And then the major turning point came in the form of Turban Tadka that catapulted the chef’s career to a new high and everybody started talking about him as one of the sought-after chefs in the country. “Turban Tadka happened when Sanjeev was deciding to start his new channel Food Food. I think Food Food had been a win-win situation for all of us associated with it, but more than us it benefitted the audience. The channel began in 2001, but I had already started shooting for Turban Tadka a year back. We were trying to figure out the shows, when I suggested Sanjeev of doing a program on Turban Tadka. We were quite sceptical of the name at first since the name carries some honour and respect for the Sikhs and has religious connotations. But I decided to give it a try with the justification that Tadka is my proficiency and Turban being my identity. We began the show and it became very popular. By God’s grace, it remained the No. 1 show for the next 3 years on Food Food,” Sokhi recounts.
Cooking on TV for Chef Harpal is about spreading happiness. He would always think of how people would remember him, and incidentally he could establish that connect with his viewers with his famous phrase ‘Namak Shamak, Namak Shamak, daal dete hai’ that also made him a household name.
So how did this idea come to him? “Whenever I reminisce my childhood, I remember my mother cooking 3 meals a day religiously, without ever complaining. I would then think of how can somebody without any break or complain do such a job day in and day out. The thought of bringing a smile to those faces came to me and I decided to dedicate this program to them. Salt is something that goes with everything. So when you hold the salt in hand, there should be something which comes to your mind. And that is how Namak Shamak became a national food anthem for people (laughs it out). People may not know me by name but the impact of Namak Shamak has been great,” says Sokhi as he beams with pride.
During the course of Turban Tadka journey, there have several people who have had a big influence on Sokhi, the first being Mr Girish Madhu who used to be the Chef’s first Director. “He used to be very passionate about foodand knew well of how to handle any kind of dish. Both of us worked very closely and he was one person who was a big influence on me. Chef Sanjeev also has had a deep impact on me.”
But his path has not been without challenges as shooting a programme is not always a cake walk. “Whenever you shoot you will have to be very careful about every single detail. It also becomes very tiring at times and you get completely exhausted facing the sharp lights and the camera. Just imagine sometimes in a schedule you will have to shoot 13 episodes at a stretch.”
He also points out another challenge of not able to show the authentic food of regions less accessible. “India is such a vast country. Sadly, we are able to showcase only the generic food. We are not able to showcase what is available in North-east as flying down ingredients from there becomes difficult. This becomes a challenge at times.”
But more than the challenges, according to Sokhi it becomes a learning process for everyone as one happens to learn many new things.
Venture into other Business areas…
When you eventually make a name for yourself, you start looking at how this profession can be turned into a viable business model and work around opportunities that keep coming to you. And that is why Chef Harpal decided to look beyond Television and venture into areas that made him try his skills into different things.“I remained focussed on TV in the first few years. After tasting success, people started approaching me with the idea of starting a different business modeland with it started my dream project – Turban Tadka Hospitality.”
Turban Tadka is a company that works around television, digital platform, among many other things. The company does 3 shows and all 3 of them have a unique proposition to offer to viewers; so apart from Turban Tadka, there is a travelogue – Desh da Swaad and a programme for Punjabi Television Network, PTC – Punjab De Super Chef. Barring Turban Tadka, both the shows are season based.
For Desh da Swaad, Sokhi travels to certain pre decided food cities in India. “We have a Food Truck which we drive and it has a kitchen in it. Each season has got 13 episodes and accordingly 13 cities are decided. The next season is due in September this year. I go and taste the popular food the city has to offer, which could be anything from restaurants to street food or tradition family kitchens. At the end of the episode I come back to the Food Truck picking up the experience of the particular city in terms of unique ingredients used and then prepare a dish based on those experiences before the audience.”
The third program Punjab De Super Chef which he just finished shooting for is a cookery show in which he calls for recipes from homemakers from across Punjab, shortlist 13 of them and make them prepare food in their traditional way in their kitchen. “Punjabi food is acceptable all across the globe, and I believe that there is a chef present in every one of them. The show in a way honours these stars from Punjab, and tries to bring them (majorly women folk) out of the kitchen and showcase their skills to the world. We are also planning to cover small villages in the next season,” he says.
Turban Tadka Hospitality has also been doing tremendously well on Social Media. It also has a dedicated show on YouTube – Sing and Cook that he wishes to make it popular with time.
But this does not stop here…
There are a series of business verticals that the company is trying to focus and grow at present – with restaurants being one of the vertical.“We have 2 restaurants – one is Twist of Tadka in Bangalore housed at Hotel Stylotel, which we have opened in January. We have an upmarket restaurant ‘Bibi Jaan’ in Jalandhar. Bibi Jann is usually the name given to the Head Lady of the house during the times of Nawab. Incidentally I have been trained under Begum Mumtaaz Khan of the Jagirdar family of Hyderabad. So I have lived with them and have been taught the authentic Hyderabadi recipes. She would always be address as Bibi Jaan. So this particular restaurant is a token of respect for that family. We are opening one more restaurant – The Treasury at Cabanna Resort, Jalandhar and at Toronto in Canada. We are working on restaurants around QSR format also,” shares Chef Sokhi.
Turban Tadka Hospitality is also working with a lot of food companies, trying to work out recipes for them. For instance, he has worked with Chings and has done a lot of their BTL activities. “I collaborated with them to form a brand by the name Raji. We help prepare new recipes and also drive that brand through promotions and commercials. The MD of the company helped me get associated with a brand called Sabi Foods in Australia and we together formed a brand called Sabrini that deals with a line of frozen food products. Today Sabrini is a popular brand both in Australia and New Zealand while Raji is available in Singapore, Canada, USA and Middle-East. The focus has been more international than national,” he states.
Sokhi has also launched his own non-stick cookware brand – Happy Chef in Maharashtra. The brand has both the base line and the premium line of cookware.
Our meeting with Chef Harpal might have lasted for a few hours but the takeaway from that interaction is indeed worth mentioning. For someone who does not have a family background in the F&B industry, it literally was difficult initially to get everyone, especially his father convinced about the profession that he was embracing. But it was a matter of time before Chef Harpal could prove his skills as one of the country’s most sought after chefs and to hone those skills, he did everything possible – from researching on Ayurveda-based food to see how cooking can improve nutritive value of the food to learning Nawabi style of cooking from Begum Mumtaz Khan.
“I am happy with whatever I have achieved in life and I am thankful to God for giving me all the power to prove myself as the worthy one,” he thus sums up.
– Samrita Baruah / Anjali Sethi Joshi