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Big Chef More Dough

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About Munna Maharaj

Munna's cauldron cooks a classic rags to riches story

If you have had the fortune to be invited to any big Marwari industrialist's family wedding anywhere in India. It's odds-on that you have been charmed by Munna's magic. If munna is a wizard with the frying pan, his story is no less magical than cinderella's as he becomes part of the lore- if designers Tarun Tahiliani or Titu Kumar do the bride's trousseau, the banquet must be Munna's. For, after all, Munna Maharaj is the Rolls Royce of Indian Wedding Vegetarian Banquet Caterers.

Munna's story begins as a 16-year-old orphan in Calcutta in 1979. The Jain Vidyamandir in Burrabazar carried his name-Dipak Kumar Singh-till he dropped out to support his four other siblings. His early life was comfortable in his father Mahabir Halwai's 100 square foot flat in Muktaram Babu Street in the heart of Burrabazar.

Mahabir Halwai had emigrated from Bihar's Gaya district before Independence and made sweetmeats for the prosperous Marwari community. He was retained by the likes of the Birlas to cook at births, weddings and funerals.

When Munna's parents died in quick succession in 1979,he failed his 9th standard in the turmoil of his parents' passing. There after he began to learn cooking and started keeping his father's team of 10 workers together. "My parents wanted me to study, go to college and do business. Fate decreed otherwise, but I hope they are watching me build a business," he says.

Munna slogged for nine years. In 1988 when he was 25, his earnestness and skill was impressive and he got his first big break. "Aditya Birla knew me because I was my father's son ," he says. For 15 days he cooked day and night at Mumbai to cater for Kumar Mangalam's wedding."Our kitchen was in the old Taj Flight Kitchen near Centaur. We used refrigerated vans and trucks to take the food to the festivities and at the main reception at Mahalaxmi Race Course," he says.

Since then he has been doing the big dos across the country. Sterlite's Anil Agarwal had a seven-day party in Goa which had everything from beach stalls to the main party, round-the-clock. He did the super star littered Kolkata wedding for billionaire Lakshmi Mittal. He did three Hinduja weddings in Mumbai besides hundreds of other feasts. "Each had different tastes-an Oswal in Ludhiana, a Birla in Kolkata, a Sanghvi in Indore, or a software millionaire in Bangalore. My business prospers on a trusting relationship over generations. It is a time to be happy and neither of us can just count pennies. Satisfaction is the key," he says.

He catered gratis to the definitive Bollywood party by the Oberoi pool-side to fete visiting pop superstar Michael Jackson. He did all their Big Vegetarian Banquets. "I cook, they serve," he says.

Munna Maharaj now has the muscle to do 15,000 dinners at a single sitting anywhere, served up on imported China, genuine silverware and pure crystal. His south Kolkata godown covers two bighas, along with a fleet of packers and trucks. He now has a national buying operation and can cater any exotic thing anywhere, His big chefs fly, stay at good hotels and the others take the train. 

Munna has really moved up in life and lives on Kolkata's posh Theatre Road, where RBI governor Bimal Jalan is sometimes his neighbour. His younger brother Sanjay Singh is in real estate business, and assists him in all his ventures. They all live in a traditional joint family. But he continues to drive himself.

Munna follows a punishing schedule. He gets up at 5.30am and exercises, eats a full rice and dal meal before leaving for work at 8.30 am. His first stop is at the old flat in Burrabazar where he still maintains a gaddi and meets the network of semi-independent cooks who work with him. He has a corporate office in south Kolkata. "It is important that I never forget where I started out from," he says. His staff says he never loses his cool, addresses everybody including the handcart man as 'Babu' and meets everybody with folded hands in complete keeping with his role in the hospitality industry.

The 37-year-old Munna has been making waves in Kolkata as he begins to put a brick and mortar business into place. He first bought out Park Street night spot Blue Fox. Then he set up Munna's Vegetarian Gourmet Wonders and the Pub near La Martiniers.Then came the launch of Bakers Square, where he has a large base kitchen for his growing non vegetarian and continantal menus under former Oberoi Grand Chef Alphanso Gomes. He is also managing the "Agarwal Park Banquets" at Diamond Harbour Road (near Burdwan Road crossing).

His recent venture is a 10,000 square ft. Banquets, "Marwar", on Judges Court Road in posh Alipore. His new venture is coming up at Camac Street, Kolkata. Munna is also negotiating with Jewel of the East on Loudon Street. Burrabazar's Munna will someday own a national chain of hotels and restaurants, as he aspires in confidence to his friends & colleagues.

Food First --- On time meal