From Pirates to Prank, Inderjeet Singh Banga’s Amazing Journey from Obscurity to Awards
WHEN I first met Inderjeet Singh Banga at Prankster in Gurgaon, after much persuasion by nearbuy’s Ajay Singh, a big fan of his successful Pirates of Grill restaurants, I was struck by the ease with which he is able to strike a chord with a stranger.
A conversation with him is like a taking a walk through the winding alleys of life — he has so many stories to narrate, so many of life’s lessons to share. A farmer’s son, he’s rooted in the soil and the traditions that have nurtured him. Yet, even in the middle of an intensely spiritual conversation, he can tick off a server for bringing a plate that hasn’t been washed properly, or return a dish that doesn’t measure up to his exacting standards.
Nothing has changed in the couple of years I have known him. A week or so back, as I sat down with him at his new restaurant (Pra Pra Prank at the Cyber Hub in DLF’s Cyber City), with my fashion designer friend, Ashish Soni, giving us company for some time, Inderjeet had the same glint in the eye, the same propensity to hold forth on life, and the same wicked sense of humour. He has since been honoured with all kinds of awards, but his passion and his ardour have seen no diminution.
I must admit, though, I wasn’t impressed at first sight when I met him before Prankster officially opened — in fact, it appeared to me that it was his brother and business partner, Jasmeet Banga, who was the doer. Inderjeet was — and is — a walking-talking DLF Emporio — loaded with labels from feet to eyes, but I can say now with certainty, don’t get judgmental about it.
I was even quite taken aback when he introduced as his executive chef, Harangad Singh, who had just returned from a stint at TresInd, the chic Modern Indian restaurant launched by the talented Sujan Sarkar in Dubai. I had last known Harangad as a chef at Varq, The Taj Mahal Hotel New Delhi’s fashionable Modern Indian restaurant, and I couldn’t imagine him finding a receptive audience at Sector 29, Gurgaon, which is essentially a vast watering hole hugely popular among the millennial generation dining out on budgets that are inversely proportional to their appetite for beer.
After graduating out of Class XII in Chandigarh, Harangad, 30, did not take the conventional IHM route. Instead, he joined the Taj hotel at Whitefield, Bangalore, as a commis and worked very hard (and shed, as he put it, “some attitude”) to get selected to the Taj Management Trainee Programme. Since then, he had been moving across different Taj hotels before landing in TresInd. Hardly the chef you’d expect to create a Modern Indian menu at a Sector 29 restaurant promoted by a 38-year-old man, whose only claim to fame so far had been the success of Pirates of Grill.
Inderjeet can laugh about it now, but he had approached Harangad to join his staff about five years ago. The trade test was to be at a Pirates of Grill outlet, but taking one look at the kitchen, Harangad developed cold feet and said he would come the next day for the test — and never showed up. Well, five years ago, and this may seem ironical today, Inderjeet didn’t even get an audience when he knocked on DLF’s doors for space at the Cyber Hub.
Harangad, however, did join Inderjeet eventually to create a uniquely different menu. London-based Vineet Bhatia, the first Indian chef (along with Atul Kochhar) to earn a Michelin star, was so happy to recount to me in Mumbai not long ago how Harangad had dedicated to him the famous gol gappa ice-cream (my favourite at Prankster, apart from the incredible Chholey Kulche Doughnut) because it had been inspired by him. “Where would you find a more gracious chef?” Bhatia asked as we unwound after a dinner curated by him at the Four Seasons in Mumbai.
Ajay Singh, who’s now nearbuy’s National Business Head (F&B), explained to me why Prankster was able to establish itself so easily in a crowded market. “It has ticked all the boxes that matter to the Millennials,” Singh said. “It has a microbrewery, an open space for smokers, mood music, the right kind of professional crowd, a vast dance floor and, above all, consistently good food.” At Pra Pra Prank, Inderjeet has transported the atmosphere, hired Kaustubh Haldipur, formerly with Wasabi and Tian, and added the cuisine that’s trending this season — yes, it’s Asian, with some of Harangad’s Progressive Indian creations also on offer.
And although Pra Pra Prank is across the passage from the Big Daddy in the business, Yum Yum Cha, it is forever full. The furniture is a conversation point, the floors (generally ignored by diners) grab your eyeballs because of their zebra-stripe design, the walls come alive as a result of the funky knick-knacks that find a home on them, and the music captures the mood of the hour, by the hour.
The restaurant even has show windows like a fashion store — it’s only drawback seems to be that it is divided into two sections, the one inside looking more like a gentleman’s club with smart upholstery and a glittering bar, presided over by an experienced Sanchayan Jana, serving exciting new cocktails, including a Speakeasy-inspired Irish coffee and stout beer combination with caramelised popcorn as garnish, served in a glass wrapped up in a newspaper. The split floor, however, makes the restaurant appear to be a bit too cramped for comfort.
The food has its high and low moments — the Japanese nihari with Asian (mantou) bun didn’t quite tickle my palate — but I still came back with pleasant memories of the Nepalese Chicken Broth (umami packed!), Edamame and Shiitake Kataifi Rolls (deliciously innovative), Kakiage (chopped vegetable tempura) Sushi Rolls (the beetroot-flavoured sushi rice heightened the pleasure sensation), Rara Mutton Bao Dog (no fusion-confusion here!), Tomato and Truffle Chicken served with naan stuffed with sundried tomatoes (a treat all the way!), and Appam with Peppery Mutton cubes (distinctive without seeming to make an effort).
Pra Pra Prank ticks all the relevant boxes, making it a smooth double in quick succession for Inderjeet and his low-key brother Jasmeet. These are the new restaurateurs who are going to change the way we eat out.