“Make people eat with their eyes first, then their nose and last with their palette,” says Manjit Gujral, the patriarch of Sydney’s famous Manjit’s Wharf. Manjit imparts this wisdom surrounded by beautifully perfumed basmati rice, turmeric yellow dhal, pani puri and naan are spread across the table.
Born in India, a younger Manjit dreamed of a corporate career. After graduating university, he sharpened his teeth in marketing before making a name for himself at New Star in 1983.
But all that changed after a phone call from Australia.
“My older brother had immigrated to Australia in 1974 and soon my parents joined him to run a small family restaurant on Goulburn Street. Mum was an amazing cook, making everything by hand with a lot of attention and care.”
It appears mum and dad wished for the whole family to be together again in Australia. Soon enough Manjit departed India for the great unknown with a wife and new baby in tow.
Touching down in 1983 Australia, the question could have been asked whether the young nation was ready for the Gujral family’s ambition? It was, after all, a land that hand only recently tried salami and mozzarella and where Indian spices seemed as distant as the Moon.
Swallowing his pride to cook and clean after so recently holding a position of prestige in India, Manjit soon learned some of the cultural differences between India and Australia. “In Australia, I learned that there was a level of respect and dignity provided to those who worked hard, no matter the position.”
In 1984, Potts Point welcomed its first Indian restaurant and its popularity quickly took off. Managed just by Manjit along with his wife, waitstaff and kitchen hands, the spicy offerings attracted beatniks and celebrities such as the Two Ronnies, and Olivia Newton John. Elton John was also a regular, as were courthouse judges and the bandits they were sentencing.
With a wife and now two kids to look after, Manjit bought his first family home in Rodd Point in Sydney’s Inner-West but the commute to work was a struggle. So, the group’s flagship Balmain restaurant was set up in 1987. Darkly lit with tea lights, this venue has seduced the tastebuds of locals and lovers ever since.
One such seduction is the story on the back of the modern-day Manjit’s menus, which outlines the history of butter chicken. Refuting other urban legends, the menu explains that the recipe was invented over 150 years ago by Kundan Lal Gujral, Manjit’s great great-uncle.
All of this is an intimidating legacy for Manjit’s two sons, Varun and Deep Gujral to try not just to emulate, but build upon.
Today, Deep oversees the Concord Function Centre, Catering and Events. Nothing phases him after catering Bollywood weddings for the Royal Indian family to high-end events at one of the five 5-star hotels they exclusively work with.
He is, however, a busy man, “The only time I don’t answer my phone and literally switch off, is when I am spending time with my three-year old daughter and 6-month old son,” Deep confesses.
The Simpson’s loving Head Chef, Varun uses his creativity differently these days, fusing Indian flavours plated in a more sophisticated French-style. His creativity and high expectations have earned him a Chef’s Hat for Manjit’s Wharf at King Street Wharf. Nowadays, it’s Varun’s venue that attracts celebrities, cricketers and politicians.
Two more restaurants have been added to the stable since the 2015 move to King Street Wharf. One is in Corrimal and the other is a three-storey restaurant in Wollongong.
When asked “what’s next?”, Manjit points to his sons and says “it’s up to them. But two-more Chef’s Hats would be nice.”
Stay tuned to SBS in April as the Gujrals will feature in an upcoming documentary.