<%-- Page Title--%> Cover Story <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 139 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

January 23 , 2004

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An Artist of
Exotic Cuisine


When you enter Saltz for instance, an exclusive seafood restaurant on Gulshan Avenue (Second Circle) its almost as if you are on the deck of a ship. Starting from the fish nets that adorn the walls and miniature boats on the ceiling to the sand and shell topped tables, to the ship lanterns and round windows and even the star studded wall, everything gives that feeling of being at sea. The only thing missing is the wide expanse of ocean in the front view opened by the glass doors that take you to the terrace. You begin to understand the obsession with detail when you take a closer look and notice things like a captain's compass or a miniature ship decorating the walls. But the ambience is just a part of this curious journey. The best part of this restaurant is the delectable food that is prepared with care and finesse. The menu at Saltz is certainly exotic. Take the Chef's Special Soup which includes salmon imported from Norway and comes with crunchy prawns, carrots and imported shitake mushrooms or a main course like Trout Iris -- rainbow trout poached and smothered in a creamy mustard and mushroom sauce. Just reading the menu gets your salivary glands going.

Saltz, admits Iftekhar, has been his biggest challenge because it exclusively offers seafood which is easily perishable and the supply of which can be uncertain. Bangladeshis, moreover, are not too crazy about seafood says Iftekhar; a large part of Saltz's clientele are expatriates who have been delighted with the exotic meals served. "But in time I think more and more Bangladeshis will like to try out our seafood and like it" says Iftekhar. Most of the seafood (except the Norwegian Salmon of course) comes daily straight from Cox's Bazar where Iftekhar has a regular supplier who catches fish in his trawler and picks out the best quality seafood for Saltz. The lobsters come from St. Martin where the supplier catches them and sends them right away to Dhaka. As far as success goes Saltz proved to hit the jackpot. "The first day Saltz was officially opened, there was a 40 to 60 minute wait and many people had to be turned away" says restaurant's creator.

Certainly, having one of the best chefs in town gives the business an added edge. Iftekhar is quick to mention Michael D. Rosario, Saltz's 'executive chef' whom he describes as 'absolutely brilliant' besides having extensive experience in five star hotels in the Middle East. "He is very modest but also very creative and always wanting to start something new which is a plus point for our company", says Iftekhar.

Rosario also supervises the kitchen of Spitfire, one of Iftekhar's latest creations. Just below Saltz, it is completely different in terms of décor and cuisine. Spitfire as its name implies is a trendy steakhouse that makes you think of a Texan ranch house the minute you walk in. With logs for the ceiling, a life-like statue of a horse that is jutting its head into the restaurant with its body outside, the wooden tables, clink of glasses and a golden light that warms up the atmosphere, you could be in a steak house anywhere in the world. The food too is very continental. A big attraction of Spitfire is a menu of meals made with imported meats (and so highly priced) such as

T-bone steak which is made with halal American T-bone meat imported from Dubai, as well as simple lamb chops, the meat coming all the way from New Zealand. The rest of the menu is filled with other delicious continental cuisine such as ox-tail consommé with quail egg or stuffed pigeon 'ladled with brown sauce served with roasted potato and vegetables'. Open air barbecues at Spitfire have given the business an added boost.

If it is ambience that distinguishes a restaurant, Iftekhar really does know how to perfect it. His earliest venture was a little Mexican carry-out called El Toro (meaning The Bull) in Mirpur road that created quite a sensation for its authentic Mexican food and décor. Later when the place was shifted to Gulshan (after catering for a cyber café in Banani owned by Akku Chowdhury) and turned into a full-fledged dining restaurant, Iftekhar let his originality loose. Filled with Mexican artifacts, sketches and paintings and with Mexican ballads playing in the background, the experience of eating a piping hot Chicken Fajita and sipping non-alcoholic Pina Colada could not be more authentic. Iftekhar spent about fifteen days travelling around the US, where he previously studied and worked, collecting knick-knacks for his restaurant.

While artistic sense and creativity have always been part of his identity, Iftekhar has acquired the practicality and business instincts that have made him one of the most successful entrepreneurs in Bangladesh. A lot of this business acumen can be traced to his working experience in the US. While completing an MS in Education from East Illinois University in the eighties, Iftekhar worked at numerous Mexican restaurants quickly getting promoted to managerial positions. Iftekhar started at El Torrito, a company that owned 250 Mexican restaurants of various categories. They were cafes, family dining places and night clubs. Iftekhar was working at a Mexican restaurant that was bought by El Torrito. Out of the 80 employees only six were retained, Iftekhar being one of them. He was given a three month training and assigned as front-of-the-house manager to Que Pasa, a Mexican cafe in Buffalo Grove, a suburb of Chicago. Later he was sent to a family dining restaurant in Detroit, Michigan. Then came an unexpected challenge. His employers asked him to go to Southfield Michigan to convert a Mexican club called Tequilla Willies into a family dining place. His success in doing so gave his employers enough reason to make him part of a team to train and develop personnel. Iftekhar soon mastered the nitty gritties of management and staff training, experience that proved to be invaluable in the future.

Once back in Bangladesh, Iftekhar used these skills to set up his own restaurant business with help from his partners, starting with El Toro and professionally train his staff himself. "I just picked up a few SSC and HSC graduates and trained them." This he did using training manuals and tests he himself designed. Now in his new establishments his staff have to go through an even more rigorous fifteen day training programme which includes orientation into the company's philosophy, history, training for each department and regular quizzes. "They have to get at least 95 % in the quizzes and 100% in the final exam to be hired. Trainees are quizzed on vital features of running a restaurants such as company standards, personal hygiene, how to set a table, offer a menu and greet a 'guest' -- the official term used for a customer. Such high standards have paid off in terms of a professional staff and smooth running of the establishments making 'guests', both expatriates and Bangladeshi, become regulars. Iftekhar's management and training skills have become so well known that he is constantly sought after by other restaurateurs to set up their own establishments and train up their staff. Recently Iftekhar has been selected to be an International Verifier for City and Guilds.

Starting in the morning, Iftekhar's work hours usually don't end till late at night or during closing time. As Managing Director of Saltz and Spitfire, of which he is a major shareholder, a lot of time is spent meeting with his supervisors, managers to troubleshoot and take care of the marketing side as well. He even designs his own flyers and menus on the computer. But what really gets him on a roll is when he is working with his chefs and other members of the management to create each and every item on the menu. "We develop a plate and if it clicks it will end up in the menu; it's a collective effort", says Iftekhar. He does most of the menu research himself delving into cooking encyclopaedia and then adding his own ideas to come up with unique recipes such as the Blackened fish -- Cajun style. In the evenings, which are quite busy, Iftekhar becomes the gracious host and makes sure all his guests feel at home and enjoy their meal.

Iftekhar has also ventured into catering with considerable success. He has catered for innumerable dinners and official banquets including the AIUB convocation dinner held recently at Spitfire for 150 people and which was attended by former Pilipino President Ramos.

His obsession with work leaves little time for personal matters. But this once-sworn bachelor found the girl of his dreams in 1999 at a university alumni function for English department students. He was meeting Naina Shehzadi, a lecturer at Vicarunnessa College and with two daughters from a previous marriage, after 18 years and it took only three months for them to tie the knot.

Urged on by the creative Muse, Iftekhar is always itching to start something new and become a master at it. A big time music enthusiast, he has set up a music café called Blue Grass, originally a small place in a private club in Gulshan, now a 250 seater establishment in Baridhara. The main aim is to promote different kinds of music including Bangla folk and English rock. "We will sponsor some nights and have our own bands and singers as well as be available for large parties where people can bring in their own bands", says Iftekhar who fits quite appropriately with the image of a Music Café proprietor, clad in jeans and sporting a beard and pony tail.

But this seems to be just the beginning of what Iftekhar would consider his latest venture. Now he plans to spread his talents overseas. This time it's a purely, authentic Bangladeshi restaurant in Bangkok. 'Jasmine' (replacing the old restaurant 'Jesmin' which Ifekhar bought off) will offer all the things Bangladeshis staying abroad hanker for -- dal, bhat, bhorta, maach etc.-- in other words good old home food. "It will mainly cater to Bangladeshis who go to Bangkok for treatment", says Iftekhar who adds that his restaurant will also have Mughlai dishes like Kachchi Biryani and chicken tandoori as well as typically Bangladeshi snacks like alur chop and samosa. Iftekhar, with his usual flair for décor, is going to set up the place with Bangladeshi handicrafts and motifs so that "as soon as you walk in you will get a feel of being in Bangladesh". He goes into details: 'I will also have a bookshelf with books by top Bangali writers and mugs that have Bangla alphabets or little poems on them. Iftekhar, wants to attract foreign tourists and Thais as well with his restaurant's delectable Bangladeshi food and exotic character.

Even as he is about to launch his second Bangladeshi restaurant near Bangkok General Hospital, Iftekhar, commonly known as Ashekh, is dreaming of yet another project. "This time it might be a Latino Night Club in Thailand…" he muses. For Iftekhar dreams are just blueprints of reality.


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