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October 14, 2006

The heavy-duty chef: Deepak Kumar Singh, alias Munna Maharaj.

He’s sought after by the rich and famous and rubs shoulders with the biggest celebrities of the city. And yet, Deepak Kumar Singh, alias Munna Maharaj is an unlikely member of the cognoscenti at just 31. Orphaned when he was still in his teens, Munna had to drop out of school in standard ten and shoulder the burden of supporting his large family.

He worked sixteen hour days in the early years, inspired by his father (a halwai) to get into the catering services for large parties. Aditya Vikram Birla, who knew his father, gave him his first break. Munna cooked with his team of 100 people for 15 days continuously for Kumar Mangalam’s Wedding and this was followed by Mr. Anil Agarwal’s (of the Sterlite Group) week long party. Then it was the round of other millionaires like Laxmi Niwas Mittal. The list just grew longer and longer…

Munna’s foray into the food business coincided with a burgeoning interest in exotic vegetarian cuisine by Calcutta’s well heeled Marwari community. His first big break was a large, well attended wedding reception for the Kanorias that he catered to in the eighties. And hey presto! Fortune smiled on him. Clients who were beginning to tire of navratan shorba, malai kofta and shabnam shorba eagerly tucked into delicacies like corn asparagus in cheese curry, broccoli in saffron sauce and baby corn and capsicum. Armed with cookery books written by well known food experts like Tarla Dalal and gifted with an inborn genius for making the subtle changes, he soon had clients licking their fingers and asking for more. Munna’s popularity soared.

“He’s the biggest name in the Marwari community”, says Alka Verma, a senior executive in a footwear company. “The elite of Calcutta like the Birlas and Poddars use him”. Alka has attended several parties to which Munna Maharaj has catered to and exclaims, “His food is out of this world. His dishes are something magical, each dish having a completely different flavour. I’ve never had vegetarian food like that! His presentation is also breathtaking. He does themes very well and I believe he charges Rs 1000 per plate but I think every penny is worth it,” she raves.

Harsh Neotia, chairman of Gujarat Ambuja Cement says, “He is really very good. If my wife were here (she is in London right now), she could have told you more.”

Renu Mohta, from an affluent business family adds, “Everybody who is anybody uses his services. He is very well organised and takes personal interest in every job.”

Munna’s success is awe inspiring, especially when one considers when is totally a self-made man. His father, the late Mahabir Singh, came to Calcutta from Gaya in Bihar and remained a halwai to the end of his days. Munna has not received assistance from anyone in the family. “My elder brother (who is no more) used to help but he was not good at the business because he had a very short temper.”

Munna works with a dedicated band of five-six employees and some temporary staff.
And to what does Munna attribute his success? His answer is unequivocal. “I give the customers what they want and I deliver on time. Also my food is 100 percent vegetarian and I never compromise on quality. In fact Munna feels that this is the edge he has over other five star chefs. “They work with fixed menus while I create whatever my clients want. Many of the dishes are cooked without garlic and onion.”

As for now Munna says that 8o per cent of his work is in Calcutta and 20 per cent in Mumbai or Delhi. He also travels to Indore, Madras or any city where a die-hard gourmet decides that his services are essential. On a few occasions big time clients have even flown down his entire entourage to cater to a special function. The Birla’s, the Dalmia’s and The Modi’s can all be counted amongst his regular clientele. According to this celebrity chef, “People are becoming mre adventurous in their tastes and today it is customary it have three to four cuisines serving Mexican, Chinese, Continental and Indian food.”

Munna Maharaj did take time off from his busy schedule to get married. Fortunately for the gourmets in the city, his wife, Lakshmi is very understand about his long working hours. She often accompanies him on out of town assignments. And no, the Maharaj does not do the cooking at home. “The servant cooks. On a daily basis we eat very simple food like dal, roti, subzi. No one can digest the heavy food we make for parties everyday.” And as far as preferences for fancy food are concerned, Munna has a yen for Chinese cuisine.

In the near future, Munna Maharaj plans to open a restaurant and an ice cream parlour. If past performance is anything to go by, this restaurant should be a runaway success. For Munna Maharaj, who has worked his way up from his humble rented accommodation in a dingy area of the city, to a position where he owns – two cars, two apartments – is today an unqualified success. Munna Maharaj’s home has expensive paintings, heavy brocade curtains and wooden paneling. It is not very dissimilar to the homes of his celebrity clients.

His price makes it impossible for the middle class to enjoy his food. Shobha Sharda, an upper middle class house wife laments, “We can pay maybe Rs 300-400 per head but not what he charges.’

But then, the man gives value for money. He serves the most exotic food and often his dishes contain ingredients that are not available in Calcutta, say strawberries from Mahableshwar or disco papaya from Bangalore. You name it and he’s gets it for you!

Finally, it is because of his uncompromising dedication to his profession that the rich and famous are beating a path to his door!

Before we signed off however, SAVVY asked this savvy man one more question: Who is a better cook, a man or a woman? In his Maharaj’s menu, that is immaterial. He does feel however that a man who has good culinary skills will be matter-of-fact about his ability.
Now that should be an eye- opener to all those chauvinistic males who croon about their ability to make a simple cup of tea!

(This write-up of mine was published in the magazine Savvy)

Today, twelve years later, Munna Maharaj’s Neelamber Caterers Private Limited, the same catering firm he started off with long ago is a thriving business. He also owns Bakers Square, Marwar Banquets, Agarwal Park Banquets, a food court, and Blue Fox Restaurant. His brother Sanjay Singh helps him in the businesses.

Related Reading: More profiles on Successful Indians

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