Quintessential Kashmiri Hospitality’s New Tastemaker

Zakib Gull

After Covid momentarily clouded his venture, Shopian boy’s resilience saw him getting his brand new café in the city of Srinagar—where new-age eateries are slowly creating a food court competition—back on rails and rhythm.

By Hirra Azmat

FOOD for Zakib Gull, 32, has always been an emotion to connect with people.

This compassionate worldview had its schooling in formal chef classes, which he attended unlike many in his tribe who merely plunge into eatery business with passion and possession.

After living a textbook struggler’s life—that saw him desperately fighting for his dream—this Shopian Samaritan, as his friends call him, finally came of age with his own Srinagar-based trendy café—tucked in plush Raj Bagh locality.

The young restaurateur’s food court with a glazing billboard—Urban Griddle Café—is cast in antiquity. Quirky lights and wooden furniture uplift ambiance and mood of the place.

Urban Griddle

Zakib plays a warm host with his hospitable gesture, equally complimented by his beaming face and sparkling eyes. His two partners in passion—Shahji Shakil and Shaqoor Sheikh—equally come across as the gentlemen of the tribe.

The café is a fruit of his untiring labour to demolish the stereotype around international cuisine being exotic food favoured by select few elites only.

The cafe is the go-to place for anyone who’s looking forward to a lazy conversation over coffee and a fulfilling burger, he explicates.

And to spark and sustain that spirit, Zakib makes a wide variety of authentic cuisines like Continental, Italian, Chinese, Indian, Kashmiri, Arabian and Mediterranean available at affordable prices.

Moreover, unlike other cafes, the restaurateur offers to explain each dish and its preparation in painstaking detail so that the customer can choose being fully informed.

But life was not always easy for this humble hospitality professional.

Born and brought up in Shopian district of South Kashmir, Zakib lost his father at an early age.

Right from the age of 15, he took up the mantle of bearing familial responsibilities on his young shoulders. Battling social and financial pressures, he passed his secondary school examination from Government Higher Secondary School Shopian and taking cue from one of his cousins who had completed a Bachelor’s Degree in Hospitality, he dreamt of becoming a graduate in Hotel Management.

Street-smart, equipped with steely resolve and sharp communication skills, Zakib seemed a natural fit for the course. He had whatever it took to achieve his dream except one important thing — money.

After qualifying the entrance test for a three-year degree course in Hotel Management, he moved from pillar to post to get funding for his dream course.

“But I fell short of a hefty amount,” he recalls his struggling days with a sense of nostalgia. “I needed an additional amount of Rs 2 lakh to get admission in the Institute of Hotel Management, Srinagar.”

It was 2008 and Kashmir was about to explode with the collective rage over the controversial Amarnath land transfer deal. That year as tempers flew high, his engineer kin, then working with a Saudi Arabia-based oil firm, sent him to J&K Bank’s branch at Shopian for an education loan.

The financial aid helped him complete his Bachelor’s Degree, following which he moved to Chennai in 2011 and worked as a Front Office Associate with ITC Grand Chola.

“But this was only the beginning,” he recalls. “I toiled, learned, gained experience and came back to Kashmir to work as an HR executive with Khyber Resorts and Spa, Gulmarg- a leading hospitality chain.”

Zakib also worked as a General Manager (GM) at Hotel Metropolis, and managed Hotel Pine Spring and Hotel Rose Petal at Rajbagh in his capacity as general manager.

The experience gained helped him realize his passion towards food. He decided to open up a café in 2020 with two other friends, where he can explore the plethora of traditional as well exotic recipes, handpicked and meticulously chosen from all over the world.

Despite plagued with the vicious virus, the year eventually saw him fulfilling his dream. And for a person who struggled with his finances in his early phase of life, there has been no looking back ever since.

“In Kashmir,” Zakib says, “you can never wait for things to end.”

If we wait for the pandemic to end, who knows what lies beyond that, he asserts.

“Besides, tough times don’t last but tough people do,” he says.

“I think time to take the plunge had come. People were feeling cooped up inside their houses, and needed a place to meet and talk. And that space with good food peppered with the age-old Kashmiri hospitality is what we are offering here.”

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