Executive Chef Tony Khan describes Italian food as being “like a mother coming home to you.” The Bangladeshi-born chef spent 32 years developing his culinary crafts abroad before returning to Bangladesh, where he now heads up the kitchen at one Dhaka’s finest restaurants – Prego at the Westin.
Anyone familiar with the Westin brand will enter with high expectations, but Tony is confident he can exceed them. His team is comprised of highly trained and dedicated staff, including several who have worked in Italy, and a general manager whom Tony refers to as his “guru.” Prego uses only the finest imported ingredients from Australia and Italy and blends in local products, such as chili, whenever possible. Vegetables and fruits are flown in from Bangkok and Dubai. Prego’s location on the 23rd floor of the ultra-plush five star hotel makes it one of the capital’s classiest dining spots – and it offers one of the most beautiful views of the capital. And for those who may have assumed that Prego’s prices are out of reach, consider this – a gourmet Italian lunch costs Tk 600, which is less than half of what competitors are charging.
Tony’s enthusiasm for all things Italian is contagious. With a great big grin and a strong hint of an Italian accent, Tony described the best learning experience of his career. While living in Melbourne, which he described as “the food capital of Australia,” he learnt to make lasagna and different types of pasta at “Mama’s Kitchen” on Melbourne’s famous Lygon Street. He said, “I learnt “the A – Z of food preparation from Mama herself.” As well as being familiar with all styles of Italian cooking, whether it be the spicy Sicilian flavours, the rich aromas of northern Italian cuisine or the gentle blend of south eastern fare, Tony’s full repertoire includes French, Mediterranean, Modern Australian, Middle Eastern, Caribbean, African, Pacific Rim and Pan Asian cuisine. After being trained in Singapore, Tony later worked for King Faisal of Saudi Arabia as well as some of the world’s finest hotels, before coming to Prego to make his mark. Like any successful chef, Tony takes food very, very seriously – his mantra is “Food is the first medicine for the body.”
Tony’s guru, General Manager Atique Rahman, takes an equal amount of pride and pleasure in what he does. With a sweep of his arm he said, “As you can see it’s a lovely restaurant and one of the finest in Dhaka. I’m proud to be associated with it.” Atique believes that Prego and the Westin outstrip their rivals. He said, “All the hotels sell beds, food and beverages. But I think we have an edge over them in terms of service and quality.” Atique said thatPrego is the only restaurant in Dhaka that is 100% Italian, which, incidentally, is one of the world’s most popular cuisines as well as one of its oldest – it can be traced back to the 4th century BC.
Before returning to Bangladesh seven months ago, Atique spent 35 years in the USA. After completing his studies, he spent several years working in five star hotels before opening a highly successful sushi restaurant in Texas. He said, “It is said that Texas is the meat is the meat town of USA – but now they love sushi!” Atique also spent 18 months as the director of food and beverages at the Playboy Mansion in New York. Atique said that working for the legendary Hugh Hefner taught him a lot about the entertainment business. He said, “Hugh Hefner was very humble, but at the same time, he knew what he wanted and there had better not be any mistakes – the club had to be immaculate and everything made according to his specifications.” After spending some time with Atique, it became evident that he too likes to run a tight ship.
Atique returned to Bangladesh in order to spend time with his elderly mother and to make a contribution to the country where he was born. He said, “I wanted to bring my education and skills back to Bangladesh and to teach the staff here to be better at what they do.” Customers can see Prego’s staff hard at work in the bustling kitchen, which is located in the centre of the restaurant. Each section has at least one dedicated staff member, if not two or three. Chef Rashid, who spent 10 years working in restaurants in Rome, tends to the soups – fresh mushroom, minestrone and fish, as well as preparing fresh sheets of lasagna, cannelloni and fusilli pasta. He said that working at Prego has resulted in his culinary skills reaching a new level of sophistication. But as they say – the proof is in the pudding. And what a pudding I ate during my visit last Saturday night – a delicate rice dessert covered in a rich white sauce with lashings of cream. The three course meal began with an Italian salad laced with balsamic vinegar and two serves of crisp bruschetta, followed by a succulently grilled catfish that was accompanied by lightly steamed vegetables and a salsa sauce. Portions were perfect and the flavours were divine.
Prego – which means “welcome” in Italian – opened in Dhaka in 2007. Tony said that Italian food is a relatively recent addition to the capital – up until five years ago anyone would have been hard-pressed to find a plate of gnocchi. Nowadays, Prego is doing a brisk trade as it serves up around 1,5000 meals a week. Atique said that most of his clientele are investors from Europe, America and Asia, as well as embassy staff and NGO workers. An increasing number of people are dropping in off the street, having been enticed by the prospect of a luxury dining experience. If you are even half-considering it – I would urge you not to hesitate.