1993, Bombay: Ten-year old Yashpal Gusai begins plotting a career that would not involve mathematics or science.
1996, Gurdaspur: Rishi Anand peers into a tandoor that stands taller than him as he plays sous chef to his father in their back garden.
2005, Kathmandu: Tanka K.C follows a friend into a part-time job, cooking Indian food for tourists visiting the Pashupatinath Temple.
2011, Varkala Beach: Agra-born Saleem Khan gets on a plane to Heathrow, leaving the beach shacks of Kerala for the love of his life.
2013, London: Fourteen strangers work together as long lost friends, recreating the spirit of Bombay in a Shoreditch kitchen.
Fourteen chefs that were handpicked from across the Indian subcontinent by Dishoom’s Executive Chef Naved Nasir. With each one he was looking for three things – skill, personality and the talent to work a tandoor. “My chef interviews begin with making bread,” Naved shares. “The moment they touch the dough I know whether to take them or not.” As a result the kitchen has a strong team of tandoor experts that knead, roll, twirl and flip over 800 roomali rotis each week.
Growing up in Meerut, one of India’s most ancient cities, Naved never imagined he would one day be responsible for a team of chefs in London that serve 7,500 guests over 21,000 portions of food each week. Not even when he, at age five, took over his mum’s kitchen, cooking the family his favourite meal of mung daal khichdi with desi ghee and dahi. Naved fell into hospitality by accident. Adamant not to follow his father’s footsteps into medicine, he took up hotel management as a lark. Sixteen years later, as he begins to recounts some milestones – training in the hallowed kitchens of Dumpukht and Bukhara; working with Master Chefs Mohd. Shareef and Imtiaz Qureshi; leading a banquets team serving 3,000 guests a day; ITC Hotels’ youngest Executive Chef of the time – he almost sounds as if he is talking about someone else.
On a balmy Monday morning not so long ago, the exceptionally talented and unassuming Chef Naved treated me to a day with his chefs in their Shoreditch kitchen. This was my one chance to understand just what makes one of London’s busiest kitchens tick.
7am: I am assigned to Chef Sandy Shanmughan in the curry section, responsible for the daal, curries, biryani and chai. After “opening” the spotless kitchen, his first task of the day is to begin brewing the tea with Dishoom’s secret combination of masalas. He next turns his attention to the masterpiece on their menu – the Dishoom Black Daal. Their daal – the process for which begins at 6pm the evening before – takes nearly 24 hours to make.
By the time Sandy has got to the daal this morning, it has been washed for an hour, boiled for a couple more, and then left to cook in its steam overnight. Without giving away much more of their secret recipe that I had the privilege of witnessing in action, he never strays too far from his vat of daal for the rest of day. It’s been a long journey for Sandy, from his mum’s Kerala kitchen to joining Dishoom three years ago. Listen to him explain the nuances of cooking his favourite dish on the menu – 50 litres every day – and it becomes clear how he is in the job destined for him.
9am: Breakfast service is in full swing and I adjust myself into a safe corner to watch Chef Tanka K.C expertly manoeuvre his way from fryer to grill to tandoor as he sends out order after order of Full Bombays, Bacon Naan Rolls and House Porridge.
11am: I now get to hang out with the only woman in Dishoom’s kitchens – Chef Sapna Macal – their powerhouse of a pastry chef. I am mesmerised as Sapna swiftly kneads, cuts, measures and rolls 150 pillows of pau, whilst telling me about growing up in Hyderabad and spending afternoons watching Sanjeev Kapoor cook food on TV. Sapna barely pauses for breath as she tells me the story of how she earned her spot on the Dishoom team with her version of a chocolate mousse, all the while baking a Pineapple Crumble, piping cream on to a Memsahib’s Mess and serving up a dozen Mango Kulfis. (I compare this to how all the other (male) chefs had to stop what they were doing to answer my questions!)
More chefs begin joining the kitchen. Each one announcing himself with a distinct war cry. Each one flying the flag for a different part of the Indian subcontinent. Dishoom’s kitchen is a poster child for national integration – a lot like you see on the streets of Bombay.
1pm and a food trial: Every Monday, Head Chef Yashpal Gusai, Manager Rob Ferne and Bar Wizard Carl Brown test a few dishes and drinks from the menu. The Chicken Berry Biryani didn’t quite cut it this week as the chicken pieces were too large. And the Chilli Cheese Toast lost a lot of points for “uneven browning”. This is a tough panel to please! From the cocktails we tried, my favourite was the Monsooned Cobbler (“Malabar espresso, bamboozled with spices, Cognac”) that you drink in two stages. First, black, as it arrives. Then you add cream, taste and pause as the drink transforms itself in your mouth. Genius!
I return to the kitchen with Yash. Even though he grew up watching his father cook, it wasn’t until he was faced with a potential career as an engineer that he considered a hotel management degree. A similar story to Naved’s, Yash shares, “I hated maths and science so decided to become a chef. Only, I didn’t realise how much time I would have to spend out of the kitchen and in the classroom!”
The handsome chef towers over the rest on his team, taking in every station at all times, jumping in to help when the number of orders gets the better of a particular station. As the head of the kitchen Yash’s day is taken over by admin more than anything else. “I couldn’t change a light bulb before, but now am a mechanic and magician all rolled into one.” The only time he does cook is when he goes home to his mum’s kitchen, “but they don’t appreciate my restaurant-style cooking.” He was head hunted for Dishoom while working in Bombay’s Kabab Factory and almost didn’t go for the interview “because the name – Dishoom – was a bit weird.” But three years on he hasn’t once regretted his decision to move to London and Dishoom.
2pm: I am at my favourite station – the tandoor. Chef Mobarak Sheikh wowed Naved with the technique and speed with which he made his roomali rotis. The Orissa-born roti genius is all smiles all the time and even humoured me with a lesson in roomali rolling. He is joined by Chef Purna Prasad. You can hear and smell this section before you see it. The two chefs work like magicians, filling each order that comes in with soft roomalis, crisp naans, and my favourite – the moreish cheese naan. Growing up in Kathmandu, Purna always wanted to work in Bombay one day. That he is today working in a Bombay Café in London is such a lovely irony!
5pm: Dishoom is one of the few restaurants that has a dedicated grill chef. A genius move considering the 2000+ portions of kababs they sell each week. As I helped Chef Jaffer Khan skewer over 20 kilos of the Dishoom Chicken Tikka (for dinner service) he told me about his life as a computer operator in Delhi before his career took a more delicious turn. When he isn’t prepping for the Murgh Malai and serving up mountains of Paneer Tikka, Jaffer is on Skype with his new bride, counting the days before she joins him in London.
I return to the curry section to meet Chef Saleem Khaan. A Dishoom success story, Saleem began as a kitchen porter and in two short years was promoted to a section chef. He takes over from Sandy and begins the Black Daal process for the next day. Like every other chefs, he also made sure I was well supplied with chai and chat even as orders flew in.
The kitchen’s second in command is Chef Rishi Anand. At 24 he is one of the youngest chefs in the room, but comes with experience that belies his age. He grew up making tandoori chicken at home with his father but went on to specialise in Pan-Asian cuisine first with Indian hotel giants Oberoi and then at Tamarai in London. He joined Dishoom to open their Shoreditch restaurant but still misses cooking Chinese food sometimes. His Orient-inspired staff meals seem to be everyone’s favourite!
The next few hours are a blur as dinner guests flood Dishoom Shoreditch and the kitchen is enveloped in a melodic flurry of sounds – claps of rotis, hissing kababs, crackling calamari, bubbling daal, and the chefs secret language to make sure that every dish in an order is finished at the same time.
Naved ensures his team is always involved in the creation of new dishes, “They have to produce the dish for the thousands who walk into our doors – I need my chefs to be happy. My only instruction to them is to ‘Think of Bombay and dream up an honest dish’.”
Can I now explain what makes one of London’s busiest kitchens tick? Can I explain what “Bombay food” is? Probably not. Bombay has many foods, each with a distinct personality. Yet the city has made that food its own. A lot like the fourteen chefs who travelled the world to make the kitchen of Dishoom Shoreditch, their own.
This feature was first published in the online magazine The Non-Resident Indian. Read the original post here.