Category Archives: Shoreditch

London’s Bombaywallahs. The chefs of Dishoom Shoreditch

London's Bombaywallahs

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.

Dishoom Black DaalBy 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 aIMG_2930m 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.

Chicken Berry Biryani1pm 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.

Chef Mobarak2pm: 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.

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This feature was first published in the online magazine The Non-Resident Indian. Read the original post here.

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Filed under Bombay, Daal, Foodie adventures, India, Indian, London, Open kitchen, Restaurant, Shoreditch

plusixfive. The traditional trio

By the time I entered London’s supper club scene plusixfive founder Goz was leaving the city to create havoc in Hong Kong. I couldn’t turn a street corner without running into a Londoner weeping in sorrow at the loss of one of their favourite supper club chefs. I met him once, for three minutes – to exchange £5 for a jar of outstanding “proper” sambal. He stopped bouncing only long enough for me to grab the bottle out of his hands. This mad, bouncing, love-the-real-stuff spirit is what underlines everything plusixfive stands for.

Goz started plusixfive in May 2011 (read: coerced at gunpoint by foodaholic and Edible Experiences founder WenLin Soh) when he realised that this was the perfect vehicle to showcase real Singaporean food. He said, “I got tired of fish and chips. I came to the UK when all we had was fish and chips; and Costa was amazing coffee; and Flat White was a description for a paint colour in Homebase. I missed Singaporean food so started learning how to cook it myself, taking recipes off the net and more importantly from my mum. It was ridiculous that all people seemed to know about Singapore was either (a) caning for graffiti (b) caning (and death) for drug smuggling (c) caning for littering in our clean city and (d) caning for chewing gum. Ridiculous to me because in Singapore, food is possibly the most important and central thing to Singaporeans.

IMG_1221A curious incident with a blog post in the night time brought ShuHan (a firecracker graphic designer and chef intent on staying seasonal) into his life; and Jason (eager to showcase his own Peranakan heritage cuisine) was one of the diners at Goz’s first supper club. So plusixfive grew from just Goz to Goz, ShuHan and Jason.

A few weeks ago, under the guise of celebrating some kind of an anniversary, plusixfive, assisted by Javier Leal and WenLin Soh took over the bun steamers at Yum Bun in Shoreditch. For the sweet price of £13 they were serving three buns – ox cheek redang, veg popiah and pork belly – and a beer. It was such a clever idea! They got bun-loving London to try 100% Singaporean fillings without compromising on flavour or tradition.

IMG_1238The pork belly is, or I should say used to be, my bun of choice at Yum Bun. I started with that. It was nice and all but I couldn’t wait to dive into the others. I was completely prepared to be uninspired by the veggie bun – what I fool I was! ShuHan expertly created a typical Nyonya Popiah filling (a Singaporean fresh egg pancake spring roll) with braised turnips, mushrooms and a fiery sweet lime chilli sauce. The “I-can’t-believe-it’s-veg Popiah Bun” was aptly named, juicy and so delicious.

The winneIMG_1220r, by a very small margin, was Jason’s “Ox Cheeky Rendang”. Jason is old school – he’s been known to pound 40 bowls of laksa paste by hand. He picked the rendang as it’s something that is traditionally Nyonya and was his Nan’s recipe. My favourite bun of the evening was a result of 16 hours of hard work over a hot stove. Hunks of meat melted into a rich rempah spice paste and coconut milk in true Peranakan tradition. The luscious result was sandwiched between crunchy cucumber, radish and peanuts in Yum Bun’s doughy pillows.

Goz, ShuHan and Jason have very different cooking styles and techniques but are joined in frustration against what London passes off for Singaporean cooking. I get that.

The longer I have lived away from India the less a “curry” takeaway will fulfil me the way 6 hours in the kitchen over butter chicken does. I know I harp on about the importance of tradition – but that is only so that I don’t help create a generation that cannot make themselves a hot meal, that believes chicken tikka masala came from India, and that Singapore noodles are served in Singapore. Innovation is all well and good, but not at the cost of tradition.

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Look out for the cookbook later this year: plusixfive: A Singaporean Supper Club Cookbook (Or How to Subvert Singaporean Culinary Misconceptions, Avert Stir-Fry Calamities, Make Your Nyonya Grandmother Weep with Joy and Other Badass Kitchen Skills)


Read more about plusixfive X yum bun on Edible Experiences

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Filed under Bar food, Eat, Foodie Events, London, Shoreditch, Singaporean, Small Plates, Supper Club

Dishoom Shoreditch. From Bombay to London

It is no secret that Dishoom and I are in crush with each other. The love affair began in August 2010 and I am thrilled to report that we are still on our honeymoon.

A few weeks ago Dishoom’s Shamil Founder-walla and Sara Chatter-walli invited me to write a guest blog for the opening of their new café in London’s Shoreditch.  They wanted me to share what Shoreditch meant to a Bombay-walli… if anything at all!

Before I moved to London I was often told how similar it is to Bombay. Locations made familiar in Bollywood films, Victoria carriages, a melting pot of communities… and for the days I felt homesick I had Wembley, Southall and Brick Lane. They said I would feel right at home. Of course I didn’t. I especially resisted Shoreditch for years. A lot of that had to do with constant invitations to test how authentic the “curry” is. And some had to do with the city’s coolerati constantly trying to put Shoreditch in a box (that it always triumphantly wriggled out of).

But then one day everything changed for me. From Thums Ups at Café Mocambo to Thums Up Flips at Dishoom Shoreditch, life seems to have started all over again. Read here about how this happened.

And if you haven’t already got yourselves to Dishoom Shoreditch for one of Carl Sharab-walla’s outstanding Thums Up Flips then here is a teaser to tempt you:

(Photo courtesy: Dishoom Shoreditch)

  • 40mls Johnnie Walker Black Label
  • 2 dash Jerry Thomas bitters
  • 10ml double cream
  • 1 egg
  • 26mls Thums Up reduction (Carl has resisted my fluttering eyelashes and not divulged how he came up with this!)

Shake everything together with ice cubes. Very hard. Strain and grate nutmeg over the top. And to borrow from the original… Taste the Thunder!

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Dishoom Shoreditch  on Urbanspoon

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Filed under Bar, Bar food, Bombay, Cafe, Cocktails, Indian, London, Shoreditch