Bombay, the hustle and bustle in its air, the warm breeze brushing your skin at sea face, the crackle and sizzle from the pav bhaji stands, is truly a city that never sleeps. Coming from this city of dreams for millions of Indians, co-founders Shamil and Kavi Thakrar bring a little part of their precious Bombay (Mumbai) to the United Kingdom.
With a mission to gift us their best version of Indian dishes, Dishoom is an ode to the fast-dying Irani cafés that once populated the streets of Bombay. By importing the evergreen Pallonji’s Raspberry Soda, they have been contributing to boost the market for Indian produce in the UK. After starting off at London’s Covent garden in 2010, the duo has since opened eight branches across the country in the last years.
Speaking to iGlobal, Chef Director Naved Nasir gives us an insight into Dishoom’s decade-old mantras: Ever wondered why you stand in their long queues, often accompanied by hot chai in your hands? It’s their idea of maintaining a democratic space.
“With reservations, we would get booked out for months not giving our on-the-spot clients a chance to dine.”
Can feel the same spice level in their cooking as in India? A policy the Dishoom team strictly follows: “If you are trying to create a spicy dish for a palate which is not spice-friendly, then maybe give them a different dish rather than toning it down.”
Chef Nasir spent his childhood in the small town of Meerut in north India. His inclination for cooking came while he helped his mother in the kitchen. Naved, in his words, calls her “the pressure cooker cook”, while recalling her full-time job as a teacher in a school 40 kilometres away from their home.
“She was always short of time as she had to travel to work and was left with very little time to cook. She used to chuck everything in the cooker, whatever she was making and give four whistles.”
Bombay was where Naved worked for most of his life. Like every chef who wants to make an appearance on a world stage, the role at Dishoom was a perfect fit for him. “When it comes to showcasing your talent as a chef there are only two cities which come to your mind, New York or London.” After 11 prosperous years as Dishoom’s Head Chef, Naved now looks after the entire kitchen and has the responsibility of over 300 chefs.
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Each Dishoom restaurant has a hidden story. The walls and décor of that in King’s Cross paints the struggles in the Indian freedom movement. The basement of the restaurant was pictured to be a hideout for the Indian freedom fighters. Their extensive collection of photographs display the original works of Homai Vyarawalla, India’s first woman photographer, and those of Mahatma Gandhi’s Swadeshi Movement.
“This is not an industrial model where you just open another branch where you want. We won’t want to be like that. The day we become like that, it’s the day Dishoom is going to go down.”
The incredible range of options in the Dishoom menus is the result of the team simply jotting down their most favourite delicacies from Bombay. After every trip to Bombay, Naved comes back inspired with new recipes to incorporate.
“No one in their right mind would put together a menu like we have, its bonkers. Like you have the Pav Bhaji and the Lamb Rann with the Biryani and the Vada Pav. We looked at Bombay and asked what the favourite places are we go to.”
The Dishoom kitchens have clearly tried to push their recipes closer to those that you will find in Bombay. Naved explains: “We didn’t do Vada Pav for one and a half years. The reason being I couldn’t get the sukha lasun (dry garli) chutney right. Any Vada Pav guy in Bombay will tell you his secret recipe, which isn’t the right one. It’s a simple recipe but the proportions need to be right. Once I was comfortable with the recipe, that’s when we started doing it.”
“I am proud of our breakfast menu,” he adds, as he reveals the traditional Parsi elements attached to their breakfast dishes like the famous Bun Maska, Akuri, Keema Per Eedu and Parsi Omlette. These specialities have the power to teleport you from the cobbled streets of the UK straight to the old Irani cafés in Bombay.
The team used the pandemic lockdown to diversify their food passion by moving into the food delivery business. They launched the Dishoom Store, which exhibits their proprietary products like the Cookery Book and the cook at home Naan Roll Kit.
On the government’s furlough scheme, Naved notes: “The government had a fantastic scheme, but it doesn’t give you a full earning and people have responsibility. Mortgages to cover, families to take care of and furlough can’t fulfil all of it. That’s what pushed us to look beyond indoor dining.
“We do not want to lose anyone from our team.”
Given that, Dishoom managed to recruit around 60 to 70 more chefs to their team. Above all, the lockdown offered the hospitality industry a flip side of spending more family time: “In this industry, we always miss family time as we come late and leave early.”
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The hospitality industry is a complex arena, which requires you to do a lot of petty jobs in the beginning of your career – store picking, cleaning and setting up.
“Many youngsters want to skip that step. In my view, these initial days are going to teach you the most. If you don’t know to make a good ginger garlic paste, you can’t cook good Indian food. Every single dish has it and it begins there.”
For Naved, the training was with the flavoursome long grains of basmati rice with Padma Shri Chef Imtiaz Qureshi: “I had to wash some really good quality basmati rice and I didn’t know how to deal with it, so I took the big sack of rice and opened the tap full blown on the rice and started scrubbing the grains. ‘A good basmati rice is a living and breathing being. Do you know why most people get a bad biryani, that’s because the rice is not long enough after being washed rashly’.”
Twenty years down the line and Naved still coaches his chefs: “You need to make sure that you do not even make the water hit the rice grains directly, you should put your hand in between and let the water drip gently on the rice. When it fills up, move the rice with your fingertips and do that 20 times if needed. A good basmati breaks.”
Not only a teacher, but Naved has opened his platform to his chefs who can showcase their skills during their food development programme. “Everyone gets an opportunity to come up and present their dish.”
Naved’s personal growth space starts with his team of chefs. He is keen to nurture them and provide them with the tricks of the trade he has learned over the last 25 years in the culinary world.
“Young chefs are losing interest in the industry and I want to rekindle that interest in them. It is a hard industry. People think its spending long hours and no social life.”
To create a work-life balance, his team works only four times in a week as a means to attract the younger generation to the field.
“It’s not for people who are looking for a shortcut. It’s about passion, dedication and hardwork. Make sure you learn the smaller techniques, like the right proportion to make good ginger garlic paste or to grind masalas. You need to own them.”