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So long, and thanks for all the John Dory

About a week ago, one of Mumbai’s beloved food institutions Salt Water Café announced its closing. In an interview, their head chef Gresham Fernandes says, they won’t be gone for too long

Chef Gresham Fernandes.

By Jahnabee Borah

LAST PUBLISHED 18.09.2023  |  04:30 PM IST

There was a time, many moons ago, when I pronounced carpaccio as carpakio. The food and the name were foreign to my dal-chawal loving palate, and such embarrassing mistakes were inevitable. I tasted the Italian cold cuts for the first time at Salt Water Café in Bandra, Mumbai. A colleague took me there for lunch saying they had an offer of endless sangrias for the price of one. There’s no better news for an aspiring features writer on a rookie journalist’s salary. In my early twenties, it was one of the fanciest meals I could afford, and have never forgotten.

Over the years, the sun-dappled café became the place for many (food) firsts: from getting hooked on to their flourless chocolate cake to craving their buttermilk chicken burger after long trips away from Mumbai, and discovering the fish named John Dory.

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About a week ago, Salt Water Café announced on their Instagram page (@saltwatercafe) they would close after 15 long years. Hundreds of messages poured in with regulars expressing shock, disbelief and their favourite memories. Some mourned the loss of their favourite breakfast spot, others said they’d sorely miss the ‘me time’ there, and most simply responded with the broken heart emoji.

In Mumbai’s ever evolving dining space, Salt Water Café is regarded as an institution. The Merriam Webster dictionary defines an institution as, “a significant practice, relationship, or organization in a society or culture." In the world of hospitality it could mean, a restaurant being integral to the culture of a city, or the neighbourhood in which it’s located. The café was embedded into the dining rituals of the neighbourhood. Similar places exist across India: Pune has Malaka Spice and Delhi has Big Chill.

Chef Gresham Fernandes who helmed the kitchen spoke to Lounge about their key milestones, challenges, and his most cherished memories.

Edited excerpts: 

Eggs Benedict at Salt Water Café.

1. When Salt Water Café launched 15 years ago, what did it aim to do?
Its primary focus was to create an establishment that would seamlessly blend the cherished elements of its predecessor, the beloved Salt Water Grill (located in South Mumbai), with a fresh and innovative approach. At its core, Salt Water Café aimed to be more than just a café; it aspired to be a versatile sanctuary catering to a diverse clientele. It was designed to be a welcoming haven for all, catering to families, solo diners seeking solitude, and those looking to celebrate special moments. It was a place where technique and innovation in the culinary arts took centre stage. The dedication to culinary craftsmanship elevated Salt Water Café from being just another cafe to a culinary destination where patrons could embark on a new experience each time. It was a testament to the artistry of fine cuisine and a testament to the idea that dining could be more than just a meal – it could be an unforgettable experience, a cherished memory, and a place to call one's own.

2. Did this focus shift over the years?
In the beginning, we primarily served lunch and dinner, and the two menus were distinct from each other. However, as time passed, our customers began to express a desire for more flexibility in their dining choices. They would often request items from the lunch menu during dinner service, and we were more than happy to accommodate their preferences. This gradual shift in customer preferences led to an evolution in our menu offerings. We moved away from very complex, technique-driven dishes and started to focus on crafting simpler, one-pot wonders. While our commitment to quality ingredients remained steadfast, the menu took on a more wholesome and homestyle character, catering to the need for hearty and comforting meals. In parallel, our approach to beverages transformed as well. We transitioned from herb-infused cocktails to fruit-centric options like our famous sangrias. Additionally, we explored innovative ways to reduce waste by incorporating kitchen scraps and ferments into our cocktail creations, aligning with our commitment to sustainability. Moreover, we recognized the importance of creating a family-friendly environment. Although we initially did not offer a dedicated kids' menu, we made the experience child-friendly by providing suitable crockery and cutlery, along with placemats for drawing to keep young ones entertained, allowing parents to enjoy their meals uninterrupted.

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Furthermore, we noticed changes in dietary trends, with a growing shift towards locally-sourced ingredients. While our roots were in a modern European culinary tradition, it’s not always easy using locally sourced vegetables without Indian spices and masalas. We continuously keep refining and experimenting with dishes to strike the right balance between our European heritage and the demand for locally-inspired produce.

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3. What were the key milestones?
One of the most significant milestones for us was simply staying open for 15 years in Bandra, considering the growing competition and rising costs in this area. Another milestone that brings immense satisfaction is when former team members return to work with us. It's a clear indicator of the trust and leadership within our team, and it's incredibly encouraging and meaningful. This milestone holds a special place in my heart, more than awards and accolades because it signifies our ability to endure in a challenging environment.

The interiors of Salt Water Café.

4. What were the three biggest challenges? How did you overcome them?
1. Navigating through COVID-19: Our primary challenge during the pandemic revolved around ensuring the well-being of our team members. We were concerned about where they would find accommodation, and keeping their spirits high while still meeting financial commitments, such as paying our farmers, vendors, and rent. Additionally, staying relevant in such a tumultuous time was a constant challenge.

2. The farewell to John Dory: Removing the John Dory dish from our menu after 13 years posed a significant hurdle. It was a difficult decision influenced by supply chain issues. We held the dish to a high standard, and if it couldn't meet our expectations, it didn't deserve a spot. We've been on the lookout for a suitable replacement, but the quest continues.

3. Talent retention: Finding and retaining dedicated talent has been an ongoing challenge. In a fast-paced environment like ours, it's more than just teaching skills; it's about nurturing passion and determination. People need to understand that it's a long-term commitment that eventually pays off, and that's easier said than done.

4. What are your three most cherished memories of Salt Water Café?
1. Last week, when we announced that September 8 would be our last day of operation, a dear friend brought her mother to after a year of ordering in because her mother hadn't been well. Her mom chose the fish and chips, and polished off the entire plate. She turned to us and said, "I am Mangalorean; I know my fish, and that was some really good fish." This moment was truly special, especially because I don't often greet tables personally. When express their appreciation, it is incredibly meaningful to us, and reinforces our motivation.

2. My daughter's first restaurant/café experience was at Salt Water Café, and she's now six years old. She practically grew up here. It was heart-warming to watch the team interact with her over the years. Unfortunately, she couldn't be there for the café's last day. Interestingly, even Ayaz Basrai, who designed the space, had his son's first restaurant/café experience here.

3. A few years back, a pregnant lady visited us during a challenging pregnancy. After her meal, she penned a beautiful note that expressed how well we had taken care of her and her experience. The team had ensured her comfort by providing the largest table and plenty of cushions. To add to the sweetness of the memory, she later returned with her son, marking his first restaurant/café experience as well. These memories all revolve around the essence of Salt Water Café – a place that brought families together over delightful food and cocktails, a café for generations.

5. Why did you close, and what next?
We want yo make space for something new and equally exciting. We haven’t shuttered Salt Water Café forever, you will be seeing us somehow, somewhere. Wait and watch! It’s exciting and opening sooner than you think.

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