As The Bombay Canteen opened after a hiatus of eight months yesterday, with a fresh and updated menu and a new chef at the helm, it was an emotional moment for everyone involved in the running of the beloved and multiple award-winning Mumbai restaurant known for its innovative twists to Indian food and a commitment to local and seasonal ingredients. A lot has happened in these eight months. In March, Hunger Inc, the company that runs The Bombay Canteen, O Pedro and Bombay Sweet Shop, lost co-founder Floyd Cardoz to covid-19. Chef Thomas Zacharias, who shaped the restaurant’s culinary philosophy to a large extent, stepping away from his executive role is yet another big change.
However, talking to Lounge on the day of the reopening from the kitchen of The Bombay Canteen with hectic activity going on in the background, Chef Hussain Shahzad sounds calm and confident about taking over as executive chef at the restaurant. Edited excerpts from the interview:
How does it feel to step into your new role?
It is absolutely exhilarating and I am nervous, but more than nerves, I feel a sense of responsibility. I am aware that I will be carrying forward the legacy set by two people whom I have known and admired my whole cooking career: Chef Thomas, under whom I worked as sous chef at Bombay Canteen, and of course Chef Floyd, who was an absolute legend to all of us. But we are all bound by our core philosophy, so when people ask me about stepping into Chef Thomas’s role, I like to think of it as two people speaking the same language but in different voices.
What are some of the practical aspects of restarting things at the restaurant?
Although we had started deliveries a while ago and the kitchen was operational, it is a different experience to serve diners at the restaurant and we’d all missed that action and excitement. In some ways it’s like starting from scratch—like opening the restaurant for the first time. Covid has changed so many things and this is a different time in so many ways. The hiatus was valuable in the sense that it gave us time to pause and re-evaluate things at The Bombay Canteen, to take a good look at practices and processes that we could change, and now we have the opportunity to put those learnings to the test.
So what has changed and what has remained the same?
Our philosophy of food and cooking will always be the same—a huge commitment to seasonal and local ingredients and techniques, not taking ourselves too seriously and genuinely having fun in the kitchen, and highlighting the diversity of Indian food in a way that brings joy to the table. The soul of the menu has remained the same but we have played around with it and added almost 20 new dishes, including several that showcase seasonal vegetables like the Winter Greens Stir Fry with Naga chili oil, poee miso, crispy garlic or the Turnip Sev Tamatar with toasted coriander seeds and a sprinkle of namkeen bhujia. Our Chotas and Badas (small and large plates) remain the same but we now have a ‘Floyd’s Kulcha Club’ in memory of Chef Floyd, featuring the famous pizza-style kulchas that he first served at Tabla in New York. We all love our ramen, so we have a new dish that marries the Tibetan thukpa with the ramen in the form of the Slow Cooked Pork Belly Thukpa, which has a rich bacon broth, hand-made noodles, radish greens, egg yolk and Japanese crackling furikake.
So the experimentation with regional Indian food continues?
Of course! One of the other dishes we are very proud of is the Paya Soup Momos, which takes inspiration from the Chinese xiaolongbaos or ‘soupy dumplings’ (dimsums with a hot broth centre) and marries the traditional momo with the rich and nourishing paya (trotter) soup of Muslim kitchens. And our ode to the pandemic is banana bread, which we have added to the dessert menu as a way of acknowledging a dish that trended worldwide during the lockdown.
Apart from deliveries, how did The Bombay Canteen stay busy through the lockdown and after, and what are some of the ways you are dealing with the ongoing situation after opening?
We did a bunch of things, from online cooking classes (one of the most popular ones was teaching people how to bake the Goan bread, poee) to sending ingredient boxes to people’s homes with recipes so they could recreate their favourite dishes in their own kitchens. At O Pedro, we started the O Pedro deli for takeaways. We also discovered that it was a good idea to let people choose their own roles and find ways to be useful in a flexible way—so many of our servers became delivery personnel. It was also important to be mindful about not just our own staff but the ecosystem that grows up around a restaurant—the ice-wallah, the guy who supplies water… it was important for us to answer ‘how do we make sure this ecosystem survives?’ There was no rulebook, we had to write our own rulebook.
Tell us something about how The Bombay Canteen will look now that it’s open after eight months?
It will look very different because we are only going to be running at 33% capacity to maintain social distancing norms, so expect no more than 30-40 diners at a time. Also, to make good use of the remaining space, we have started an art showcase featuring local artists like Kunal Bele, Saoni Daini and Priya Suvarna of Sazo, ceramics artist Khushboo Madnani and illustrator Maleka. Their works will be on display in between the tables, and our patrons can buy them if they want.
Turning the Tables is a series of interviews with chefs and food entrepreneurs on coping with covid-19.