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Chef Seefah Ketchaiyo on why she won’t open for dine-in anytime soon

Ramen bowls, crispy chicken and katsu burgers—every item on Ketchaiyo’s menu spells comfort. It’s a formula that made her food orders soar, despite the pandemic

Chef Seefah Ketchaiyo runs the restaurant Seefah in Mumbai that serves South East Asian food.
Chef Seefah Ketchaiyo runs the restaurant Seefah in Mumbai that serves South East Asian food.

Our love for Asian flavours runs deep, and no one knows it better than Chef Seefah Ketchaiyo. The 37-year-old is the co-founder of Seefah, a South-east Asian restaurant that she runs with her husband Karan Bane in Mumbai. Pre-lockdown, the restaurant would have a bonafide 30-min waiting for walk-ins and now it is flooded with delivery orders.

In the pandemic, as people craved variety and wholesome flavours, Ketchaiyo’s menu hit the right spot with teriyaki tenderloin, hot and sour glass noodles and airy golden Japanese cake. Restaurants businesses plummeted, but Seefah’s deliveries soared. However, now when lockdown rules have been eased and restaurants have re-opened for dine-in, Ketchaiyo decided to wait and watch. Lounge caught up with her to find out why, and how her menu is winning hearts in the pandemic.

You must be getting requests to re-open?

Everyday. People want to come in large numbers. They want to book a table for 10 or 15 guests, but I tell them we are not ready. What I mean is, it is not safe for me, my staff and my guests. The deliveries will continue till end of December and we will take a call about inviting guests in 2021. We are working with food and even if one of us gets Covid-19, it’ll be over for us.

What happened when you had to temporarily close the restaurant due to the lockdown?

I thought my family and my team should be safe. Our landlord is kind and he reduced our rent by 30%. When we opened for delivery in mid-April, I told my staff to not come to work. My husband and I did the cooking and housekeeping for deliveries without them. We didn't want them to travel long distances and risk exposure to the virus. We continued paying them. Although we couldn’t manage full salaries, we ensured that it was enough to meet their monthly expenses.

What's happening to your staff now?

Some of them went back to their hometowns and some joined us after a few weeks. Now, they stay at the restaurant to avoid exposure and about 13 boys from my team have made Seefah their temporary home. We are closed on Mondays when they get a break to visit their families. My house is 5-mins away from the restaurant, but it’s not the same for the staff. We ensure they have a good time here by organising small celebrations to make them feel at home. Throughout the pandemic, not a single person from this team has left.

A photo of. the team from last Christmas.
A photo of. the team from last Christmas.

How did your menu change?

We removed dishes like sushi and sashimi, because they contain raw fish. And, apart from adding the cake and experimenting with burger buns, we started doing weekly or fortnightly promotions of special menus. For instance, one week was only about Thai noodles and another was dedicated to Izakaya-style ramen bowls.

How do you deal with fears related to your business?

I think if we plan anything to its bare bones about an unknown distant future, stress and fear creep in. We take each day as it comes. On some days business is great, and on others we make little money. Right now, we are not expecting much. We don’t have a plan to meet a daily revenue target. If I keep myself and my team happy and safe, that’s enough.

Although the pandemic disrupted my business, my brand value increased and my market expanded. Earlier, we didn’t deliver to places beyond 10 kilometres or so. And now, my food travels 30 and 40 kilometres to reach places like Powai and Thane. If my service staff return from their hometowns, I will buy them bikes to carry food to these places; rather than paying hefty commissions to delivery platforms, I will support my team.

How do you keep yourself motivated?

I cook to earn and I cook to keep myself motivated. The lockdown gave me time to try out new dishes. I never liked baking, because it involves exact measurements and my food is guided by instinct. But, I started to make cakes and bread during the lockdown. It helped because we have an Asian burger menu and people love our newly-launched Japanese cake. Another reason for trying new dishes is, 90% of the people who order from us are repeat customers, and we want to give them more to look forward to.

Which dishes define the following:

Home - My mother’s Thai omelette and spicy pork.

Holiday - Chicken Katsu Don. My husband and I spent a holiday in Japan and that’s where we tried it first. Now, he cooks it for me.

Hope - Chicken wonton with chilli oil. I’ve seen people's faces light up after eating this dish from my menu. This sort of response is a chef's ultimate hope.

Turning the Tables is a series of interviews with chefs and food entrepreneurs on coping with covid-19.

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