Hussain Shahzad was in a cab last week, scrolling through his Instagram feed full of appeals for oxygen, when an idea to do his bit for covid relief struck him. The executive chef of Hunger Inc Hospitality called three of his friends and fellow chefs to curate #CooksForACause, a multi-course dinner menu, with the intention of pledging all the proceeds to the non-profit Hemkunt Foundation, which has been supplying oxygen to those in need.
On Monday, the menu sold out and they raised more than ₹1.8 lakh.
“It’s not just a chef-led effort. There’s a whole village that supported us—from those who made the labels, packed each meal, to vendors like Trueganic, who supplied vegetables free of cost. Even my fish supplier, Junaid from Chembur, didn’t charge me a penny when he heard that it was for covid relief,” says Shahzad.
Shahzad and his chef buddies—Prateek Sadhu of Masque, Gresham Fernandes of Salt Water Cafe and celebrity chef Harsh Dixit—are well-known on Mumbai’s culinary scene but this initiative isn’t directly linked to the restaurants they work with though their employers have supported them.
The restaurant industry has witnessed a downward spiral since early 2020, when covid-19 began raging across the country and lockdowns and restrictions were enforced to curb its spread.
“As chefs, we never got together like this before the pandemic. During the lockdown last year, of course, we couldn’t meet anyone. But all of us working together on Monday night was different. It was insane fun,” he says. The cooking was done at the Bombay Canteen kitchen, owned by Hunger Inc Hospitality.
Since it was a multi-course delivery menu, modelled like a fine dining experience, they had an array of condiments and sauces packed separately. Some dishes had to be assembled. In short, the diner needed an instruction manual. The diners were sent a video tutorial shot by Chef Irfan Pabaney, who is known for his quick wit and humour. The video was such a hit that Shahzad got messages saying how good it was: “No one told me anything about the food, but they loved the video,” he jokes.
Even before the action in the kitchen began, the chefs had to come up with ideas. “We did what one does in these times—started a WhatsApp group,” says Fernandes. It quickly filled up with ideas, as each gave free rein to his creativity. They weren’t constrained by how the food would ‘reflect their brand’.
They finally decided to cook with fish since the seafood season will end when the monsoon arrives in Mumbai. They chose to use the excess that their vendors had in their supply chests, and stick to an Asian theme to explore flavours like sweet, sour, spicy and umami.
The decision to use the excess supply is partly pragmatic—farms that supply ingredients to restaurants are now facing a glut due to the new covid-19 restrictions and restaurant closures. Cooking for a cause meant lending their suppliers a hand too, and limiting waste.
Usually, chefs call vendors and ask for what they need. This time, they reverse-engineered the menu, depending on what the vendors could offer.
While cooking, they attempted to use all parts of the fish to minimise wastage. “Chef Dixit made about 300 dimsums and used the off-cuts of the shell fish,” says Fernandes in a tone of praise. The seven-course menu included a lush tres leches made with Vietnamese coffee cream and pandan cake.
The recipes were tweaked as the cooking took off in the kitchen. For instance, Fernandes was in charge of the white rendang curry. It was served with whipped tofu, lotus leaf rice and banging-hot sauce. He set the basic flavours and ingredients, and then passed the bowl around for each chef to add his own touch and elevate it.
“It was a complete collaborative process. While I was making the rendang, Hussain was peeling the butternut squash, and somebody else mixed in an ingredient to take it to the next level,” says Fernandes. In the end, it was a sublime curry, the opposite of too many cooks spoiling the broth.
When they began planning the menu, each of them brought out their secret sauces: for Hussain it was the famed miso of The Bombay Canteen, for Fernandes it was the banging-hot sauce of Salt Water Cafe and for Sadhu it was garum.
“Prateek just peered into his box of fermented wonders and brought out this tadgola (ice apple) which was soaked in a kokum syrup overnight. It was cut into delicate slices and served as an appetiser,” says Fernandes.
It is this spirit of camaraderie that was the star ingredient of the menu.
The #CooksForACause menu is a bi-monthly initiative. The details of the menu and the chefs working with him every fortnight will be on Shahzad’s Instagram page @chefhussains. He plans to bring in more chefs in the future to raise more funds for covid-19 relief with creative cooking.
“It’s been a fulfilling experience,” says Shahzad.