Hurry up and grab a place at the table. Mumbai's young women chefs mean business!

The world of tambada rassa of Kolhapur meets that of Kashmir's kava in chef Hemal Shah's
Monsoon Mystique pop up. The usual Parle G replaced by a slice of sourdough toast

Winter turns to spring

I feverishly walked up and down the stretch between the Bombay Dyeing compound and the 'backside' of Kamla Mills (or is it the new front?) in Mumbai's Worli for a few minutes last Sunday afternoon.

I was swamped by a flood of memories as I did so. Memories of crossing by the Deepak Cinema (which looks rather different and chic today), to go to one the earliest tower blocks in Parel in the early 2000s for Soka Buddhist meetings. I was new to Mumbai and alone in the city then. This was at the house of one of the leading ad film directors back then who had just moved into a lovely penthouse in the newly constructed complex at what was then a rather desolate road with slums and chawls all around and defunct mills too. She told us that she prayed for a time when the area would develop and that its people would see more prosperity.

More memories from a few years after that when I would go to the Mahindra building down the road regularly for work meetings. This is when I was in the automotive market research team at IMRB. The folks at Mahindra turned out to be one of the nicest clients that I have worked with. They wanted to extract full value from their research spends and thereby urged you to think differently and backed you in your efforts to innovate. I moved to Nielsen next. In their financial services market research team. The Bombay Dyeing Mills became home to a swanky new office complex and we had a few clients there. I remembered going with my team to Hard Rock cafe there for burgers (with crumbly buns) and with friends to Shiro's for gourmet Asian food lunches. Both places are shut now I believe.

I then finally followed my heart and began to pursue a career as an independent food writer.  That was also when a spate of restaurants came up up at the rear end of Kamla Mills. I went to POH! for a great sushi omakase meal once and to Xico for an excellent Mexican meal. I was sad to hear recently that Xico has shut down. POH is still there though chef Vikramjit Roy has moved on and gone back to Delhi where he is with Whiskey Samba.

Create a vision and then think of how to go about fulfilling it

 Pop ups by Devika. A cooking studio.

At Pop Ups by Devika, Worli

It was tempting to get lost in memories that afternoon but I could not afford to do so. I was hungry and late for a lunch invite you see. My destination was a cooking studio called Pop ups by Devika. I finally spotted it after I googled the address as Google maps left me at a dead end. It is located next to one of the older buildings (Kabir Ashram Building) on the lane. I climbed up two flights of stairs and then came down again before I spotted the rather discreet signboard and walked into what turned out to be a very beautifully designed cooking studio. It was brightly lit and tastefully decorated. Not too big and yet gave a sense of space. With, and I cannot stress this enough, one of the most aesthetically designed washrooms in a pop up venue/ cooking studio in Mumbai that I have come across. I was told that the owner, Devika, is a trained chef herself and plans to start a cafe here when she does not let out her studio for pop ups.

Curious, I looked up the Internet later to learn that 'Devika' is actually Devika Manjrekar. Daughter of the former Indian cricketer Sanjay Manjrekar (known for his impeccable batting technique when I was in college and who was most recently in the news for his 'bits and pieces' tweet as a commentator during the latest world cup). Inspired by Masterchef Australia, Devika, went to Dublin I learnt and then to London's LCB to study and train before she came back to Mumbai to set up the studio. She is 25 said the article.

Monsoon Mystique pop up by chef Hemal Shah

Chef Hemal writes Aao Jo on a plate

I was at the studio that afternoon to attend a pop up meal by chef Hemal Shah. I have known chef Hemal from the time that she was the head chef at La Folie Labs. It is one of our favourite hangouts in Bandra with some lovely food on offer.

I still remember the time that she had made me a really indulgent creamy scrambled eggs with truffle oil, goat cheese and butter and the works ,when I had gone to La Folie morning with K. I was wincing from a very bad back pain attack. "You should eat something nice when you are not well," said the chef with a warm smile. The sense of assurance and compassion that exuded from her kitchen made me later suggest the place to a friend, who had just come out chemo and was craving for a pasta, and later to another who had just begun to recover from a bypass surgery and was dying to feel 'normal' again. These were the first 'outside' meals for both of them after life had been turned upside down for them and after they fought back and got on their feet again. Chef Hemal was there at La Folie on both occasions and made our friends feel special and loved. I had the good fortune of being there for both the feel good meals.

One day, while chatting her, I was surprised to find out that chef Hemal had started her working life as an investment banker and not a baker or a chef! She had worked in marquee investment firms India and the US before she decided to shift to a career in food. She travelled and worked with chefs in the US, Bali, Seoul and Mumbai to sharpen her skills in the kitchen. She then got an opportunity head her own kitchens, first at the Aura Spa Retreat, Goa, and then La Folie.

Chef Hemal has recently moved on from La Folie with plans to host pop up meals of her own, get into private catering and launch her own private label with snacks for the health conscious food lover.

She had invited me for the Monsoon Mystique meal on Sunday. Her first pop up meal.

Chef Hemal is a Mumbai girl at heart. Her father is Gujarati and mother, Kashmiri. She had created a menu for the pop up where she tried to bring alive monsoon memories that were grounded in the melange of influences in her life.

The meal consisted of prettily plated, innovative dishes which were anchored firmly on bringing out out distinct taste and flavour experiences. They looked western in appearance and yet were very Indian at heart.

Some of favourites from the overall lovely lunch were as follows:

Deconstructed chilli cheese vada pav

Deconstructed chilli cheese vada pav: A creamy potato mash, spiked with the flavours that you associate with the batata vada (garlic, turmeric, chilli, curry leaves), bejewelled with whole mustard seeds that gave a textural relief. The genesis of this possibly lies in the thecha potato mash which they offer with the chilli cheese eggs at La Folie. A dish that we love there.

Mistral missal non veg

Mistral Missal: I had non veg version where the tambda rassa (bone stock curry) from Kolhapur was served in a Kashmiri kava like avatar and I had 2 cups of it. The beauty of it was that while it had the spice kick of the tambada (copper coloured) rassa, it also had the mellow creaminess of the white pandara rassa which I prefer. The namkeen was given as it is standard with missal said chef Hemal. She said she is not fond of it as a combination and in this case I had to agree with her. It was way better without the farsan.

Aao jo

Aao Jo: The phrase means 'do come back' in Gujarati. Something her grandmother would tell her at the end of every visit. It was the apt name for the dessert in her meal. The last course. I did a Kramer-like (from Seinfeld) double take when I had this and I will tell you why in a bit.

The dish was based on the Gujarati fafda jalebi breakfast combo, said chef Hemal. Instead of jalebis, she had offered round, podgy churros which reminded me of the the Bengali taaler bora. Instead of the fafda papdi, she offered a fafda cream. And a fried jalapeno pepper to symbolise the chillies that the Gujarati dish. The sweetness of the cream, interspersed with bursts of savouriness, had an unusual grainy texture. It was rather 'novel' to put it politely but did work surprisingly well. I was tempted to ask for seconds and others at the table did so.

Farsan platter at Tresind

The reason why I did a 'Kramer,' was that it was just a couple of days before this that I had the khandvi jalebi in the Gujarati farsan platter inspired dish at Tresind. That was the brain child of 32 year old Chef Himanshu Saini.

It was as if the 'Gujarat model' had extended from governance to desserts too!

Both renditions were different from each other and they both tasted pretty good actually. The combination of sweet, savoury, heat, piquancy and tart, which both offered was a welcome break from the often excruciatingly sweet, largely unidimensional, north Indian inspired dessert that most modern Indian chefs still make a part of their menus.

Giveaways from the meal from chef Hemal were the buckwheat flour and non-refined sugar based dark chocolate cookies which K demolished when she got back home. I had kept them for her. She said that these were the best she has had in a while. I got to taste one and it was indeed super. I do not know how 'healthy' they are but they sure are a dark chocolate cookie lover's dream.

They will be up for retail soon but till then you can message Hemal on Instagram etc to place an order.

The new foodie revolution and the two young women chefs who are at its vanguard

From one of our many happy breakfasts at La Folie

Sanjana Patel of La Folie

As I headed home from lunch on Sunday, I did see a bit of a pattern forming. A happy one. One I thought that I should share with you and hence this post.

I have already told you about Devika Manjrekar and Hemal Shah and the work they are doing. Well, there is more.

Let's first go to La Folie, which I mentioned more than once before in this piece, and where chef Hemal worked till recently. It is run by chef Sanjana Patel. She herself is a young, internationally trained pastry chef. She returned to Mumbai to set up La Folie. First as a dessert outlet at Kala Ghoda that focused on macarons and gourmet French pastries. She then set up the 'lab' at Bandra with a full service menu which includes breads, salads, croissants, sandwiches, pastas, salads and what have you. You will not see much of Sanjana on social media but if you ever bump into her, or eat at her outlets (which she runs along with her husband), you will realise how hard working and hands on a chef and entrepreneur she is. Her current obsession is with making chocolates from what I gathered from my chats with her, and experimenting sourdough breads. It is at La Folie, that I fell in love with sourdough myself. That is where I order my supply of sourdough from. A part of my kitchen essentials.

Le 15 Patisserie and Pooja Dhingra

Read this from right to left. It is from my Insta stories archive

When I took a right turn towards Deepak Cinema, while coming  down Tulsi Pipe Roadfrom Bandra for the pop up last Sunday, it struck me that to the left  of the crossing was the location of Pooja Dhingra's first cooking studio (I think she has moved to a bigger one now). I had attended her chocolate class there and came back and made chocolate chip cookies and brownies which turned out to be rather excellent.

I have known Pooja, another Le Cordon Bleu return (like Devika and Sanjana) and who had studied hotel management in Switzerland, from her early days of setting up Le 15 Patisserie in Mumbai. She used to retail her macarons (which were new to Mumbai) from an in store counter at Good Earth back then. She then opened her first standalone counter at Phoenix Mills, then a slightly bigger one at Bandra. A proper cafe followed at Colaba opposite Ling's Pavilion and this had a full service menu for which she had partnered with chef Pablo from Colombia. She has opened more outlets since then including at Oberoi Mall in Goregaon, where K goes to at times. 

She has now begun delivering her macarons across the country. She had announced a contest when this happened. I entered it. I was lucky to be one of the winners. Managed to get her macarons shipped to my niece at Gurgaon thanks to this!

Pooja has hit 3 million Instagram followers recently and the contest was to celebrate that. She possibly has had a million articles written on her by now, and deservedly so. She is one of India's biggest names today in the Indian food space and an inspiration to many. She is constantly innovating her menu, acing social media trying new things - podcasts for example, building an ever increasing team, as she cheerfully marches towards world domination. 

What impresses me the most though is how the exquisite quality of her dark chocolate macaron, which K and I dote on, has not changed over the years. The dark chocolate macaron cake has become a non-negotiable on K's birthday ever since I first ordered it many years back.

I could not have done it without my team, said chef Hemal at the end of her
first pop up

What young women chefs like Pooja, Sanjana, Hemal and Devika promise are exciting times ahead for us food lovers in Mumbai.

They have trained with the best across the world and are determined to make the most of this opportunity. They are driven by their desires for both innovation and perfection. 

They are constantly on the lookout for new ways of working. Challenging existing industry formats when it comes to retail, sourcing, training. They believe in teamwork and in building an ecosystem of support.

They are not afraid to take risks. They are happy to bet on themselves. And back it with hard work. 

They are creating successful, independent businesses. At a pace which allows them to retain their personal touch.

I feel that they are great sources of inspiration for all of us. And yes, regardless of gender.


Times Kitchen Tales

3. An interview that I had conducted with Pooja in 2015 where she spoke about the principles that drive her


The line, 'winter turns to spring," is from the collected writings of Nicherin Daishonin.
The line, 'first we have to create a vision and then think of how to go about realising it," is from the New Human Revolution, Volume 3, by Dr Daisaku Ikeda.


sunky said…
It was Michael Richard's aka cosmo kramer's birthday today 😆😆😆
Kalyan Karmakar said…
@sunky I had no idea and what a lovely coincidence indeed! Yo mama.