The Soam, I mean, the show must go on. Covid-19 Lockdown Journal 31. #FoodocracyIndia

Succour from Soam

The Gujarat model

'I can't tell you how happy I am that we have opened for business again. I just had to share the joy with some of our friends.’

I was speaking to Pinky Chandan Dixit, the ever smiling owner of Soam, Babulnath. I had called to thank her for the bounty of food that she had sent this afternoon and this was her reply.

Soam offers Gujarati food. You will get a lot of that in Mumbai no doubt, but apart from Swati Snacks and Soam, most of the other Gujarati places in the city are thali joints as far as I know. While the Gujarati thali restaurants of Mumbai are legendary, I confess that I am yet to take to them. I find the breakneck speed at which the food is served there,  and the sheer variety of it, a bit intimidating. It is as if the meal goes past one in a blur. I am possibly in a minority, but that's how it is. Soam and Swati have a la carte menus and that is more up my street.

It was at Soam that I first fell in love with Gujarati food. The fact that it is an a la carte place means that I can pick and choose dishes, focus on them, mull over them, savour them, get to understand them. Mindful eating as they say.

What also helps is that the food is delicious. The vibe of the place is cheerful. The staff warm and hospitable. A reflection of the owner's spirit I am sure.

I have been going there for the last 4 or 5 years and it has become one of my most favourite restaurants in the city. In absolute terms. I won't add qualifiers such as 'vegetarian' or 'Gujarati' to it. My family has become fond of it too. The Parsi side which draw their moorings to Surat in Gujarat like Pinky. And my mother too. Growing up in Delhi has given her quite a cosmopolitan palate even though she is Bengali.

Soam has been at the forefront of renaissance of promoting regional Indian food in Mumbai’s restaurant landscape. Much before it became a trend. They don't get much credit for that I feel, but that sums up Pinky and Soam. Understated to a fault, driven by a passion for excellence.

Your friendly neighbourhood treasure of food

Clockwise: Satpadi paratha, jowar roti, crispy karela, fresh mango pickle, gatte ke sabzi, methi pitla, aamras, kadhi, shrikhand, moong dal halva, puri. Inner row 1; coriander and tomato chutney. Row 2: handvo, farali batata bhaaji

I guess folks in South Mumbai would be happy would be about Soam's re-opening. Soam food would be the equivalent of 'home food from outside of home' for its nearby patrons. A bit like what Khane Khas is for us Bandra folks. With the Covid restriction on movements, there’s going to be a need for hyper local restaurants after all.

As I had written recently, people would first gravitate to restaurants they trust when they open up to food from outside during the Covid lockdown. Trust gets built over time thanks to the dedicated efforts of those behind it. Soam is a good example of this.

I confess that I was thrilled when Pinky offered to send food home to us last night and I excitedly chose some of my favourites from the Soam menu- handvo, farali batata, kadhi, satpadi roti and gatte ka sabzi (Rajasthani); and also decided to try out the Maharashtrian methi pitla and jowar roti. Pinky spoils us and treats us as her own and which is why I left niceties and formalities aside while I made my wish list. We love the spinach and cheese samosas and jalebis too but were not sure if they would travel well from Babulnath to Bandra.

"You have to have the aamras puri," she added and she sent that and shrikhand and moong dal halva too as I had not asked for any dessert.

I know that I had recently written about how much K and I have enjoyed cooking during the lockdown. Well, the truth is that we loved the break from the kitchen that Pinky's largesse offered us. At least three meals which we do not have to cook for thanks to her. We had the pithla roti, jowar roti and aamras for lunch, handvo for tea, batata bhaaji, puri, shrikhand and aamras for dinner, planning to have the gatte ka sabzi and paratha for lunch tomorrow, kadhi for dinner and rice from the fridge.

Yes, before you say it, I know that I am one truly lucky guy and I feel immensely grateful for that.

That's how relaxed we felt at the thought of getting a break from the kitchen

Back to the drawing board

'What did you do after the lockdown started', I asked Pinky.

"We were in constant touch with those of our staff who were in town and staying at the staff rooms. Ensuring that they were fed. Sending them food from home. They cooked and sweetly sent us food too. We got to eat Bengali food made by a Bengali waiter one day and he then showed us how to make a few Bengali dishes. We had Sindhi kadhi made by a staff member who had learnt it elsewhere. It was a full food festival and the staff was so excited about it. Then we began research for new dishes and the team worked on them and trials happened. That way they stayed motivated and less distracted by the tension around. And, we have the material for two new special menus in the process," said Pinky over the phone and I could hear the smile in her voice.

"We would keep the AC on for a few hours each day to keep the restaurant and kitchen fresh. Get the ducts cleaned. Regular fumigation was done. The fact that we do not have any tapestry in the restaurants fittings is a blessing. The place would have smelt otherwise!"

"We set protocols for safety - wearing masks, constant hand-wash, sanitisation of produce. Since we are in it together, we 'police' each other. I keep an eye on to ensure that the staff doesn't slip up. They keep an eye on me and on each other to ensure that we don't."

I was gobsmacked to hear this. This is the sort of strategic and human resource planning that I would expect to come out of the corporate world. I see examples of this sort of thinking in ad agencies, for example, as that's close to home thanks to K being in it.

To be honest, I did not expect to see this happening in a restaurant. That too in a proprietor run, single outlet place. A lesson not underestimate people. There is so much one does not know. I learnt a lot through the call on how restaurants function.

While cats don't eat fruits, Baby Loaf looked transfixed by the aamras
Mummy Loaf had this afternoon. 

As a child I loved listening to stories while having a meal. As narratives go,  I found Pinky's Soam Covid Lockdown turnaround story as engaging and inspiring as they come. It made me realise how committed the people who stand behind the food that we so love are. How hard they work. How spirited they are. How much we owe to them.

I had planned to write about Soam when I began the Foodocracy India  series as it is the perfect example of the sort of place I want to highlight through it. I have moved Foodocracy to a podcast format now and don't write blog posts anymore, but am planning something interesting around it. A module dedicated to women entrepreneurs in food and their stories. K suggests I call it ‘Foodocracy for her.’ That sounds great to me and stories like Pinky’s would be what I want to tell. So keep watching this space for more.

If you know of such inspiring stories of restauranteurs fighting back against the Covid miasma, then please write about them in the comments section. Would love to hear.