Behind the kitchen door
We all love eating out. But what’s it like to be cooking in a restaurant? We go behind the scenes, minute by minute, plate by plate
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Is there anyone who doesn’t enjoy eating out? Anyone who does not have a favourite restaurant or street-side delicacy? The restaurant industry is in the middle of an unprecedented boom. We have fallen in love with sipping our wine, or our cocktail, nibbling on expertly crafted food to celebrate all our happiest moments, or just treating ourselves to a peaceful but lavish meal at the end of a hard week.
But we know very little of how our food is made—how a professional kitchen really operates. The restaurant kitchen can be a fun, creative place, driven by people passionate about their art, but it is also brutal: What is it like to have 12 to 13-hour workdays (16 hours is not unheard of), all of it spent on one’s feet, in hot, cramped spaces, with lots of stressful shouting and screaming, and coffee and cigarettes as sustenance?
When Sabyasachi Gorai, the chef-owner of Lavaash By Saby, a stand-alone restaurant in Delhi, opened his kitchen doors to Mint Lounge, we grabbed the opportunity to see what a day in the kitchen is like. Why Lavaash By Saby? Because it ticks all the right boxes when it comes to the evolution of the restaurant in India: It is owned by a chef and not a faceless company. The kitchen is headed by a woman in what is one of the most gender-skewed professions in the world. It highlights local produce: The Bengali kasundi instead of European mustard, the deeply fragrant gondhoraj lemon that’s intrinsic to Bengali cuisine and the aromatic short-grained govindobhog rice (who needs Arborio?) form the backbone of the cooking. And the cuisine has a great story to tell, a story that brings the global and the local together in a dish.
Gorai, 43, better known as Chef Saby, spent two decades in the restaurant industry before opening Lavaash in 2015. He is the chef behind some of Delhi’s most celebrated restaurants, including the Mediterranean cuisine oriented Olive Bar & Kitchen; Ai (now Guppy By Ai), a Japanese restaurant; and SodaBottleOpenerWala, a kitschy homage to Mumbai’s Irani cafés and the last of Gorai’s restaurants under the prolific restaurateur A.D. Singh.
“I had paid my dues, I had done various cuisines from around the world and I thought that there must be something that I can do as a chef that is unique and truly speaks about my life,” says Gorai. “I had to look inwards.”
While reading a book written by his father on the history of the coal mining industry in Asansol, West Bengal, Gorai had a flash of inspiration. “I spoke to my father and I learnt how the Armenian community had literally built Asansol and its industries,” he says. “I started recalling my childhood in Asansol, my teachers at school, and I realized that they were not some generic ‘Anglo-Indians’, but from one community—they were all Armenians.”
He delved deeper and dug out an old journal of recipes his grandmother used to maintain in the 1930s. “And there it was!” he says. “Recipes for Armenian dishes—breads, meat, stuffed vegetables, Jewish Pilafs…”
The deeper his research went, the more fascinated he became with how many of the dishes we take for granted as quintessentially Indian were actually brought in by the enterprising Armenian community. He went back to Kolkata with his most trusted chef, Megha Kohli, and met the head of the Armenian College and Philanthropic Academy, who was generous with his help.
“And that’s when I knew—this was the unique cuisine I was looking for, the one that has my history in it, where Armenian and Bengali cooking met each other,” Gorai says, standing on the terrace of his year-old restaurant.
Five minutes to opening time.
The housekeeping staff of four arrives, opens the restaurant doors and immediately gets to work. All the counters are wiped down. Anything not stacked neatly is fixed. The garbage bins get new liners. The kitchen floor is washed and wiped. One person checks on kitchen essentials: kitchen towels for the chefs, cleaning sponges for the counters, a new roll of paper towel in the dispenser, soap in the dispensers, etc. Then they troop out to the restaurant and clean that.
Housekeeping takes a break on the terrace, with a view of the Qutub Minar. Here’s the layout of Laavash: The restaurant is on the first floor of one of those palatial buildings that curve along the road known as Style Mile. It houses, like most of its neighbours, snooty high-end boutiques with dazzling displays and two restaurants, including Laavash. The main kitchen, next to the restaurant, is a tiny space. It is divided into three sections: the hot kitchen, the bakery area—an enclosure just large enough for two people to stand packed against each other—and the dishwashing area. The restaurant can seat up to 60 people, if you count the terrace, shaded by the canopy of a huge ‘neem’ tree. A rickety metal ladder goes up from the back entrance of the kitchen to the rooftop, which has the ‘tandoor’ kitchen and the staff kitchen.
Chef Sukhmani Singh, 22, enters the kitchen. A baker, she is the first of the chefs to arrive. She needs to make the day’s bread doughs, which will need time to prove and rise. She starts first with the oat cookies that the restaurant serves with coffee: brown sugar, oats, desiccated coconut, flour, honey and baking soda go into the mixer. While the cookie dough comes together, she starts on the ‘lavash’.
WHAT IS LAVASH?
‘Lavash’, a fire-baked flatbread from Armenia, is considered one of the oldest forms of bread. The bread and the way it’s made feature on Unesco’s Representative List Of The Intangible Cultural Heritage Of Humanity. Even in Armenia, ‘lavash’ comes in many varieties, as isolated villages developed their own recipes. It can be leavened or unleavened, thick or thin, soft or crisp. It travelled down to India perhaps as far back as the seventh century, and we made it our own—as ‘tandoori roti’ or ‘roomali roti’. In Kashmir, the land route through which the first Armenians came into India, the traditional fire-baked bread is called ‘lavasa’, providing a linguistic link to its origins.
All the chefs on duty start arriving. Chef Rajdev Ram, 40, a strongly built man with a carefully trimmed moustache, heads straight to the terrace, followed by the vendors bringing in the day’s supply of fresh vegetables from the Okhla ‘mandi’ (market). He sets up a weighing scale. Another chef brings him a stack of plastic trays. In sheer experience, there is no one to rival Ram in the kitchen—he is the oldest member of the staff and has been working in kitchens for over two decades. He commands no-nonsense respect and is put in charge of the most vital aspects of the kitchen’s chain of operations, starting with the selection of the fresh produce.
Ram inspects everything the vendors have brought. He is all blustery energy. He returns the basil—“too limp”—and the rocket.
THE CHEESE PLATTER
Lavaash is perhaps the only restaurant in India that does a cheese platter consisting entirely of Indian cheeses. It features two kinds of Bandel cheese—smoked and regular—and the pungent Kalimpong cheese (from left to right in the photograph). For a little sweetness to cut through the saltiness of the cheese, there is liquid ‘nolen gur’ (date palm jaggery).
Kalimpong cheese, made in very small quantities in the West Bengal hill town of Kalimpong, was originally produced by Jesuit missionaries in the 1930s. It is tangy and aromatic, and resembles the Gouda. Bandel cheese, salty and crumbly, gets its name from Bandel, a former Portuguese colony near Kolkata.
Chef Megha Kohli, who heads the kitchen at Lavaash, makes her entry, and joins in the produce selection without much ado. She picks up a plastic bag of fat garlic pods and glares at the vendor: “How can you get me something like this? It’s rotten!”
The vegetables are loaded on to individual trays and weighed. There are onions, tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, jackfruit, two kinds of lettuce, pointed gourd, ivy gourd, squash, a large pumpkin, mushrooms, Malta oranges (“for pastry and the bar,” Kohli says) and bunches of coriander and parsley. The trays are sent down to the kitchen for the vegetables to be washed and prepped.
Megha Kohli, 26, head chef
She first worked in a kitchen at the age of 17, when she got through a prestigious training programme at the Oberoi Hotels & Resorts. “I was the only woman in a kitchen of 30 men,” she says. “So I learnt early how to handle the all-male atmosphere of the kitchen. I went to a convent school, so this was also my first introduction to swear words.”
The first day in the kitchen, all she did was peel onions—for 13 hours. She wanted to be a journalist and had enrolled for English honours in a Delhi University college. Her best friend, who was applying for the Oberoi programme, convinced her to give it a shot. She got through, her friend didn’t.
“I was going to go back to my English course, but somehow my mother had the foresight of convincing me that I should try to be a chef instead,” she says. “It was the best decision of my life.”
Kohli, clad in all-black, addresses her team in the kitchen and briefs them on what produce they have got today, what they don’t have and what to expect at rush hour—this is a Friday and the kitchen will go crazy come dinner time. She then divides up the prep work.
“Rajdev (Ram) chef, you will handle the ‘tandoor’ today. Neeraj (Rawat) will be with you,” she says. She turns to her sous chef Stephen Modoli, 28, who comes from Nagaland: “Momo, how do we want to do the fish today? Coat it with sumac (a tangy spice powder made from the red sumac berry, an essential spice in West Asian cooking) and roast in the ‘tandoor’?”
“No one is allowed to call me Momo except for the ladies,” Modoli says seriously.
Stephen Modoli, 28, junior sous chef
An economics graduate, Modoli was all set to join Jawaharlal Nehru University, but changed his mind at the last minute. “I was never interested in academics—sometimes I think I graduated only because my dad wanted me to,” he says. “I did nothing for four months after graduation; I was in a rebellious mood. Then my younger brother put the thought in my head that I should cook for a living.”
Modoli had always been interested in cooking. Born and brought up in Mumbai in a Naga family, he has been cooking at home with his mother ever since he can remember. He loved watching cooks in action during weddings in his community.
Prep work begins in earnest. Eight chefs in the kitchen. Ninety onions to be peeled; half of them will be roasted, about 25 will be sliced thinly and the rest will be ground to a paste. Six kilograms of prawns to be washed and deveined—Kohli starts on that. Two kilograms of garlic to be roasted. Ram starts cutting a kilogram of eggplants, which he will fry. Modoli starts dicing 3kg of tomatoes. At the ‘tandoor’ upstairs, two chefs are shelling a huge pile of walnuts. The rice is already in the cooker. Also to be used today: 30 lemons, including the fragrant ‘gondhoraj’; around 10 bell peppers for salads; about 6kg of ‘bhetki’ fish, 8kg of mutton, a kilogram of pork chops; two large pumpkins; a kilogram of mushrooms; and herbs and greens.
Modoli switches on the little speaker in the kitchen and plays the teen-pop song ‘Stitches’ through his phone.
Four of the five burners in the kitchen have been turned on. A chef stands over a bubbling pot of a tomato-based sauce. The chefs work in tandem to set up the mise en place—all the things that they keep ready in the kitchen before they start cooking. “This is the most important thing in the kitchen,” Modoli says. “Without the correct mise en, you can’t survive in the kitchen.”
At the ‘pass’—the magical line where a dish is finished, and from where the server picks it up and takes it out to the diner—the mise en place includes chopped herbs and picked herbs; slices of ‘gondhoraj’; whole green chillies; broken walnuts; bay leaves, dried red chillies and mace, which have all been flash-fried; za’atar; pomegranate seeds; chilli oil; ‘kasundi’ mustard; and julienned ginger.
Varun Kumar, who is in charge of pastry, works with Sukhmani to make the ‘lavash’ dough as well as the dough for ‘matnakash’—a traditional Armenian leavened bread.
Ram starts making fresh pasta, rolling the dough out in a long, thin sheet, which he cuts into little squares. They will be filled with either roasted pumpkin or mushrooms. This is the ‘manti’—a traditional Armenian dish that’s a lot like ravioli. The pumpkin one is served with a smooth yogurt sauce—very Armenian. The cheese is Kalimpong. And in a further twist, the mushroom version is served with a tomato sauce with the mildly pungent and smoky flavour of asafoetida. That’s Armenia, Italy and Bengal all represented on one dish.
Rajdev Ram, 40, chef de partie
The encyclopaedia of food in the Lavaash kitchen, Ram is also the oldest member of the staff. Born in a village in Gaya, Bihar, Ram ran away from home when he was 11. His parents were landless farmers. Ram’s first job was as a porter in Kolkata. “I got Rs.25 a month,” he says. A few years later, he started driving a truck, but he quit soon, after an accident. Then he joined a local sweet shop, where his first job was to break coal down to smaller pieces. The shop also catered to weddings, so over the next 10 years, Ram learnt how to make countless dishes.
“That was the experience that changed my life,” he says. After acquiring all that kitchen knowledge, Ram moved to Delhi, where he applied for a job at the Olive Bar & Kitchen, which was helmed then by Gorai. They worked together there for close to eight years, and when Gorai decided to open Lavaash, Ram joined him. Ram’s parents, wife and four children live in Gaya.
First order. “One Lamb Mince Lavash Pizza, one Georgian chicken, one Lavash Fish,” Kohli hollers.
The pizza is one of the finest examples of what the food at Lavaash is all about. It is comfort food, but not quite. There is something very recognizable about it (it’s a pizza), but the flavours are unique and alien: The paper-thin ‘lavash’, topped with mildly spicy minced lamb, drizzled generously with nigella seeds, tiny clouds of pungent Kalimpong cheese, thin slices of onions and a pinch of sumac, is baked to a crisp.
The orders keep coming at an easy clip. The diners are mostly couples. They steadily drink their way through one cocktail after another. Who can resist a cool, drizzly, monsoon day? One couple lock their lips in a long kiss.
The staff lunch is served upstairs: ‘dal’, rice, a salad and ‘papad’. The chefs take turns to go up and eat. Ram gets the first dig. “I have had enough of restaurant food,” he says. “This is the food I like for my meals.”
Kohli takes a break and lays out her knife bag for us to shoot.
She picks out her favourite: A five-and-a-half-inch, handmade Japanese knife by Shun. “Be careful,” she says. “This can cut through bone.” She got this knife five years back, spending Rs.30,000 from her savings and asking her aunt to bring it from the US.
“I don’t remember the last time I saw all my knives laid out like this,” she says and takes out her phone to take a photograph. She shows it to Modoli. “Black and white or colour?” she asks. “Black and white,” he replies. She puts it up on Instagram and writes: “You need an edge to survive in the Kitchen. In this case many.”
THE CHEF’S KNIVES
Kohli’s kit reveals 11 different kinds of knives, one honing steel, a pair of scissors, a spatula and a Microplane grater.
“Every time I travel in the Metro, I am stopped by security,” she laughs. “I have to explain why I’m carrying so many knives and show my work ID.”
A sharp knife is the most important tool in a professional kitchen. Blunt knives aren’t just shoddy and time-consuming, they are also more dangerous as the struggle to cut with them can lead to slips and accidents.
Kohli sits in a corner of the restaurant with a tall glass of iced espresso and some heavy cookbooks, mostly focused on West Asian food. At the end of the monsoon, when the rooftop will be opened for service, there will be new additions to the menu. Spoiler: One of the new dishes will be a slow-cooked goat pilaf with apricots and prunes.
Then she replies to queries for special bookings—one of them is a party of 150 people who want to reserve the whole restaurant for an event—before making numerous calls to suppliers and vendors.
“This is one of the most challenging things in the kitchen,” she says. “You can’t trust any of the suppliers. What was supposed to come last week will always come two weeks later.”
“Ready, chef?” Modoli calls out to Kohli. They exit the kitchen, hail an auto and go to the INA market.
“This is not really for tonight’s service,” Modoli says as they poke, prod and taste vegetables at a shop. “It’s mainly to see what’s good and then to go back and try make new things with it.” They laugh at the sign above a meat shop: Two pigs with wings flying away, with a list of pork products below: ‘Hem, souscge, backin’.
“Ha, ha, ha, check out the spellings,” Modoli says.
“Pigs going to heaven, angels in my kitchen,” says Kohli.
In the bag: ‘pui saag’ (or chard, a leafy green that’s popular in Bengali cuisine), dill, star fruit, plums and pomfret.
Then a quick beer at the back of the market as the sky darkens for a heavy downpour.
A large tray of whole roasted onions, skin on, comes out of the oven, filling the kitchen with their heady smell.
Upstairs, the ‘tandoor’—’tonir’, if you use the Armenian word for it, as this kitchen does—is getting ready to be fired up.
“The Armenians introduced the ‘tandoor’ to India, like they did the ‘roomali roti’ and ‘tandoori roti’,” Kohli says. “In Kashmir, which is where they entered India, the ‘roti’ is still called ‘lavasa’—which shows you the connection. The Armenians were the first Europeans who came into India. They brought a lot of their culture, especially their food, into India. During (Mughal emperor) Akbar’s rule, they were even exempted from paying taxes!”
Dinner service will start shortly. Kohli calls for a kitchen meeting and rebukes some of the staff: “You came late yesterday, you are late today. You haven’t shaved. What’s wrong with you? And you! Why is your shirt missing buttons? Why aren’t you wearing your hair net? Not even the owner of the restaurant steps into the kitchen without one. So who do you think you are?”
As they scramble back to work, Modoli plays ‘I Got A Woman’, the Ray Charles song.
“We have a really happy atmosphere, but we fight like bitches,” Modoli says. “If you work in a kitchen where everyone is nice to you, something is wrong, run away from it.” The kitchen is abuzz with chefs moving around at full speed, trying to get all their prep for dinner finished, the mise en place replenished, the dishes washed and the sauces ready. They scream at each other good-naturedly. Every so often the bakery oven is opened and a batch of bread is taken out, filling the kitchen with its aroma.
Ram finishes filling the last of the ‘mantis’ and, laying them out on a tray, rushes over to wash another tray.
“As a chef, you must do everything. A chef who says I can’t wash dishes can’t be a good chef.”
The senior chefs take a break upstairs over tea and cigarettes. The tea is lemon tea, Kolkata street-style, which Ram has taught the staff, and now everyone swears by it.
There are 60 bookings for dinner. A busy night ahead. Ram begins rolling out the ‘lavash’ dough. He flips a disc up in the air with a twirling motion.
“If we get 50 covers (code for a person being served food, so 50 covers is 50 people) during the 5-hour dinner service, it’s easy. But when there are 20 or more covers in an hour, all being served at the same time, things start getting out of hand,” Modoli explains. “This is when tempers rise, clashes happen.”
First order for dinner service: Smoked Lamb Meatballs. Lavash. Pumpkin Manti.
All the chefs are at their stations. Kohli is at the pass. Modoli grabs the clay pot in which the meatballs have been cooking inside the oven with tongs. “Hot, hot, hot,” he says as he threads his way through the other chefs and puts it on the pass. Another chef puts a piece of aluminium foil in the centre of the plate, on which he places two small pieces of hot coal. He puts a dollop of butter on the coal. It sizzles and starts smoking. Kohli traps the smoke by putting a tagine-like clay lid on the plate and hollers: “Service!”
“Run and take it to the table,” she tells the server. “Run, run, go!”
“New order: ‘One Onion-Prawn Tolma, one Smoked Lamb Meatballs and one Lavash’,” Kohli calls out.
“Yes chef,” comes the reply.
The machine printing the order buzzes again. The slip of paper comes out, Kohli grabs it and sticks it on the kitchen side of the pass. “New order. One ‘matnakash’.”
The temperature is slowly rising inside the kitchen. There is smoke everywhere. All five burners are at work. All three ovens are at work.
“New order: ‘One Valley View Cutlet, one Mushroom Manti, one Olive Oil Garlic Chicken.”
“New order: ‘Georgian chicken, one Kabiraji Cutlet and one Lavash bread.” “Yes chef,” the chefs reply in unison.
Orders are coming thick and fast.
“I am a fidgety guy, too much energy,” Modoli says, while ladling sauce over chicken in a hot cast-iron pan. “As a child, I climbed trees, played football, caught frogs. I broke both my ankles, my elbow is fractured (he lifts up his sleeves to show the scar), stitches above my eye. A kitchen is the only place that could have matched up to my energy.”
The Onion-Prawn Tolma hits the pass. So do the Smoked Lamb Meatballs. “Where is the coal?” Kohli is livid. “And where is the butter?”
She starts plating the ‘tolma’: two smears of ‘kasundi’ on a black slate, three stuffed onions in the centre, a sprig of coriander and a slice of fresh coconut as garnish. “Service!” she calls—the signal for the server to pick up the dish. There is no response.
“Service! Service! Service!” she screams, till someone rushes in and takes the plate from the pass.
MAKING PRAWN TOLMA
The ‘tolma’ is the name for any Armenian dish of stuffed vegetables. The Greek ‘dolma’ is derived from it, as is the Bengali ‘potoler dolma’, or stuffed pointed gourd.
Large whole onions are sprinkled with salt and a little bit of olive oil and roasted till the skin is charred. The skin is discarded. The middle of the onion is scooped out and is used in salads and other dishes. Prawns are mixed with ‘kasundi’, coconut powder and the juice of ‘gondhoraj’ lemon and stuffed into the onion rings. The stuffed onions are baked in the oven for 8-10 minutes.
More people arrive. The drinks are flowing: tipsy diners and happy conversations. A table calls for the chef. Kohli steps out and is complimented. She walks back into the kitchen beaming, then goes up the rickety backstairs for a quick smoke break.
A lamb kebab (the Iranian Lamb Koobideh on the menu) is sent back for not being spicy enough.
“Didn’t you explain that these are not supposed to be spicy?” Modoli asks the server and then asks him to put a small bowl of chilli-pepper spice mix at each table.
Romeo Singh, 28, captain
After finishing school, Singh worked with an airline as a member of the ground staff and then as a server at The Big Chill in Delhi’s Kailash Colony. He joined Lavaash about a year ago and rose rapidly through the ranks because of his efficiency and his unobtrusively charming, warm manner.
“Women love him,” Kohli says. “He is our best man on the floor.”
Singh is very fond of his job. “The satisfaction that customers have after tasting a good dish, the expressions on their faces, they are hard to explain,” he says. “And that’s why I love this job.” His home is in Manipur, and his parents are farmers.
The orders start slowing down. Kohli and Ram have a small tiff.
“The reality of being a woman running a kitchen is that if I point out a mistake, everyone starts arguing,” she says. “If even a junior male chef points out the same mistake, no one will argue with him. Every day, I have to prove myself in the kitchen.”
The last order buzzes out of the machine. Two plates of Armenian doughnuts—Ponchiki on the menu.
“Good work everyone,” Kohli says as the burners and ovens are being turned off one by one.
Modoli checks on some of the preparations that can be done quickly right now so the morning is not rushed. All the chefs are busy cleaning their knives and counters. The cleaning crew start their work.
The kitchen doors close. The chefs go up to the rooftop for a well-earned dinner. The numbers for today? Covers: 80. Dishes: 250. Cash register: Rs.1.5 lakh.
Surjeet Singh, 20, dishwasher
The youngest person in the kitchen, Singh is one of the two dishwashers at Lavaash.
That’s pretty much the bottom of the pile in hospitality-speak. Singh, who comes from a village in Uttarakhand’s Pauri Garhwal district, has been working for four years. He had to drop out of school after class VIII owing to financial constraints. He initially worked as a dishwasher in another Delhi restaurant and then as a member of the housekeeping team at Karnataka Bhawan. Back home, Singh has his mother, a homemaker and four younger brothers. He also has two sisters, who are married. He is the breadwinner in the family. His father, a truck driver and an alcoholic, died two years ago of liver ailments. The most important thing, he says, is that he is able to observe closely how the kitchen works. He hopes to be a chef.