The chef-next-door, the humble Hussain Shahzad, took over the all-time favourite The Bombay Canteen last year, and continued to run O Pedro. Losing chef Floyd Cardoz, COVID’s second wave, filling in big shoes notwithstanding, Shahzad has kept the properties running as successes through 2021.
I remember meeting chef Hussain Shahzad at a cider pop-up at O Pedro this year for the first time, as he served us some delish Goan and Portuguese inspired fare, with a big smile, and then sat down to eat with us. When was the last time someone took the ‘celebrity’ out of the chef, and was this happy to see people enjoy his food? As I now sit with Shahzad in The Bombay Canteen, the property that he took over from Chef Thomas Zacharias (one of the unbeatable ones, mind you), I sense the responsibility, attention to detail, and the ease that he has with this new role, in his old home, without taking it for granted.
What you probably don’t know is that 33-year-old Shahzad, the hidden star of the Hunger Inc. Hospitality group, almost wanted to settle in New York when, on a cold email, he was hired by Eleven Madison Park, after which he also went on to be personal chef to Roger Federer (still gasping at this), only to eventually meet Cardoz, but not wanting to join TBC, giving in on being persuaded, and never looking back.
Shahzad’s interest in cooking came out of necessity when as a single mother, his mum had to go to work, and he had to sometimes fix lunch for his younger brother. A big brother trying to imitate the roadside omelette bread and the frothy coffee at coffee shops has led to a bird eye chilli-in-honey-infusing, frying-up-dosa-to-make-it-papadpopping chef who has taken on two of Bombay’s most popular restaurants, and is making them his own.
When Shahzad came on board for TBC as sous chef, the buzzwords du jour were regional and seasonal. “Today, five years later, that buzzword is the norm. I’ll be very honest, I didn’t know anything. I knew how to cook, I knew technique, flavour identification, but I had zero knowledge about authentic regional food, which is also honestly a topic I wasn’t crazy about. I don’t really understand what ‘authentic’ means, I wanted it to be tasty. While learning from chef Floyd too, I told him this in as many words, and he always let me take my own path,” He tells me, and adds,” “Daniel Humm taught me how to be a good cook, chef Floyd taught me how to be a good chef.”
“Hospitality is all about how you treat people. Simply said, and super hard to do. You can be a mad creative person, but you need your team to give you the method to this madness,” he says, and I watch him from my table in the kitchen doing exactly that with his team, stretching some dough, giving his inputs on a dish, laughing with his team.
When I joined O Pedro, he continues, I wanted to show off so badly. I wanted everyone to see what I can do, and I made my mistakes too. I have succeeded because I always knew someone had my back. Chef Floyd, Sameer, Yash (Seth and Bhagane, co-founders of Hunger Inc.). This support structure helped me be confident about what I’m putting on the plate,” he says.
He remembers when he was told about taking over TBC, in New York with Chef Floyd during an O Pedro pop up. “I freaked out. Not kidding. It felt like coming a full circle. I am stepping into such big shoes, such a big legacy. Will people ever accept me? The ethos can be the same, but my language is different from what the brand already is.”
However, soon after, reality hit even harder as chef Floyd passed away, and now not only was Shahzad filling bigger shoes, but was also taking over a legacy without the very support system that got him so far, in a year where everything was now uncertain, even survival.
There was no time to stop. Shahzad added some odd 20 dishes to the menu he was creating, making sure that the soul of the menu — seasonally spontaneous and regionally diverse — remains, while the perspective to approach the same changes to how he, as a person, defines indigenous Indian produce. “400 years ago, tomatoes weren’t a part of our diets, they came when the Spanish colonised us and today, butter chicken cannot be imagined without tomatoes. Today, there is an Indian farmer in Ooty, growing butter fruit, which is similar to avocado, not avocado. That, to me, is indigenous Indian produce, even if it’s similar to avocado, because an Indian farmer is growing it on Indian soil. For us, as chefs, it’s important to support this ecosystem,” he points out.
These are things that have cleared Shahzad’s head about how regional food and seasonal recipes need to be approached today. Earlier, TBC had a 58-dish menu, and he’s made it a 28-dish menu, because they would retain 28 dishes and change 30 of them according to season, so might as well change the whole thing, and still keep their classics, he explains, as I dig into Eggs Kejriwal, the iconic TBC dish of runny egg with cheese and chillies and chutney on toast.
Obstacles are fair game, but I point out that obstacles of at least a couple of years came to Shahzad all in the same year, as he took over on December 10, 2020, and if it wasn’t bad enough that he lost his father figure to a pandemic, three months later came the second wave. He recollects, “Opening day, December 10. The first three days, the restaurant was empty. And it opened after nine months. No one came. I started feeling like it’s me who is not making it work, even though it’s not like I don’t know my job? But, well, I stayed focused, gave people a smashing experience, even if only two tables are full. Slowly, people started trickling in, and they were taking note of the changes. This year changed me, and defined my philosophy in so many ways. We took carrots, tandoor’ed it, and made it the star of a dish. See what I mean?” he smiles.
It’s all about the leadership for him, Shahzad says, that the culture is everything he imbibed, and is passing on.
With pop-ups in other cities, a roaring menu change, chef Hussain Shahzad’s vision board for 2022 is pretty clear — he wants to do away with the word ‘modern’ in Indian food. “It’s the most bastardised word out there. The focus should be forward-thinking Indian food, which is how I wish to cook. I want to be 10 steps ahead in the game of how to cook Indian food, making it flavour driven and more taste driven than just harp about what’s authentic or what isn’t,” he concludes.
2022, here he comes.