If you had to break down a chef’s superpowers in the Indian culinary scene, Gresham Fernandes would arguably hold the knife for being the king of meaty meats. His ability to cook up a thinly sliced beef carpaccio drizzled with truffle ponzu makes you scream holy buff. His carrot-glazed fluffy pork belly swimming in ginger jam makes you fold your hands in gratitude that you don’t have to cross a continent to eat the good stuff. Thankfully, both dishes sit on the menu at Bandra Born—the buzziest hotspot in Mumbai’s hipster suburb, that’s blanketed within the skeleton of everyone’s late and beloved, Salt Water Café.
The vibe is noticeably different—grungy and dimly lit, like a pub. Graffiti-splattered walls by artist Zake and blinds with portraits of Mumbai curated by artist Shahid Dattawalla cover the windows. Neon orange and psychedelic green appear at different nooks. Dre, Tupac, and Snoop’s tunes accompany you as you eat. The cocktails are classy and come with tissues stamped with a kiss and digits, to make a reservation at the establishment. But none of this is why you go to Bandra Born (if you haven’t already) which is running as a pop-up till December. Not for the Instagram pictures, not to tell everyone you’ve been here. You go, quite simply, to eat one of the most delicious meals you’ve had in a while and to sample the power of one of the country’s most underrated chefs.
For meat lovers, Fernandes is the kind of chef you trust blindly to tantalise your taste buds into submission. Maybe it was his powerful hand as the Culinary Director, setting up Smoke House Delhi and Salt Water Café under the mothership of Impresario Entertainment and Hospitality Pvt Ltd. Mumbai, helmed by F&B don Riyaaz Amlani. Maybe it was his ability to run a joint like Jude’s Bakery, which hosted the (in)famous Swine Dine experiences, with a full-size suckling pig covering half the table. When he summons with a new proposition; you show up salivating. And you go in confidently, knowing exactly what to order.
But that’s where I was wrong. Pigeonholing Fernandes as a ‘non-veg’ chef is absurd. I learnt my lesson with the vegetarian Beets Meat salad and the Like Fugias, But Not—a cheeky play on the East Indian sweet bread, served in savoury form. The novelty of eating the most basic of meats i.e., chicken surrounded by truffle and wine sauce, and cushioned inside a puff borrowed from Bandra’s iconic Hearsch Bakery, felt like I was eating pleasure for the first time. That’s wherein lies Fernandes’ culinary genius. He doesn’t break his head on giving you just good-looking food or minuscule portions with unheard of ingredients. He doesn’t name or make his dishes in a manner that makes you feel like you’re speaking a new language. Rather, he packs his food with stories, nostalgia and unusual flavour profiles made with the cleverest and simplest of ingredients. He serves you tasty, wholesome dishes that carry a bit of him, and that sit with you (not in a bad way) long after you’ve left the table. No gimmicks, no bullshit. Just like the man himself.
The Back Story
“I grew up in Bandra in Old Kantawadi till the age of six. Bandra at that time was very sketchy and had a lot of drug peddling and murders. So, we moved in with my grandmom, who was thug life and wanted to stay by herself till that point, in Andheri. I was very close to her and only after she was on her last leg did we move back to Bandra. I graduated from St. Andrews College, did my hotel management at Rizvi and started working with The Leela where I was for three years. That’s where the real learning happened. What we were cooking there was next level, and our executive chef was this 6-footer, 200kg beast of a man who could elegantly put a sprig of chive on a dish as much as he was an animal. He used to hold me by my face if I’d done something wrong, but he was super cool. He’s still a mentor and he put the fear of God in me. You know that the plate you’re putting out is 100 per cent because of it. The Leela taught me how to be a hustler.”
The beginning of Impresario
“When Salt Water Grill opened, I was jobless and went in to do a trial. They liked what I did. Viraf [Patel] was the executive chef at that time. The process there taught me that restaurants are a different beast altogether. You need to know how to do everything from answering a call to speaking to guests. All of it. Even though we were sous chefs, you have to be humble. I was 24 then. I told Riyaaz that I needed to try some other stuff. I joined Aurus [the now shuttered restaurant in Mumbai] and worked with Vicky [Singh] for a year and a half. Post that Riyaaz was like, ‘We’re opening Salt Water Café, which was like the Salt Water Grill menu, and you come back.’ I went to stage at Noma in Copenhagen. Then Japan and Brazil before I came back. In that time, Impresario had also opened Smoke House Deli, Stone Water Grill, Smoke House Grill, Tasting Room, Prithvi Café, and Jude Bakery.”
A new dawn, Bandra Born
“It was a work in progress for a while. Everyone keeps saying that ‘Oh Gresh is Back’ but fuck Gresh was still cooking every day. It’s just that after Jude shut, we kept evolving. We reached a point where we were like shut up and let’s just cook and build on our craft. That’s what we did.”
Veg V/s Non Veg
“The best-selling dish [at Bandra Born] for both vegetarians and non-vegetarians is the King Cabbage. We shifted our focus and started cooking vegetables like we would meat. I started reading up a lot on it. We’re doing 20 veg and 20 non-veg dishes, keeping it equal. The perception is that Gresh equals meat, and people assumed that it was a meat-heavy place. I was like, come here and then have that conversation.”
How does it taste so damn good?
“When we were doing trials, I told Riyaaz, ‘Just close your eyes and eat a dish. Is it delicious? If not, then it doesn’t go on the menu. I learnt this while staging at Noma in Copenhagen with René [Redzepi]. We did this thing called Saturday Night Projects there, where everybody puts out a dish of what they’re working on, and the rest of the team tastes it. There was this guy who did something with moss and reindeer powder. René asked, ‘How many people thought this was good?’ Most of the people put their hands up because that guy was a sous chef. René was like, ‘It’s a shit dish; it’s not delicious at all; and if you look at the plate, it looks like a pig’s breakfast. With that powder, in that stock, in that moss, your final plate just looks like someone’s puked in it. The intention here was that when a guest finishes a plate it should still look nice when it comes back to the kitchen, hence the consistency of the sauces should be well thought of. For me, it clicked over there. Whatever you put on the plate should look nice and taste delicious if you close your eyes and eat it. That’s all that matters.”
RIP Salt Water Café
“When we were doing our yearly audits, Riyaaz was like, ‘What are you doing with your life?’ We were having that back and forth for almost 5-6 years. Then one day he said we should flip Salt Water Café. But anyone he spoke to was like, ‘No, it’s a product that is set’. And he was ready to disrupt it. The difference with Bandra Born is that there’s graffiti on the wall and there’s a light change. That’s it. A lot of people would consider this to be the opening of a new space, but we know every single corner of it. It’s home and we’ve just redone our house.”
The don of the F&B world, Riyaaz Amlani
“Riyaaz is involved in a big way. This whole thing has come full circle for him. As a company, we grew big but there came a point where finances were short and Covid happened. He was doing everything at that point, from managing the company to numbers and looking at the end game. At the first Smoke House Deli, everything was fact-checked by Riyaaz. Then once investors came in, it became a bit more corporate. Once Social opened, he wasn’t spending as much time on the creative process as he would’ve liked. Now, the company’s set and he has time on his hands. So, he fully divided into the creative process at Bandra Born.”
The low-key hustler
“There’s a quote by Banksy that says, ‘Invisibility is a superpower’. That’s what I do with social media and that allows me to do whatever the fuck I want, and no one cares. Jude was exactly that. I don’t want to brag but I’d have people who’d dined at The French Laundry and said this was better. And for me, The French Laundry is the ultimate temple. Somebody came and said, we just had a meal like this in Spain at Mugaritz. So, you know you’re doing something right. Jude looked like a go-down, wasn’t very out there, and was not a team effort. It was just four people—right from getting the produce, to breaking down, cooking, cleaning up, talking to people and billing. Our kitchen was an open book.”
Top chefs in the country
“I’m really excited about Noon. Vanika [Choudhary] is doing some exciting stuff. I’ve really seen here evolve. She’s got a fair idea of what she wants to do, what she wants to promote, and who she wants to be associated with. I’m also really excited about what Prateek [Sadhu]’s going to do at Naar. We’ve cooked together, so I know what he’s thinking and where he’s coming from. I’ve seen the place and it’s exceptional. I know whatever’s going out from his kitchen there is going to be insane. I’m excited about what Hussain’s [Shahzad] doing as well. He’s come into a position where from running one restaurant, he’s doing O Pedro, Bombay Canteen, and Veronica’s. There’s also Alex [Sanchez at Americano], and Lakhan [Jethani at Mizu], who’s doing some amazing stuff with Japanese.
Everyone likes everyone
“The scene in Bombay 20 years ago was so different. It was like if you’re doing a small menu then the next guy would do an extensive one as a PR stunt. Now if you do a smaller menu; you’re supported by other places. Whether it’s La Loca Maria, Bombay Canteen, Americano or us, we support each other in a big way. I can call up Lakhan or Manny [Manuel Olveira at La Loca Maria] and say, ‘Hey my reservation system is whack, what do I do?’ And they’ll help. Like if I need a supplier, no one hides it, and people help. It’s so nice to be cooking right now. Like a Manish [Mehrotra] coming with his staff on opening night and saying, the first table is ours.”
A Culinary Day in Mumbai
“Breakfast and chai would be at Good Luck Café [in Bandra]. The first hit of caffeine would be maybe Dope coffee. Lunch would be a thali at Jai Hind. Then probably hit up Subko for another coffee. Evening would be drinks at Bandra Born. And then I’d go to Americano to close the night with pizza and tiramisu. Both the classics. Alex’s Tiramisu is unbeatable.”
*Chef Manoj Shetty joins the conversation.
Riyaaz Amlani, Manoj Shetty and Gresham Fernandes, who’s drinking what?
Gresham: Riyaaz is on a mezcal/ tequila high. with bitters, to go with cigars. Manoj is a straight-up whiskey guy who’s into Hibiki and Indri. For me, it’s always been a Negroni. Sweet-bitter, that’s my style.
Where do the boys drink?
Manoj: For me, it’s a regular bar like Janata. If you go at 11, you’ll see all the chefs there. Even now.
Gresham: It would be Peter’s in Goa and 7 Short 1 Long in Goa. We’re not big drinkers but only now started because of cocktail trials. I love Tesouro in Goa as well, started by Arijit Bose and Pankaj Balachandran. I’m not a big cocktail guy but Arijit and Pankaj changed my life about drinking ‘adult’ cocktails. Gresh’s Juice is something I like drinking at Bandra Born. Pankaj made it and worked on all the recipes for the bar menu.
Gresham’s Goa Guide
“7 Short 1 Long, Slow Tide, the Padaria Prazeres bakery and Countertop, which is home for me. Food would be at either Bhatti Village or at Ramesh. If I want to have a life-changing meal, I’d go to Horse Shoe in Panjim. The best Japanese in India is at Sakana in Goa, because it’s been there before we started eating Japanese food. Then I’d go to Second House in Saligao and order a Korean Bibimbap. It’s close to what I’ve eaten in Korea. We’re also opening a Social in Goa and an antiSocial in Morjim because we want to give a good techno, non-tourist experience.”
The next chapter
Gresham: I want to buy lots of land in Goa, have many dogs, have a farm, and run a 12-seater omakase space. That’s where my wife and daughter are.
Manoj: Run a small, elegant whiskey bar. That would be the dream.
Image Credits – Bandra Born