Can home chefs survive the cut-throat professional cooking?
A few years ago, when Bandra-based ad filmmaker Lolita Sarkar was in Berlin on vacation, she was fascinated by the varieties of hot dogs available there. When she came back, she decided to experiment with indigenous versions of the dish. She created Amar (made with vegetable sausages, peppers, pickles and masala), Akbar (with chicken sausages) and Anthony (made using pork sausages). Sarkar started setting up her desi hot dog stalls at pop-up events like Bombay Local and The Lil Flea, and found a lot of takers for her preparations. But she wasn’t satisfied cooking on a small scale. Like with any chef — amateur or professional — she wanted to reach more people. So, in June this year, she took a big step, and started Desi Deli, a hot dog and burger eatery at Chapel Road in Bandra.
“I spotted a tiny, shuttered shop while driving by, and approached the landlord. Luckily, the rent was affordable. Now, it’s heartening that people who knew me from the pop-ups drop by and ask for the dishes they’ve tasted before,” says Sarkar. To fund this venture, the home chef dug into her savings, and took help from a consultant chef as well as experts in marketing and public relations.
Sarkar isn’t alone. She’s one of several home chefs who, after finding success working out of home kitchens, are looking to take the professional route.
Around a year ago, home chefs started gaining popularity in the city. Among the biggest names to emerge were former Google employee Munaf Kapadia and his mother Nafisa Kapadia who started The Bohri Kitchen (or TBK) from their dining room in Colaba; ex-marketing communications professional Gitika Saikia who serves Assamese delicacies under the name Gitika’s PakGhor; Perzen Patel, or Bawi Bride, who was initially a food blogger and then started serving Parsi delicacies; and Ananya Banerjee, who has travelled extensively and hosts The Secret Ingredient Bengali as well as global cuisine pop-ups at her Sewri residence.
Most of the meals at home were served on a limited scale (for seven to 10 people, usually) and at a premium (Rs 1,200 to Rs 2,500 for a meal). The publicity was restricted to Facebook posts. Yet, the home chefs managed to do brisk business, thanks to a city that’s always looking for new food trends, and alternatives to eating out.
The initial push came from pop-ups like Small Fry Co’s Bombay Local, the Lil Flea and the Hive’s Community Festival, which gave home chefs a platform to market their creations, and test the waters. Online platforms like Trekurious and Meal Tango also helped advertise meals organised by them.
“People are curious about what goes in a dish rather than just ordering it at a restaurant. They travel more these days, which makes them open to experimentation. At pop-ups, home chefs also have great back stories to share,” says Sharin Bhatti, co-founder, The Hive.
For instance, at media professional Dolly Singh’s Bihari pop-up at The Hive, she took the audience through an 11-course meal. She didn’t just explain the nuances of each dish, but also how to eat each item. “It’s a peek into a different culture,” says the home chef.
Mainstream venues like The Pint Room in Bandra, and Uzo in Worli, have also welcomed home chefs to host pop-ups, as have home decor shops like Sanctum, Bandra, and The Tribal Route, Andheri. Pradeep Gidwani, owner, The Pint Room, admits that most of the pop-ups are “sell-out affairs”.
It was this initial popularity of home chefs that made the big guys — the five star hotels — take notice. That’s how the Bohri Kitchen was invited to the Renaissance Mumbai Convention Centre and Hotel, to cook during Ramzan; then, JW Marriott featured Bawi Bride for its Parsi food festival. “We got great feedback and saw an increase in the number of guests,” says Stephen D’Souza, director, food and beverage, JW Marriott.
Several culinary events also leverage home chefs’ popularity. It includes Renaissance’s RHomeSecrets which saw home chefs rustle up home-cooked meals every Sunday from May; and APB Cook Studio, which launched a Culinary Legacy Series from November last year.
Lately, app-based food delivery, a new entrant, has helped home cooks expand further. Be it Holachef, TinyOwl Homemade, ZuperMeal or CyberChef, they help home chefs reach more customers. Curated platforms like Yummade.in also help them sell freshly prepared food. “Home-cooked food has never looked so appetising as a business model. We help home chefs with marketing, logistics and packaging, leaving them free to cook,” says Neha Puri, founder and CEO, CyberChef, a Gurgaon-based company.
With so much attention on home chefs, a festival was par for the course. So, this February saw the first Flavours from Home, a chefs mela at the Westin, Mumbai. Curated by food writer Mini Ribeiro, it gave a platform to handpicked Goan, Sindhi and Maharashtrian home chefs who want to make it to the mainstream. Ribeiro now plans to host it annually, and in other cities as well.
THE NEXT LEVEL
Diversification is the next big challenge for home chefs, if they are truly to compete alongside professionals. Over the last few months, home chefs like Kapadia and Saikia have quit their day jobs to focus on their culinary ventures. TBK is currently exploring partnerships for home delivery, catering and retail. They are also hosting meals in different cities (in October, they toured Chennai and Pune). “We’re planning to set up a central kitchen, and are working with a catering company. We hope to leverage their expertise to expand,” says Kapadia.
Others who are keen on retailing include Saikia, who focuses on tribal cuisine, with dishes such as elephant apple fish curry and night jasmine flowers with eggs. Banerjee, on the other hand, has turned from home chef to cookbook author with Planet Gastronomy – 100 Most Popular Global Recipes, which released in March this year. She also hosts a YouTube channel — Ananya-r Rannaghor — where she showcases Bengali recipes.
Some home chefs have are also cooking on a larger scale. Patel, for instance, set up a full-time kitchen earlier this year to cater her popular Bhonu and serve daily dabbas. “By next year, we plan to offer on-call delivery through a QSR (quick service restaurant) model, or a food truck,” she shares.
Singh, too, is open to catering for smaller groups (of 10 to 15 people), almost like what a household maharaj does. Home bakers, too, aren’t far behind. Neha Arya Sethi, a former investment banker, started baking and selling her Sweetish House Mafia (SHM) cookies from the back of a Tata Nano. “I used to bake from home with five counter-top ovens and send out limited quantities at locations decided by customers on social media.” Now, she’s teamed up with her brother-in-law to start outlets at Todi Mills, Nariman Point and Bandra.
Food columnist Kunal Vijayakar believes that catering is a promising option: “When home chefs open a restaurant, they are competing with other restaurants. They have to increase overheads, which can lead to compromising on recipe, cooking methods, etc. But catering is still food on demand, involves less overheads, and there are no huge rents and staff costs.”
FLASH IN THE PAN?
The last two years may have opened up a host of avenues for home chefs but whether they can sustain it, remains to be seen. The move to retail shifts focus to hiring staff, purchasing and innovation. And there is always a fear that it might take away some of the personal touch that makes visits to their homes so thrilling.
“We intend to continue the home dining aspect for the personal touch. But we are hiring staff, so that my mother is not tied down to the kitchen,” shares Kapadia. Most of the other home chefs, too, make it a point to continue hosting meals.
And while they started off with trademark dishes, many are expanding. As Sarkar says, “If you do the same thing over and over again, it won’t work.” She is keen to start more outlets, and is looking for partners: “We ensure that the staff we hire knows our history and echoes the hospitality people associate us with.”
For finances, most home chefs are digging into their savings, though some like Sethi have found investors in family members. Kapadia says he has stayed away from raising funds so that TBK can grow and get a better potential valuation over time. “Rather than infrastructure, I am looking for partners and mentorship at this stage,” he shares.
Riyaaz Amlani, president, National Restaurant Association of India (NRAI), admits that home chefs do have more platforms today, but the competition is greater as well. “The real test will be to maintain quality. They will also have to figure out the legalities involved in retail and marketing,” he says.
As home chefs, they have got a lot of love. Sethi recounts a happy customer hugging the display case at SHM, while copywriter-turned-home chef Auroni Mookerjee mentions a customer who times her visits to her son with his pop-ups. Now, it remains to be seen whether the adulation continues beyond the home kitchen.
HOW TO MAKE IT AS A HOME CHEF
* Identify your strength. Do a few test runs — invite people home to taste your food. Use that feedback to focus on what you’re good at.
* If you want to stand out, identify a niche. It could be a cuisine, a method of preparation, or an experiential component. Test that and zero in on the final product you want to launch with.
* Make a brand and make it something that represents what you’re doing. Set aside Rs 3,000 to Rs 5,000 to get a good brand and logo created. Trademark it for another Rs 6,000.
* Invest in photography. Do not rely on your phone and amateur photography. If you want to create a good first impression, hire a professional. Set aside Rs 15,000 for your first two portfolios.
* Create a Facebook page but do not spend money on acquiring ‘likes’. Build a following organically by asking customers to review you.
- BY MUNAF KAPADIA, FOUNDER, THE BOHRI KITCHEN
KNOW YOUR CHEFS
THE BOHRI KITCHEN BY THE KAPADIAS
USP: Six-course Bohri meal at their Colaba home.
Call: 98194 47438
DESI DELI BY LOLITA SARKAR
USP: Hot dogs and burgers with a desi touch.
Where: Chapel Road, Reclamation, Bandra (W)
Call: 2640 8333
THE SECRET INGREDIENT BY ANANYA BANERJEE
USP: Indian and global pop-ups.
GITIKA’S PAKGHOR BY GITIKA SAIKIA
USP: Culinary delights from the north east.
BAWI BRIDE BY PERZEN PATEL
USP: Daily/monthly Bhonu subscription plans, serves Parsi food for parties.
HOME CAFE BY DOLLY SINGH
USP: Bihari, Bengali and Tibetan cuisine.
GRANDMA MOOKERJEE’S TABLE BY AURONI MOOKERJEE
USP: Bengali cuisine with a twist.
Email : firstname.lastname@example.org
Call: 99309 62938
SWEETISH HOUSE MAFIA BY NEHA SETHI
USP: Cookies and shakes.