India inspired cuisine
A dream, a passion, an idea, something fun that would standout—this was the secret recipe to Sameer and Yash’s entreprenurial venture, Hunger Inc, the company which brought to the mix two of the most buzzing restaurants in Bombay—The Bombay Canteen and O Pedro. In conversation with the two guys, we learned about their journey, how travel inspires everything they do, how the old and new can come together and create something entirely different, yet nostalgically relatable as well as how everything is India-inspired for them, one way or the other.
It all started way back when Sameer and Yash were classmates at Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration. After Cornell, they went their separate ways: Sameer worked in New York and Yash in Chicago and Singapore. But they stayed in touch and continued to envision their dream of doing something interesting when they returned to India. “We started thinking about this in 2012. We just wanted to open a restaurant of our own, and do something that sets us apart. As we started wading through ideas we recalled what we noticed when we were working abroad. That in those markets people were always seeking comfort food, but in a reimagined sense. We noticed how people were responding to unique concepts and how they were going out with the intention of not just eating, but indulging in an experience. And so that struck a chord for us. We thought that was a natural progression that would hit India sooner or later.” Sameer went on to explain, “In 2012 if you went out for Indian food in Bombay or Delhi, the chances were that you knew your order before even stepping out of your house. You knew in advance that it was going to be some version of North Indian Mughlai food, and that butter chicken and dal makhani would be a part of your meal which you would eat and then go home. There would be no experience beyond the potentially good food that you would go out for. Additionally, India is so vast, with so many regions and states, and so much to offer in terms of cuisine, flavours, ingredients and more. We realised that no restaurant at that time captured these ethos and it became a sort of a starting point for us wherein we thought why can’t we do something pertaining to these overlooked states and regions, play with memories of what we grew up eating and transform it all into an unforgettable experience. As the idea evolved in our minds, I pitched it to the late Chef Flyod Cardoz, whom I was working with in New York, and he came on board as well,” they say.
After the late Chef Floyd joined the duo, then came along Chef Thomas Zacharias, and it was these four that formed the core team of Hunger Inc. But no matter how big or trivial the decision, the culture around Hunger Inc was one of inclusivity and involvement. Even things like menus would be debated with its design partners, architecture firm, PR firm and more. The guys describe the story of Hunger Inc as really, “a village coming together”. It isn’t one man’s show or one group of individuals, but rather a lot of people and groups of people who have come together to evolve ideas and put their blood, sweat and tears into something so that it is where it is today. “For us we think we bring the x factor by building a very strong team. From day one we wanted to build a team that would stay with us for a long time. That forms the core of what we are able to do. Because any idea is only as good as the execution put behind it. Anyone can come up with ten different ideas. But people won’t come back to a restaurant if it isn’t going to be consistent. So setting the systems in place, having a loyal team in place are the things that allow consistency alongside creativity to exist, and that has been the backend work of Hunger Inc” explains Yash.
The cornerstone of The Bombay Canteen and essentially The Hunger Inc became about celebrating India, and being proud of India in every way, shape or form. This formed the fundamental ethos of The Bombay Canteen. “That concept segways into the food, drink, ambience, service, experience, social media and communication of The Bombay Canteen–it all centres around us being proud of India. At the same time it wasn’t about making it preachy, but instead it was about making it fun. We wanted to make it approachable so that people would connect with it. In our initial days we played a lot with nostalgia, like memories of growing up, memories of old Bombay and that slowly evolved into using traditions of Indian cuisine and food from all over India. Today The Bombay Canteen through its menus celebrates the diversity of regional Indian food and that is what forms the foundation of everything. In fact, we were one of the first restaurants doing seasonally changing menus,” explain Sameer and Yash. The menus of The Bombay Canteen were more than what one would call ordinary. They told a story through their menus, and that concept initiated from their cocktail menus. Along with their design partners, Please See Us, they decided to tell stories of Bombay, connecting back to drinks which would encourage people to shift away from something standard or familiar. “So again, we tried looking at innovative ways of connecting with our guests, and being able to tell stories really became the ethos of the company. This ethos evolved in many many ways, through food collaborations, bar takeovers, cocktail menus, seasonally changing menus, even through what we do for the community like our 15th August Independence Day davaat. All of these things connect back to the central thought of being proud of India and wanting to celebrate it in every way,” says Sameer.
After two roaring years of The Bombay Canteen, Sameer and Yash felt that they were in a good place where they felt they had an ambitious team, and that is when they started thinking about their next project which came to life in the form of O Pedro. It took them almost a year of research before it came to fruition, working with the same partners, but this time it proved to be an even more immersive experience because they all travelled together. “Travel forms a huge component of everything we do. Unless you don’t actually experience what it is that you want to create, you will not effectively be able to connect the dots to create that genuine experience. As we arrived in Goa we realised that it suffered from so many stereotypes: like it’s only about its beaches or the best food in Goa is only fish and rice. So we made a list of these stereotypes and led out to break them all. We basically decided to tell the stories of Goa which were different from the list of stereotypes. And we also discovered that the diversity of food in Goa is amazing. The various communities from the Saraswat Brahmans to the Catholics to the Portuguese, they all may be using the same ingredients, but they have completely different usages of it. Goa is one of the only states, because of its Portuguese heritage, culturally and visually, to have such a different landscape to be inspired from and we wanted to bring that back,” explain the boys.
Additionally, on the beverage side of things, there are very few areas of India which historically have distillation as a part of their culture. And Goa is one of the few that has distilled drinks like feni and urak, a fermented cashew juice distilled just once, not as potent as feni but just as intoxicating. It is all these stories and experiences that became the cornerstone of O Pedro. Of course they added their own unique spin to it all. “The philosophy while rooted in tradition, for both O Pedro and The Bombay Canteen, it is about adding your own twist to the tale, and telling the story in a slightly different way so that it becomes relevant in today’s day and age. I don’t think we are doing anything brand new per se. Like for example, butter chicken has been around forever. We debated endlessly about putting up butter chicken in our Bombay Canteen menu because of the stereotypes that exist. But we decided to do the old differently: about eight months ago we launched it in a way where the chicken is cooked in a technique called ‘en croute’ where it is covered in dough and roasted in that, and then served table side, cut up and then the sauce is poured. And another way we have done it is by using green tomatoes instead of red ones when they are in season, adding a whole new level of tartness to the flavour. So it is inspired by the original, but we are seasonally changing it up and using what’s available at the time. Taking the traditional and adding a spin to it is really philosophically the cornerstone of The Hunger Inc and it will continue to be” quips Sameer.
As for the spaces, The Bombay Canteen is a meeting point of the old and the new. It represents the old colonial Bombay with its stones, cement tiles, colours of materials, the usage of wood on the tables and all of those things juxtaposed with glass and steel installations which represent new Bombay and its construction. “We even incorporated art deco stained glass. You see a lot of stained glass in Bombay, but not usually ever in an art deco style. Art Deco is very symptomatic of Bombay because it was all the rage in the 40s and 50s and became a signature of the city. Bombay has the most number of art deco building in the world after Miami, something which is little known in the larger narrative of Bombay, and that is what we chose to bring to the centre stage.” O Pedro on the other hand naturally has a facade overlooking frangipanis in the corporate Bandra Kurla Complex. The idea behind its design was to play up the homely feel, like coming to a Goan home, but in a very unique way. “We stayed away from the ‘beach shack’ sort of inferences of what we imagine Goa to be and instead stuck to more Portuguese style arches and used that in the main dining room. There were a lot of haciendas and bars in Goa, the sort of one man run shops that are wooden and become a place where they will know you and know what drink you are going to have, and that went on to become the inspiration for the O Pedro bar, that is the feeling we wanted to create through our bar,” they describe. If you visit either of the restaurants you will notice accessorisation and little rid bits all of which have a story behind it. “So if the guest is interested in knowing the stories, they can delve into it. But at the end of the day, it all comes together to offer a sense of warmth which makes you feel like you are walking into a place that has been there for a long time, and makes you want to spend hours within it, because that’s what makes you feel comfortable. Our hope and dream is that both these restaurants last the test of time which is also a reason why we stray away from “design trends” when it comes to our spaces, style, food or drinks. Because you don’t want something that is here today gone tomorrow. We rather have a timeless quality,” exclaim the boys.
The Hunger Inc through these two hotspots is doing some incredible things, including some story telling-worthy international food tours. “Food is like the new music. Everyone wants to know their chefs, have an opinion on the food that they are eating, and everyone knows their food much more intimately than they’ve ever known before. Social media has brought the world closer in any case. But we wanted to take the work we do and spread it around the world in person. It has been an interesting experience. The first pop up we did was in Singapore at a restaurant called Cheek by Jowl. That same year we did a pop up in Sri Lanka and in February of this year O Pedro opened up in New York, and is going to be on for four months at a restaurant called Intersect by Lexus. The Bombay Canteen also went to Singapore in February. The whole idea is taking our pride for India oversees and getting a chance to showcase our creativity. It is amazing to be able to break the stereotype of Indian food abroad, and the versatility and diversity of ingredients is something that has been very well received,” explain Sameer and Yash.
Kudos! Anything new up your sleeve? “Always” is what they say. “We change things up every two months. We don’t like keeping things status quo. This forms another pillar of what Hunger Inc does.” From new menus every season to new adventures every step of the way. In fact, as a part of the 5th anniversary celebration of The Bombay Canteen, they revealed their next big sweet escapade: The Bombay Sweet Shop. We for one cannot wait to try it out!