If eating healthy, nutritious home food has been the one constantly good thing about the COVID-19 situation, it has led to another good thing – the increasing popularity of home chefs and weekend menus. If one is either tired of cooking or eating home-cooked food, the next best alternative has been ordering food cooked by home chefs.
Rohitashwa Guha, a software engineer from Bangalore – currently working from his Kolkata home due to the lockdown – has always been passionate about food and cooking. Encouraged by friends and family, he decided to take it up beyond hobby during the pandemic when few people are venturing out to eat at restaurants.
He prepared a menu which had, among other dishes loitya shutki jhuro (spicy, dried Bombay duck), kucho chingri bata (shrimp paste), kancha holud aar gondho lebu mangsho (meat cooked in tamarind and kaffir lime sauce). His weekend menu was an instant hit, and people wanted to buy more from his kitchen.
Food blogger and banker, Debjani Chatterjee Alam, who also runs her home delivery service Direct From Debjanir Rannaghar – has a rich experience in the field. She has collaborated with restaurants and has been doing regular pop-ups and home delivery since 2018.
Rohitashwa and Debjani are both doing regular weekend pop-ups these days – like many others – who are preparing dishes that are pre-booked mostly through their personal and official social media pages and through word of mouth.
The home chefs are relying on food delivery apps, delivery apps and pick-up by customers who are ordering their food. Home chefs and weekend menus are doing increasingly well in the pandemic situation, where big restaurants and five star hotels have suffered major setback. Many restaurants across the country have been either shut down or have moved to the cloud kitchen model and are struggling to make ends meet by paying huge infrastructure costs and not getting enough customers as before.
The most important reason home chefs are doing increasingly well is the scale of production, and what they are choosing for the menu. Home chefs are mostly preparing weekend menus on pre-booking. A specific quantity is prepared and this avoids wastage and consequent losses. Many are cooking traditional home food – from various regions, including Bengal – that used to be frequently cooked among their parents and grandparents’ generations, but what the young ones are unable to cook.
That’s how something like loitya shutki jhuro (spicy, dried Bombay duck) and chorbir bora (fat fritters) or niramish mangsho (meat cooked without onion and garlic), lau patay chingri (prawns cooked in mustard sauce in bottle gourd leaves) are being lapped up so quickly by the food enthusiasts.
Overall, it is a winning model for those who are doing it just for fun and for those running it as a business.
“I post menu on my social media page for the weekend and close the orders a few days ahead. For each item, I usually do not take orders for more than 20 portions,” said Debjani.
Manzilat Fatima is an experienced chef, and many are familiar with her pop up restaurant, Manzilat which functions from Kasba. She is a descendent of Wajid Ali Shah, the last king of Awadh and her food bears the rich heritage of Awadh and its royal family. Manzilat’s kebabs, biryanis, parathas and halwas are renowned. After organising many food events in Kolkata, Delhi and Mumbai, she had launched Manzilat in 2014. “My takeaway was open during the lockdown, and the response was unexpectedly good since people know I cook everything on my own.” Weekends in the food business are always busier days and her food during the weekends continues to be a special attraction.
When it comes to safety, people have the perception that cooking by home chefs have an edge above food cooked in restaurant kitchens. This is yet another reason the food prepared by home chefs is becoming so popular now. “People are still ordering less food from outside due to the pandemic situation, and therefore I make it a point to ensure strictest safety measures,” Debjani said.
There are many home chefs across the city who have made a name for themselves in the past few months. “I am very passionate about cooking and used to keep posting my recipes on social media. The encouragement of my friends and family helped me turn into a professional home chef.”
Madhushree Basu Roy and Anindya Sundar Basu, owners of pop up and home delivery with the brand name Fab Kitchen by Madhushree started their journey from February 2020, and have received great response in the past few months. “My friends and neighbours encouraged me to start the initiative. Earlier it was limited within my neighbourhood and a few kilometres beyond that, but now we are able to reach our food throughout Kolkata,” said Madhushree.
Social media has helped home chefs reach many and reviews and encouragement in the public forum also brings new customers. Sreeparna Basu and Reema Basu – both boutique owners and home chefs from Kankurgachi – launched their brand Happy Sunday Meals during the pandemic. They say they are consciously keeping the menu affordable as the pandemic has hit people’s businesses badly. “We are not compromising with quality and quantity, but we know that the price should not be too high,” explained Sreeparna.
A whole lot of variety is available with the home chefs. Madhushree focuses on Sri Lankan, Goan, South-East Asian cuisine as well as baked products. Reema says that she loves to “create quality fusion food”. Rohitashwa wants to continue experimenting with authentic Bengali food and Debjani loves to cook fusion Bengali and specialities in Bengali Muslim and Anglo-Indian cuisine.
A regular change of menu and making set menu is also an advantage that works in favour of the home chefs. “If you like my food, it is not necessary that you will go on buying if the menu remains the same. But if the menu changes, then a customer will keep buying,” said Debjani.
Just like the variety one looks forward to in the home food menu!
[Cover photograph from left to right: Anindya Sundar Basu, Manzilat Fatima, Rohitashwa Guha and Debjani Chatterjee Alam]
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