In Conversation With Chef Thomas Zacharias

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IN CONVERSATION WITH CHEF THOMAS ZACHARIAS

Located in Kamala Mills, The Bombay Canteen is a restaurant and bar that stands out amongst the crowd because of its emphasis on fresh, local, and seasonal food. For Executive Chef Thomas Zacharias, this food philosophy began early on during his cooking lessons with his grandma in his hometown of Cochin. We spoke to Chef Zac about his culinary journey and The Bombay Canteen’s ideologies.

The Bombay Canteen, Unit-1, Process House, Kamala Mills, Lower Parel (w), Mumbai 400 013. Phone: 022 4966 6666

READ GENESIA ALVES'S INTERVIEW WITH CHEF THOMAS ZACHARIAS

In the glow of the task-lighting pendants that illuminate the service window of The Bombay Canteen’s kitchen, Chef Thomas Zacharias’s eyes narrow in concentration at each dish on its way to the restaurant’s passionate clientele. As he tastes, wipes, and nods, his professional edge is unmistakable.

On the table, each plate is bright, delicious, and unselfconsciously inventive. Yet later, as Chef Zac walks around to say hello to delighted diners, his demeanour is changed. He’s warm but reserved, almost shy. The first time I speak to him directly I loudly announce I have just come from a funeral and the food has saved my soul. He takes a second but then grins at my vociferous enthusiasm. I notice he’s very handsome.

Despite his youth, Zacharias’s journey to The Bombay Canteen’s kitchen has been a long one. “Restaurants [in Cochin] served highly generic interpretations of other cuisines,” he says of his hometown. “Maybe one ‘North Indian’ restaurant or for a treat you’d go to the local ‘sizzler’ place. The best food was at home.”

Home was where the beef was. And the rabbit, duck, quail, pork… But most importantly, home was where Zac’s grandma, a gifted cook hungry for inspiration and motivation, set him off on his quest for flavour. “Simple rice at her table tasted amazing,” he says. “I watched her elevate people’s moods, transform their entire days, through her food. I wanted that superpower.” Zac’s grandma ran a local cooking club, took part in cooking contests, and started a catering business with a couple of friends that has served a wedding banquet for 5,000 people.

His first lessons in eating seasonally and locally were at her table. “It didn’t strike me until a couple of years ago,” he says. “At one point in the year when sardines are really fatty my grandmother would salt them, scales and all, and fry them. What happens is the fish fries, but its flesh steams inside the coating.” He gestures, momentarily at a loss for words to describe how sublime it was.

"I wanted to influence positive change in the kitchen."

He watched her research and innovate, given the limited information of the time, and his most treasured inheritance is her 12 volumes of hardbound books with carefully cut out recipes from ’70s and ’80s magazines. On the back of these recipes are ads. The same ads were reprinted and now adorn the walls at The Bombay Canteen, part of its kitschy décor.

Like all bright, brainy kids, he suffered through IIT coaching, but a summer cookery class (where he was the only boy amongst 20 students) made it clear to him – he wanted to be a chef.

With the amorphous qualifications bestowed by a degree in Hotel Management from Manipal, he travelled to the Culinary Institute of America and fell in love. “There were 52 kitchens, an inventory worth one million dollars a year,” he says, “everyone lived, breathed, talked food. I was home!” He threw himself into everything. “I thrive on hard work. I edited the local newspaper, tutored English and Maths, spent hours after class studying in the library, and graduated at the top of my class.” He reluctantly admits there’s a YouTube video of the baby-faced chef, pre-beard at the graduation. “There were a lot of food puns in my valedictorian speech,” he says, laughing.

He spent the next year working at Le Bernadin, the three Michelin starred restaurant at number 17 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list (The Bombay Canteen also makes the cut on their Discovery Series). But it wasn’t just the food that blew him away at Le Bernadin. Aspirants to the kitchen had to work a complete shift, “un stage” to prove their chops, serving 300 people a night. And that’s where Chef Zac learned something brand new. “I realized the kitchen environment doesn’t need to be abusive,” he says. “You can be nurturing. I read Chef Eric Ripert’s book On The Line about the way a kitchen functions, and I was instantly enamoured by it.”

He knew then what he needed to do. “I wanted to influence positive change in the kitchen,” he says. “Change the abusive environment, mentor the next generation…”

"We’re very particular about building a restaurant with a welcome working environment."

In Bangalore, Chef Manu Chandra mentored this young, passionate cook and sent him to the Olive Bar & Kitchen in Mumbai in 2011. “I had no friends,” he says, “no personal life, worked seven days a week, just wanting to reinvent the kitchen and turn things around.” But outside the clientele were distracted and inside the kitchen the staff too entrenched in their old ways. “In three and a half years, I found the larger public didn’t really care,” he says. “Party nights are not the best for innovation and creativity. I changed menus every three months; it went unnoticed. I was trying to shape myself into a good leader, taking care of a team, but I wasn’t influencing any change.”

There was another thing that was bothering him: after cooking so much “European” food, he realised he’d never travelled there. “So I took a sabbatical,” he says, “couch-surfed for four months across Spain, France, Italy. Used every connection I’d ever made to travel across 36 places with distinct cuisines, spent all my money on food and worked with whoever would let me.”

When he returned, it struck him: he had to do the same thing in his own country. So he travelled around India for two months, from the north to the south. “It wasn’t just fodder for the menu,” he says. “It fuelled a fire. I realised I had untapped potential as a chef. I wanted to come back, influence, change…”

In 2014, Chef Zac was approached by Sameer Seth, Yash Bhanage, and Chef Floyd Cardoz for the role of Executive Chef at a restaurant that would celebrate Indian flavours. Could he come up with an India-inspired meal with seasonal ingredients? “Chef Floyd spoke passionately about the fact that no one celebrates Indian produce,” he says. “So I went to Grant Road the next day and then Sassoon Docks, looking for ideas, inspiration. I’d been cooking ‘western’ vegetables – asparagus, Brussels sprouts, imported fish like black cod… And I got goosebumps looking at the local vegetables. It was an epiphany. I had found my path and my responsibility.”

Zac had also found his people – those who wanted to be good to the staff. “We’re very particular about building a restaurant with a welcome working environment,” he says. “We hire people from all walks of life based on attitude and personality, not necessarily skill. I have someone who worked with an NGO willing to start from the bottom. And now I’m ready to promote her for the second time in under two years.”

“I watched her elevate people’s moods, transform their entire days, through her food. I wanted that superpower.”

There were some bumps along the way. “You’d think the concept is a no-brainer. Flavours people relate to. But for some, a take on modern Indian is pav bhaji fondue,” he says with a grin. He tells the story of a drumstick soup that did incredibly well in pop-up dinner research. “Three months later when we opened, people at the restaurant were ‘meh’.”

Still, listening to feedback (and loud ladies like me offering TMI) and staying the course on their philosophy has meant success for The Bombay Canteen. “What we’re doing is relevant,” he says. “It makes sense. We have got our mojo now.”

And the chef seems to be getting his mojo too. He’s finally carving time out for himself, firstly to go to the gym. “I used to be a fat kid,” he says. “Got teased a lot. I love to eat! So I’ll go even if it’s after a long, hard day in the kitchen.” He also spends time people-watching – “Does that sound creepy?” – while reading from his cookbook collection at some of his favourite cafés, like Sequel, in Bandra.

But Chef Zac has another little secret. “I had a rock band in college,” he says. “It was called Irksome Bliss.” He cringes momentarily. “But I love singing, the energy of being onstage. So in Bombay, karaoke was my introduction to the social experience of the city. I’d go to WTF in Khar, talk to random strangers. Made my first friends there, my singing buddies Raul and Daisy. I’ve spent more time with them than anyone else.”

The chef still has pangs for “home” and especially his delightful little nephew who, inspired by his uncle, now has a “chef” in all of his made up stories. But Mumbai has lured him in. “There are aspects of the city I am yet to experience,” he says. “It unravels and reveals itself to you indefinitely. And Mumbai and I are on the same clock. We have the same intensity at all times of day or night. The niceness of people transcends financial status, age, religion. You’ll never feel like an outsider.”