HUSSAIN SHAHZAD: A MASTER CHEF

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Chef Hussain Shahzad encouraged by his mother to pursue his passion for cooking had joined the Welcomgroup Graduate School of Hotel Administration at Manipal, Karnataka, in 2005.  After graduating, he worked with the Oberoi Group of Hotels as a Senior Kitchen Executive at Frangipani, Mumbai, before moving to New York in 2014. He spent a year at Eleven Madison Park, the famed New York restaurant. 

Despite several years abroad, Hussain Shahzad had a deep yearning to return to India and be a part of the changing food scene in the country. In 2015 Hussain Shahzad returned to India and joined The Bombay Canteen as Souse Chef and 2 years later, the Executive Chef of O Pedro.

Hussain Shahzad’s food philosophy is simple – showcase local produce using contemporary culinary techniques that inspire the future generation of chefs to cook smarter. It is Hussain Shahzad’s dream to see every diner excited about the food they eat and he and his team are committed to continuously create and innovate – making food the hero of the restaurant experience. 

Hussain Shahzad narrates about his Bohri family in Chennai and how did the two distinct culinary cultures – one of the community and the other of the city come together to influence him:

My mom was from Patna, my dad was from Bombay and I was born in Chennai. My growing years were shaped by a mishmash of cultures. In school, I was trying to learn Tamil, and at home, I would be learning Hindi, Urdu and Arabic from my parents and grandparents.

We were a very unorthodox Bohri family. When my mom would cook Bohri food, it would obviously be influenced by what was available locally. So, curry leaves found their way into the Bohri cuisine at my home, and dosas became a part of my diet early on. I grew up with different versions of dosa that had egg and meat floss (called Gustavo). Even today, dosa is as Bohri to me as dal chawal palita. When I moved to Bombay and ate Bohri food at a friend’s place, it was nothing like what I had eaten over the years. That intrigued me. For example, in the dal chawal palita in Mumbai, they add kokum because it is such an integral ingredient on this coast. But in my house, they used to add tamarind and curry leaves because souring agents are different on different coasts. Only on some occasions would my mom add kokum because the recipes from my dad’s side of the family called for it, but mostly, it was tamarind.

This mishmash reasserted something to me: there are no rules to cooking. If it tastes delicious, it belongs. Eventually that was it. Our food came with a lot of love, there was a lot of heart in it. No one could say this was authentic and this wasn’t. Authenticity just became a word to me.

Hussain Shahzad told about his becoming of a chef:

One of my earliest childhood memories is watching my grandmom roll rotis. We Bohris have something called patla – a small sitting stool an inch or two from the ground. She sat on it and rolled rotis with chakli-belan, cooking them on a small kerosene stove on the side. I would eat the chapatis with ghee and jaggery.

When I was in class 8, my parents got divorced, and my brother and I lived with my mom. By this time, I was already inclined towards cooking – not actually cooking, but the magic around it. When we would come back from school, my mom would be there with food. Slowly, just to support herself, she started working. And that meant we would come back home to no food and no mom. Things started changing in our lives and my brother and I realized we needed to fend for ourselves. We were ordering food every day and that was not an ideal situation, financially and health-wise. I started making small things in the kitchen, like bread-omelette, sandwiches and things that you could cook in a microwave. That’s when it all started. It was also a function of watching my mother, right from childhood, put food on the table. The confidence I had to prepare that first egg and bread sandwich was from watching my mother cook.

Hussain Shahzad‘s journey to Eleven Madison Park and his experiences there:

That was a turning point in my culinary journey. When I was working with hotels in India, I felt I wasn’t doing anything relevant with food. It was quite boring, honestly. I hadn’t paid my dues as a cook and I felt that doing it over a long time wasn’t going to benefit me. I decided to leave everything and walk away from it, to New York in 2014.

What I saw there changed my life forever. My perspective on food evolved. I learned technique. I learned how to be a precise cook. I also learned to have the right attitude towards work: waking up and putting your A-game on every single day. In those days, Eleven Madison Park was scaling the ladder from No. 4 to No. 1 in the world. To get any restaurant to make that steep climb requires determination, perseverance and an amazing leader at the helm. We were blindly following his [Chef Daniel Humm’s] passion. We loved him, respected his ideology and valued his experience.

The leadership traits that you learn while looking up to someone who can lead with that kind of efficiency is today, in my current role, a mandate. You must be a good leader and not just a preacher. Everybody can do the talking, but there are few who can walk the talk as well. When we hire today at O Pedro, I don’t just look for skills in my cook, I look for the right attitude. They should be willing to wake up in the morning and crush it and respect the team around them and work towards the common goal.

As personal chef to Roger Federer:

It was luck, I’ll be honest. I was about to give up my job at Eleven Madison Park – in the year or so I was there, I had risen the ranks from being a commis chef to manning the meat roast. The next step was to become a sous chef, and I had made clear to my chefs at the time of joining that I did not want to be a sous chef. I was there to learn and there would be a point when I would want to go back to my country to do with food what I want to. I was ready to put in my papers when Chef Daniel asked me my plans. I told him I wanted to travel and gain some perspective. He asked, “What if you got paid to travel?” I said, “Sure, I could do with the dollars.” So he told me to go work with his friend in California. He didn’t tell me who it was, just that he was doing the ATP World Tour. It was only when emails went back and forth and tickets came in that I saw the name Mirka Federer [Roger Federer’s wife] for the first time. I was like, “Holy sh*t, are you serious?”

A few days later, I found myself on a flight to Indian Wells [in California] where Federer was playing. He had an entourage of 24 people. There were two personal chefs – Daniel and me. At the end of it, he asked me if I wanted to move to Switzerland, but I realized personal cheffing was not for me. It was fun while it lasted – I had never met such high-profile people and they were amazing and humble. They respected you, your work, and they spoke to you like equals. I saw true luxury and enjoyed it, but I knew I didn’t want to do it for long. Being tied to someone and serving them what they wanted day in and out made no sense to me – I wanted to do something more meaningful with food and that’s why I came back.

Coming back to India:

I had reached out to Thomas [Zacharias, now the Chef-Partner at The Bombay Canteen] when I was travelling in India. We had studied together in college and Thomas put me in touch with Chef Floyd, who started digging into this Indian guy who wanted to leave Eleven Madison Park. He made a few calls and figured out who I was. He phoned me and asked me to meet him at his restaurant White Street. I remember we got together on a winter morning and had a conversation about where I saw myself.

He had a clear vision of what he wanted to do with Indian food and how he wanted his restaurants to grow. It was not just about recipes and looking at Indian food through the same old lens. It was about looking at it with a perspective of ignorance – breaking it down without emotions. That appealed to me because I had no professional background in cooking Indian food. I had always cooked European food and that doesn’t work when you cook Indian food – you get branded as non-authentic, as someone just playing around. Nevertheless, when he offered me a position [at The Bombay Canteen], I said no. There wasn’t enough money in it and I went for the Federer thing instead. Even when I came back, he tried to convince me. I said no again because it just wasn’t working out. He said, “Fine, till our paths cross again,” and I agreed.

I was back at home in Chennai in 2015 when I got a call from Sameer [Seth], one of the partners at The Bombay Canteen. He said, “I know you have said no, but come have a meal at the restaurant.” At first, I said no because I was in Chennai, but then – I don’t know if the stars aligned or what – my friend was having a birthday party at Amby Valley and I had to travel to Maharashtra. When I went to the restaurant, Chef Floyd was there. They press-ganged me into an interview I knew nothing about. It turned out to be a fun chat – the restaurant was blooming in line with their vision and the food was amazing. Sam told me he had figured out a way to make this work for me and I replied, “Okay, let’s do this.” Chef Floyd looked at me and said, “I had to convince you three times, honestly?” I remember the last time he was here, he told me he would never forgive me for this.

Hussain Shahzad‘s experiences on food by journey to Goa and Portugal:

We all know Goa partially. Chef Floyd was Catholic and he knew the Roman Catholic food well. But Goa has many religions, castes and denominations: there are Gaud Saraswat Brahmins, Goan Muslims, East Indians and so on. I researched Goan cuisine for eight months straight: living in Goa, visiting people’s homes, asking them to show me how dishes are made.

Visiting poee bakers and learning how to make poee from them was among the biggest challenges for me. I was trying to understand a culture and lifestyle behind the food, the history, music, everything. It was not just about recreating recipes. I crack this joke that I am more Goan than any Goan now.

That sparked another idea in me: if Portuguese colonisation had such an effect on Goa, why don’t we go to Portugal and see what they took from this. We went there and I started working at taverns. I met this amazing dude who turned out to be a chef and a food historian. He would serve classic tavern-style food in the morning and avant garde food in the evening. I also worked with two Michelin star chef Jose Avillez, who is doing great things with Portuguese food: he has taken tavern food and elevated it to a whole new level of relatable food but in a wow format. The cross-cultural references were revelatory: I learned the difference between a chorizo and a choriz and a vindaloo and a vinha d’alhos.

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