‘Good Morning. Please skip breakfast’ instructs a WhatsApp message at 8 am. This is a curiously odd diktat from the person about to host you for lunch later that day. But four hours later, you’ll be thanking 57-year-old Nafisa Kapadia for her timely advice. She has some other wise suggestions before she serves the delectable seven-course meal at her home. ‘Please don’t come in party clothes. Wear something expandable’ is one such. Since November last year, Kapadia has been successfully running her pop-up meals enterprise, The Bohri Kitchen (TBK), at her Cuffe Parade home in Mumbai. Her business partner and self-appointed ‘chief food officer’ is her 27-year-old son Munaf.
“I noticed people didn’t anticipate how much food there was going to be. They were struggling to finish, so I started telling them to come on an empty stomach,” explains Munaf, while handing out name tags to his guests. A meal with the Kapadias is a unique experience. It doesn’t have the stiffness of a fine-dining restaurant— you can put your feet up and savagely bite into your chicken leg or dig your nails into the raan—and yet it is different from your typical home invitation. For starters, the name tags are a must because chances are you don’t know the person sitting to your left. “We have a ‘no serial killer policy’. Guests can’t book a seat, they have to apply for it. My mother does a background check on Facebook,” says Munaf.
This trend of inviting complete strangers for home-cooked meals began about a year ago in Mumbai. At the time, there were hardly three to four people who were willing to open up their home. But over the last few months, the concept has caught on like wild fire. TBK’s mutton samosas, chicken surprise and khichda are now the stuff of legend. Their popularity has prodded several other closet chefs in the city to emerge. To help them go public with their culinary skills, there exist websites like Trekurious and Once Upon My Kitchen, on which you can easily book a seat at one of these meals.
“When we started off, we used to host just about three dining experiences every month and now we are at about 16. We’ve grown almost five fold in these last six months,” says Vinita Sivaramakrishnan, senior associate, Trekurious. Recently, the site hosted a Facebook campaign which invited amateur chefs to sign up. The response was overwhelming. “We had about 150 chefs write in of which seven are already on board with us. We’re in the process of evaluating the others,” she says. Typically, the site scouts for candidates who can offer cuisines that are rare to come by. After that, it conducts a quick tasting trial, and a new chef is born. “This is working mainly because people have become increasingly experimental when it comes to food. They are looking beyond run-of- the-mill restaurant experiences. And when we bring cuisines like Khasi, Assamese, French, Ethiopian into easy access, people are happy to try them out,” she says.
A veteran of this home chef revolution is Gitika Saikia. The 37-year- old specialises in tribal Assamese fare, which she says is “super exotic” even back home. Delicacies like red ant eggs, mud eel, silkworms and pigeon meat would fall into this bracket. Sometimes people’s ignorance of this cuisine exasperates Gitika, but it is also what makes her stand out from the rest. “One person asked me, ‘Do you guys eat momos?’ I said, ‘Momos is Tibetan, please check your map!’ Someone else said it is similar to Bengali food. Then the third person said, ‘You guys eat anything that crawls.’ I was tired of these questions,” she says with her arms in the air.
It was chance that took Gitika down this path. In 2013, while watching an episode of Times Now’s The Foodie, she wondered why the host Kunal Vijaykar never featured Assamese food on the show. On an impulse, she wrote to him on Facebook, and few weeks later she was hosting a meal for him. Today she has a fixed set of repeat clients who turn up the moment she announces a meal. But for first-timers, she puts out a disclaimer. “Anybody else’s pop-up will have jeera, dhania, cashews, dahi, but I don’t use these ingredients. If something is sour, I’ve not used tomatoes, I’ve used something called elephant apple. They feel, ‘What the hell is that?’ So I tell people to come with an open mind,” says Gitika, who quit a corporate career of 13 years to pursue this.
A good way to put guests at ease is to include a fun history lesson about the dishes on offer. Gitika enjoys giving diners a crash course on the 22 tribes of Assam and their various food habits. At TBK, the Kapadias recreate a traditional Bohri meal, taking a few liberties. So you’ll have the thaal, but instead of having people eat directly from it, you can use your own plates and cutlery. Munaf briefs you on the ingredients of each item and the sauces that complement it, with a small nugget on Bohri culture.
So what does one need to set up a flourishing home kitchen? Great food, of course. “But the personality and warmth of the host matters a lot too. That’s what sets it apart from going to a big restaurant and having a cold experience,” says Kalyan Karmakar, food blogger and editor-at-large of India Food Network. Chef Amit Pamnani, who’s worked in the hospitality industry for 18 years, concurs. Two weeks ago he hosted his first classical French meal at La Maison, his freshly-minted home kitchen. “In a hotel or restaurant, I had a whole support system—a great environment, a whole team of managers and waiters. Here, my wife takes care of the crockery and decoration of the house, my mom gets the vegetables, and I look into the food. But the feedback is immediate, which doesn’t happen in a restaurant, unless the waiter comes and tells the chef,” says Pamnani.
He was also pleasantly surprised to see people readily pay up for a meal with no frills. Typically, a meal at a home kitchen ranges between Rs 1,500 and Rs 1,800 per head—as much, if not more, than what you’d spend at a fancy restaurant. Munaf says he’s charged up to Rs 2,500, and people readily paid up. For Gitika, each meal is an investment— financial and emotional. She’s confident her food’s worth every buck she charges. Every small ingredient she uses, right down to the fragrant rice, comes from her in-law’s village in Assam. She pays through her nose in courier charges, and often coughs up Rs 10,000 in excess baggage charges.
While that restricts her from hosting too many meals, TBK hosts them every weekend, each one running packed. “Around 20 per cent of our clientele is repeat customers,” says Munaf. He, too, recently quit his job at Google to explore the business opportunity that TBK has opened up for him. He had toyed with the idea of starting a restaurant some years ago, but like the other home chefs, didn’t want the complications of starting such a venture in Mumbai.
But now there’s no holding him back. He’s brimming with ideas on how to capitalise on his mother’s talent. “Munaf made me do this because I used to watch TV all day,” says Nafisa with a laugh. “But this is such a great option for so many women like me who are sitting at home. I was lucky to have Munaf to look after the marketing, because that I couldn’t have managed on my own,” she says.
“The biggest difference between TBK and what I’m doing is that I’ve have to cook the food, design my marketing plan, and look into payment gateways all on my own,” says Gitika.
One of Munaf’s latest initiatives, Home Chef Revolution, lets other chefs like his mother seek his counsel on how to capitalise on their talent. Fresh from the runaway success of his own brand, he shares with them tips on how to market their brand for a nominal fee. Munaf’s more ambitious plan is an app called The Dining Table which will bring together 30 home dining experiences in the city—basically the food version of Airbnb. He hopes to launch by October.
According to Karmakar, if people like Munaf and Gitika are quitting their jobs to pursue this full-time, there is obviously a future in the business. But so far, he feels the opportunities to scale it up may be limited. “A lot of people who go to these pop-ups—50-60 per cent of them—are the same set of people. From the food walks that I do, I have learnt that normally 40 per cent of your customers are repeats. So I have to come up with different topics and different food walks. Similarly, because there are people serving a specific meal kind of meal, there are only that many times you’ll go to have the same thing over and over again,” he warns.
For now, the most crucial ingredient for survival is passion, says Gitika. “If you’re here to make a quick buck, it won’t work. You have to be passionate about food, or you won’t be able to sustain it. I don’t allow my cook to even chop my onions. For me, each meal is a big investment,” she explains.
Luckily for chefs like her, die-hard foodies seem more than happy to empty their pockets for the satisfaction of their cooking as well.