Playfully Indian
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Playfully Indian

THE GASTRO GOSPEL: At Papa's in Mumbai, chef Hussain Shahzad embraces cultural heritage through food

SOCIAL & LIFESTYLE
Playfully Indian
Chef Hussain Shahzad of Papa's in Mumbai, India. (Photos: Hunger Inc. Hospitality)

Mumbai, India's city of dreams, is a melting pot of various cultures, traditions and flavours from all over the country. The latest entrant into this bubbling pot is a 12-seater chef's table in the affluent neighbourhood of Bandra.

Papa's, helmed by chef Hussain Shahzad, recently named Chef of the Year at the NDTV Food Awards 2024, is where he experiments with breaking the rules of Indian cuisine.

"The idea is to celebrate everything Indian. It took a while for me to embrace my heritage. When I worked in New York, I was cooking European food, which is very different from what I'm doing today. It's funny, ironically, that the first time I cooked Indian food professionally was when I moved to The Bombay Canteen," says the chef.

Passionate about cooking since a young age, chef Shahzad spent his childhood in Chennai where his tryst with the kitchen began with a simple omelette sandwich. His love for food grew over the years with stints in his home kitchen after school.

In 2005, he joined the Welcomgroup Graduate School of Hotel Administration in Manipal, Karnataka, and then worked for The Oberoi Group of Hotels. In 2014, he moved to New York to join Eleven Madison Park, where he developed and refined his culinary techniques.

Thayir sadam with beetroot, chèvre and shiso. 

Coupled with his passion for food is his love for adventure, and he honed his skills in several countries, even working as a personal chef to tennis star Roger Federer.

It was the late chef Floyd Cardoz who brought chef Shahzad back to his roots in 2015, when he became sous chef for The Bombay Canteen. He moved to the Goa-Portuguese-inspired restaurant O Pedro in 2017 and then became executive chef at Hunger Inc. Hospitality in 2020, overseeing O Pedro, The Bombay Canteen and Veronica's.

His approach is a more flavour-forward, nuanced, yet approachable take on Indian cuisine -- "playfully Indian", as he puts it. Taking this playfulness to new heights is where you'll find chef Shahzad these days -- at Papa's, named in honour of chef Cardoz. The "fine without fuss" chef's table is where he showcases his creativity and redefines how India's diverse flavours can be elevated, presented and experienced in contemporary ways.

"To say that eight years later this has happened, in my mind, for my standards, is pretty remarkable," admits chef Shahzad.

"The idea is to work with produce, dig a little deeper into Indian traditions and cultures as opposed to looking wider, while at the same time leveraging my classic European upbringing in kitchens, using those techniques. Keep the pantry super global and cooking smartly with ingredients in the ecosystem as opposed to getting stuck in defining what is authentic, what is tradition, what is your prerogative and indigenous and stuff like that.

"If it grows in Indian soil with hard work, to me, it's pretty Indian. So those are the kinds of things that I keep in mind while cooking.

Bugs Bunny, grilled rabbit, red ants, jowar and amla. 

"I feel like it's a lot more meaningful to be able to cook food that you grew up with because food today has become a form of expression of who I am. It's a part of my personality and what I do, and hence if I want to tell a story about where I come from, which is very personal to me, it would be through the menu at Papa's.

"Some 85% of the ingredients are from India, though I do not shy away from using imported produce. For example, I would not shy away from using dashi, fish sauce and stuff like that. As a cook, you have to be smart to see where those components can fit in and then use them in a way that benefits the dish. They become a flavour enhancer as opposed to a flavour compensator. It is a very fine balance and that comes from understanding the ingredient and what it deserves.

"For example, the thayir sadam course uses sushi rice, as it's the best in the world for curd [yoghurt] rice. Like in Japan where the sushi rice is finished off with a vinegar bath, at Papa's we finish it off with a buttermilk bath so it gets to the level of the thayir sadam.

"Then you have local beetroots that have been turned into a tartar, a garlic emulsion that comes from Chennai and there's goat cheese from Spain because that's the best goat cheese. We also have a crisp shiso leaf, which comes from Japan. If I create a dish, I'd rather do it this way. In principle, in my mind, buttermilk, beetroot and shiso work together like magic. I didn't see any reason to not put them together and that was the idea. We're doing it on purpose, to redefine what has been done, and don't follow a step of rules that have been laid out as before. What's not to say that the emotion behind that dish is not Indian in my mind?"

What The Duck, with dry-aged duck, Indrayani rice and green garlic. 

The one thing about Papa's, says the chef, is that "it is a restaurant in Bombay for Bombay, but not necessarily about Bombay".

"I want to create a restaurant that is truly world-class and want to bring the idea of fine dining to life but at the same time, stay rooted in the destination that we are. Offering a sense of the place and hence using small but significant characters, like on the menu, to bring about subtle touch points where you can feel the neighbourhood. It is not in your face, but strikes that chord of curiosity and we want diners to ask the question, 'What's this?'.

"When I started working on Papa's, I was really nervous because the canvas was blank. I could paint it any way I wanted to. The question was, 'What is going to be different and how am I going to differentiate it?'. Papa's is not about one singular dish or 10 singular dishes. It's about the flow of the menu because it is a tasting menu, where the flow is so important."

Papa's menu contains meats rarely found on tables in restaurants, like rabbit and duck. The rabbit dish was inspired by the chef's childhood in the South, where Rabbit 65 is a thing.

"It was the first dish I created for Papa's and it evolved to 'Bugs Bunny'. The entire dish started off as an internal joke and when you start making jokes, it evolves to conversations that lead to such dishes, very organically. The dish also uses ants from the Northeast in the marinade because any Indian marinade needs a sour component and the ants made perfect sense. They are harvested, dehydrated and sent to us," explains chef Shahzad. "With this menu, we've been pretty unapologetic about the food that we do. I feel like the people who come to Papa's have now come to appreciate the kind of adventure we're ready to go on. We, as cooks and chefs, are a part of the creative economy. Our job is to create, but it will never make sense if there is nobody paying for your creativity. For me, it's the trust that the city of Bombay has in us that we are able to put rabbit, ants and duck on the menu. People have developed that sense of comfort, where they say, 'I'll give it a shot'.

Papa's Mumbai. Hunger Inc. 

"For diners who are not local, it is imperative to draw parallels from their culture to help them understand our culture a bit better. The world has so many cross-cultural influences and if you're smart enough to think a little harder, you'll come up with inferences that can help them understand what you are doing. It's about being honest with the narrative. I genuinely feel that when you try and add layers or fluff to the narrative is when it goes haywire because then you're not trying to communicate what the soul is really trying to tell them what you've done."

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