India File

Come home to food

Rashmi Pratap | Updated on March 10, 2018

Bon appetit Munaf Kapadia gave up his job at Google to assist his mother and home cook Nafisa Kapadia, known for hosting Bohri meals at their home in Mumbai’s Colaba area

Home cooks prefer to source ingredients from place of origin

food eps

In a country that abounds as much with cooking talent as with customers craving for authentic food, home chefs have found the perfect market to not just make money, but also preserve traditional cuisines. Rashmi Pratap reports

Every Thursday, Nafisa Kapadia prepares the masala for a lamb leg that would be marinated and slow-cooked over the next two days. By Saturday, the raan is ready to be served to about 15 guests who come for lunch at The Bohri Kitchen (TBK) – a pop-up at Kapadia’s home in Mumbai’s tony Colaba area. The spread also includes other Bohri dishes such as smoked kheema samosas and patvelia – an aromatic starter of patra combined with chicken, besides desserts, beverages and condiments.

Down south in Bengaluru, Sumitra Kalapatapu cooks vegetarian Andhra Brahmin meals with dishes like podis, chilli bajjis, and vankayi stuffed with kottimeera kaaram (brinjals stuffed with coriander masala). People throng to dine at her place, which has turned into a sought-after venue for birthday parties as well as baby showers.

In Kochi, Nisha Katti begins her day packing roast duck, appams, fish curry, chicken kurma and other dishes of the northern Kerala cuisine. The tiffins packed by her will be picked up by courier boys from Masalabox, an online food platform that connects customers with home cooks.

In a country brimming with cooking talent and hungry customers craving for authentic food, home chefs have found the perfect market to not just make money, but also preserve the cuisines from various parts of India. Online delivery platforms and social media have given a boost to home cooks.

Home chefs are a new and fast-growing category in the Indian food service industry, pegged at ₹2,47,680 crore by the National Restaurant Association of India. It is projected to grow at 11 per cent to reach ₹4,08,040 crore by 2018.

Home cooks are different from restaurant chefs as they decide their work pace and usually specialise in certain cuisines. They can host pop-ups at their homes or in a community space, cook at food events and even do specialised food festivals for restaurants. Some of them tie-up with food platforms like Masalabox and MealTango to deliver products to customers.

Preserving tradition

While these cooks are tasting success and making money, they have another goal. They are unanimous in another objective – preserving their cuisines. TBK’s aim is to mainstream Bohri cuisine “just like Thai or Italian cuisine,”says Munaf Kapadia, who gave up his job at Google last year to assist his mother expand her business.

Anne George, who works with HDFC Ltd, is a regular at TBK. She says Bohri food isn’t available easily in restaurants. “The outlets in Bohri Mohalla (in Mumbai) are shutting down and the area is too congested. I went to TBK for the first time in 2015 and now I go regularly.” She finds the ₹1,500 per person rate for the seven-course meal reasonable.

Gitika Saikia is working overtime to popularise the tribal food of the north-east. “The mainland food is already well known; but tribal cuisine uses much different ingredients,” she says.

Harsha Thachery, co-Founder and CEO of Kochi-based Masalabox, points out that traditional Kerala cuisine has a lot of recipes which are time consuming and hence are no longer made in households. Like chatti pathiri, a Malabar speciality with layered crepes and chicken is something that can be ordered through Masalabox. “These recipes are dying. We are trying to revive them,” she says.

Bengaluru’s Sumitra is planning to write a book on the Andhra Brahmin food recipes that are fast disappearing from dining tables. “I want to pen down the recipes so that they are not lost forever and can be used by anybody who is passionate about cooking,” she says.

Aggregated advantage

“I think the two biggest advantages we offer are visibility and the last mile connect,” says Harsha Thachery. Masalabox connects home cooks to customers. “The backing of a corporate structure gives them visibility, bargaining potential and a last mile connect, which they cannot afford on their own,” she adds.

High costs of delivering food — up to 20 per cent of the order bill — are a big deterrent for home chefs. But food platforms take away that burden with economies of scale. “The only cost I incur is the production cost. I add my profit margin while pricing it. Masalbox does the rest,” says Nisha, who started in 2014 with just five meals a day and now supplies about 30, including lunch and dinner.

In a somewhat similar model, Pune-based Meal Tango helps chefs in marketing, branding, packaging and delivery. The chefs need to invest ₹5,000 to ₹15,000 based on the plan they choose. “The basic plan takes them online and we help them with marketing and training. We believe they should only focus on preparing great meals,” says Saket Khanna, founder and CEO of MealTango, which plans to expand to Mumbai and Bengaluru.

But once on board, home chefs cannot afford to lower their quality or taste. “That’s where feedback and testimonials play a role. We also look at matrix like repeat rate, word-of-mouth feedback and reviews,” he says.

Both MealTango and Masalabox insist on FSSAI or food license registration. “We make sure everyone is registered. We go for kitchen inspection before a chef is brought on board. And each day, we make sure we are around at the time of packaging of food. Besides, random kitchen inspections are part of our terms of contract. We disassociate with any chef who is found lacking on any quality parameter,” says Harsha.

Passion – the differentiator

What sets home chefs apart from others is not just the passion and scale but also the efforts they make to serve authentic food. Mumbai’s Gitika Saikia, who specialises in tribal cuisine of the North-East, sources most of her ingredients from the Seven Sister states.

She pays about ₹350 per kg as courier charges to procure items like pigeon meat, jute leaves (which are cooked with pork), silkworms, fresh duck meat, sticky rice and even mustard greens as they have a flavour quite different from what is available elsewhere. “For fresh items, I look for someone who is flying down,” she says.

Similarly, Sumitra procures a lot of ingredients like white brinjals, red chillies and even chukka koora (green sorrel) from her home town in Vishakapatnam. “We do not use any onion or garlic in masala in the Andhra Brahmin cuisine. In fact, the word masala is not used at all. We just have pastes and powders,” she says.

Sanjay Raina, celebrity chef and singer, procures raw materials for his wazwan — multi-course meal in Kashmiri cuisine — from the Valley itself. Saffron, various masalas and even the famous haak saag is bought from Kashmir.

His tryst with home cooking began in 2015 when he started Mealability, a website aimed at introducing the Valley’s culture, music and cuisine to people across the globe. Soon he began to get request from people to cook for them. “I accepted one request to prepare Kashmiri food for a group of 20 people and I thought it would stop at that. But I was flooded with requests thereafter.”

Be your own boss

With 15 music albums to his credit, Raina had to choose between food and music. Food won hands on. His non-vegetarian meal for two typically costs around ₹3,000.

Raina delivers food to homes in NCR on prior requests, and when it is convenient to him. And that is another advantage that home chefs have vis-a-vis others in the business – being your own boss.

In an uncertain economic environment and where restaurants shut down as fast as they open, being a home chef is far more stable and allows flexibility. Sumitra points out that she works only because of the love for cooking. “Since I stay alone, I have a lot of free time. And being a home chef allows me to work at will,” she says.

Gitika, who became a mother late last year, decides on the scale, place and time of her work according to her convenience. And Nisha, who works with Masalabox, bakes for private clients when free. Her cakes, cupcakes, plum cakes, brownies and tarts can be pre-booked. And if she feels like it, Nisha also participates in food exhibitions to showcase her skills.

Harsha points out that Masalabox has on-boarded 75 home chefs in Kochi and 125 in Bengaluru. But the active number at any point is just about two-thirds of this.

“A lot of chefs want to take a break and then come back to work. They have flexibility and are not bound by us,” she says.

Despite the flexibility, home cooks have to wait for success as word-of-mouth publicity takes time and not everyone is open to paying a premium for home food.

“In the first three pop-ups I did, only three people turned up. I wondered whether I had made the right decision by quitting my regular job. I then did an event with MumbaiFoodies (a blog that reviews restaurants and food options in Mumbai). In one go, the number at my pop-up shot up from three to 17 people,” says Gitika.

Apart from the wait and the patience, home chefs also require prior clarity about scaling up – whether one wants to remain a home chef or turn into a delivery centre or open a restaurant. Once that clarity is there, a home chef can work on building the brand. “You must be clear what you want to focus on – being authentic or changing to fusion when the business grows big. The planning for the ultimate shape has to be done at the conception stage itself,” she adds.

Lack of planning can lead to failure. Aggregators such as CyberChef, Biteclub and Mealhopper shut shop after they either failed to raise funds or were unable to manage the logistics and supply chain. “It is not an easy model, especially logistics. But we believe there is value to be unlocked,” says Harsha, whose Masalabox uses a mix of internal and external logistics teams for delivery as well as picking up food from chefs.

And it is planning about positioning that has helped Munaf. TBK is a brand well known through social media. It is on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, and Munaf actively updates his contacts on TBK’s menu as well as future plans on various media.

The increase in visibility and demand led him to open a kitchen in Worli from where he supplies Bohri food for delivery. Ditto for Raina, who is now setting up a central kitchen in Gurgaon from where he can supply on a bigger scale.

When small is beautiful

Most people turn home chefs, instead of becoming restaurateurs because of the exorbitant cost of opening an eatery. While in a city like Mumbai it can cost anywhere between ₹50 lakh and ₹5 crore, depending on the location, the investment can go up to a ₹1 crore even in a city like Pune. “The investment in a business from home is close to zero,” says Saket Khanna, founder and CEO of MealTango.

Moreover, 12-15 government licences are required to open an outlet in India in contrast to seven in the US and four in Singapore. “So it is relatively easier to be a home entrepreneur,” he adds.

But financing in the food sector is still limited to food technology start-ups, which have received investment by private equity players or venture capitalists.

“There is a lot of leakage in a restaurant’s supply chain, resulting in wastage of about 10 to 12 per cent. Corruption is another factor,” says Munaf Kapadia of The Bohri Kitchen.

Munaf points out that a home kitchen saves him from paying rent or spending on permanent staff costs. “There are no daily overheads,” he says. The pop-up at Kapadia residence works through Facebook, where events are announced and people have to sign up in advance. The traditional Bohri food is not available in restaurants but is in high demand. Munaf has done food events in Goa on special request.

Since cuisines like Bohri are not easily available, people are willing to pay a premium. While the Kapadias charge ₹1,500 to ₹1,700 per person for the weekend lunch, Gitika Saikia, who specialises in tribal north-eastern cuisine, also charges a similar amount.

Saikia gave up her corporate job to turn a home chef but has stayed away from being a restaurateur. “Home chefs can procure supplies from local markets or hypermarkets. But for a larger scale, you need suppliers, multiple licences and hire people. The staff require a lot of training and maintaining quality is not easy.”

So she has chosen the pop-ups, plus big events, route to popularise the unexplored cuisine of the tribes in North-East. “I do two-three events in a month. Any event which has over 40 people is enough for making profits,” says Saikia, well known for dishing out silkworm pupa and pond bugs.

Published on March 27, 2017

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