Naved Nasir, executive chef, Dishoom, London

The  Staff Canteen
Naved Nasir, executive chef for Dishoom London, discovered his passion for cooking as a child growing up in Mumbai. He worked in some of the top kitchens in India including Bukhara and Dumpukht at ITC Hotels. He moved to the UK to open the first Dishoom site in Covent Garden in 2010 and has since opened a further two sites in Shoreditch and Kings Cross; the latest addition to the Dishoom family will open in Soho later this year. The Staff Canteen caught up with Naved to talk about secret spice mixes, coming top of the Yelp! 100 Best Restaurants and how important it is to cook honestly. What made you want to become a chef? My mother came from a wealthy family and when I was growing up we had a big Haveli in the village and a few cooks who lived with us. Every summer we would visit my mum’s place and these cooks were great – they would make authentic North Indian dishes like koftas or kebabs, and that’s where my passion for cooking really started.7H0A9931 I used to help in the kitchen, just small things, as I was a kid at the time. Eventually the time came that I had to decide what I wanted to do for a living. My dad was a doctor and so naturally he wanted me to follow in his footsteps. I tried for a year, but quickly realized being a doctor wasn’t for me. When I told my parents I wanted to be a chef my dad hated the idea! It wasn’t really the done thing for a doctor’s son to be a cook! Who in the industry inspired you? Being a chef at the world-renowned Bukhara at ITC Maurya New Delhi would be a dream for any budding chef and I was no exception. When I got picked up as a kitchen management trainee by ITC Hotels I was over the moon. Training in Bukhara at the age of 21 was an amazing opportunity and I learnt so much as I was working with chefs who had been there for years. It has a very unique menu, which hasn’t changed in over 30 years, and one platter is even named after President Clinton who once dined at Bukhara.
Off the menu: Starters - Bhel, okra fries Mains - Nalli Nihari (the King’s Cross special),  Masala Prawns Desserts - Kala Khatta gola ice, the Guju chocolate mousse Favourite ingredients: Cumin - toast and make a powder, keep it airtight, sprinkle on your curry to finish it. Garlic and fresh dill - chopped and golden fried,club it with chopped fresh dill leaves,we add it to our chicken ruby to give a crunchy texture plus great flavour. Cauliflower - We marinate it in a yoghurt based marination with some other vegetables to make our veg biryani. Garam masala - A combination of 10-15 different spices (including: clove, cinnamon, bayleaf, peppercorn, cumin, rose petals, saffron, coriander seeds), can be added to almost any Indian dish right at the end to elevate its flavour. Signature dishes: House black Daal, for its simplicity yet a patient almost 24 hour cook time for that extra depth.
How did your career progress? We were given the opportunity to open a hotel ITC Grand Central in Mumbai - that was a big thing. I was setting up the kitchens from scratch and created a new brand called ‘Kebabs and Currys’, I was then moved to another hotel in Mumbai called ITC Maratha, and became junior sous chef at the famous Dumpukht restaurant. This was a really interesting move for me, as Dumpukht had more of a ‘fine-dining’ feel to it, whereas Bukhara was traditionally more rustic. I was with Dumpukht for over two years and here I learnt a very different style of cooking called “Dum,” which means to cook in its own juices. This involves sealing the food in a pot with all the spices and slow cooking it over a very low fire. Dumpukht prepared some really authentic dishes like Haleem and Nihari. I then moved to a very busy banquet kitchen which I headed up for four years and later was promoted to become the executive chef at the ITC Aurangabad. This is a 140 room property in the Western city of Aurangabad which is famous for the world heritage sites of Ajanta and the Allora caves. I was 27 so this was a huge achievement. After becoming executive chef you moved to London. What made you want to move to the UK? I moved to London to open Dishoom. I met Shamil Thakrar (co-founder of Dishoom) and we started discussing Dishoom. The name ‘Dishoom’ especially struck a cord as it is very unusual…in Indian dialect it is the background noise of a punch - like Kapow! Shamil and I quickly realised we had the same aims – we both wanted to create a restaurant that served traditional, authentic and honest Indian food. All our dishes have diverse cultural influences and their roots are very much in India and even when we come up with completely new dishes, like our famous naan rolls, we still want these to reflect and maintain the same honesty that Dishoom was started with. You opened the Convent Garden restaurant in 2010, did people understand the concept of Dishoom straight away or did it take time? Dishoom is based on the old Bombay – or Irani Cafés. These were opened by Persian immigrants back in the early 20th century. They were great spaces, completely part of the fabric of urban life. They were open all day, every day, and served people of all backgrounds. At their peak there were around 400 of these cafés, but now there are only a handful left. It seemed sad to us that these lovely spaces were closing down. They are charming, of course, but they also represent an important tradition – they were the first places in the city where anyone of any caste, class or religion was welcome to have a cup of chai or a bite to eat. So we really wanted to preserve this heritage and share it with Londoners. We put a great deal of love and care and enthusiasm into curating lively, buzzing spaces where all are welcome to come, sit eat, drink, meet, chat, read, work or simply linger and enjoy some chai. Fortunately, this was accepted very quickly by Londoners – they obviously like what we are doing and that is the biggest reward for us.Dishoom Paneer and mango salad Are your dishes inspired by your childhood? My cooking is hugely inspired by my childhood memories of helping the cooks in my mother’s kitchen. And also during my formal chef training I heard stories of great chefs, I particularly remember Chef Imtiaz – any young chef that wants to learn the art of Indian cuisine will know this name. He has been cooking for over 60 years and is an absolute authority on Indian food. There are stories about him that he has secret spice mixes, which he puts in food and this is what makes the food so unbelievably fragrant. I was blessed to work with him during my time in Dumpukht kitchen in Mumbai and I learnt so much. He belongs to a breed of chef that is very secretive when it comes to teaching; it takes time to build the relationship and trust. You have to work really hard and be patient to gain their trust and confidence, I was only allowed to make ginger, garlic paste, stocks or basic spice mixes for first few months. But you realise the value of these basic tasks when you grow up as a chef and I was so happy when I was given my next task and the day I made my first kebab was amazing - I had worked so hard to be able to do that. When the chef sees a hardworking man who is humble at the same time and wants to learn from them, they start to open up. So does chef Imtiaz have secret spice mixes? No! They were just stories which you heard around catering colleges! But I did learn from him the use of spices and balancing them, this is such a crucial part of Indian cuisine. He is a master of this art. That’s one thing which is very difficult and is often the difference between a great dish and a mediocre one - that’s where most people fail when they try a recipe from a cookbook, as not many cookbooks elaborate on this important step. My time with chef Imtiaz was absolutely invaluable. RestaurantHow did you create your menu? Was it difficult to decide which dishes should be on there? During the initial development stage of the Dishoom menu, we would sit and taste dishes every day and choose just one or two. A lot of hard work and thought went into our menu – we refused to compromise on the authenticity of a dish and yet we also had to make it widely acceptable to Londoners – this made the whole process pretty tricky. Every dish has a reason to be on our menu and still today when we introduce a new plate it needs to pass the same basic criteria of being honest to its Indian roots. Why did you decide to have a different special for each site? We now have three sites; Covent Garden, Shoreditch and King’s Cross and although they are all recognisably a Dishoom, the designs are all different and each café has its own character – much like the original Irani cafés. Having a different chef’s special at each café allowed us to further develop an individual character for each site. Covent Garden has prawn moilee, Kings Cross has Nalli Nihari and Shoreditch has the lamb raan. They are all delicious, hearty meals – especially the Nalli Nihari. Do you have a favourite dish? Yes of course! The black daal is very close to my heart; it’s cooked for 24 hours. We start cooking it at 5pm and we boil it for six hours. Then it is left over night and the next morning you start again, adding some spices and letting it simmer. It will be ready for the next evening at 5pm. it’s such a heart-warming dish, it’s a meal in itself really.Dishoom pau bhaji I also love our chicken berry Britannia, it is our homage to the very famous Britannia café in Bombay. The owner of that café Mr. Kohinoor is 93 years old and he still works there, he will come and take your order and talk to you about Bombay cafes - he’s an amazing man. Do you have a favourite ingredient that you like to work with? I really like cumin and garlic, they both are so amazing that if used cleverly they alone can pull a dish to brilliance, my mother used to make a potato dish with spinach called "Aloo Katli", it just has cumin and whole red chillies. I love it and still cook it in my spare time. How easy is it for you to get the ingredients you need in London? We have a very strong supplier base and import a lot of our whole spices directly from India. We buy in whole spices, dry them, and do our own spice blends in house, it takes a few days and it’s a lot of work. But to me it’s very important because those mixes are what bring our dishes to life. 7H0A9762How would you describe your style and food philosophy? For me the most important thing about cooking is doing it honestly. It is a dream of any chef to work in New York or London, they are the food capitals of the world. I got a chance to bring some of the lesser known but truly authentic dishes to this great city and also in the process discovered and invented some really interesting dishes. For example we do a naan rolls which we invented - they are not authentic Indian dishes but we created it by thinking like an Indian, they are our interpretation of the classic British sandwiches. How do you train your staff so they understand the concept of Dishoom? We take our head chef and general managers to Bombay; we take them every year for a boot camp. We take them so they can get a better perspective of what these cafés are all about. There are places in Bombay that if you are new to the city you will never find. Finding those hidden gems is what excites people and our head chefs and managers love it. All our staff go through a rigorous training schedule before they are allowed to get their hands dirty on the floor and our training revolves around the city of Bombay and its culture and food. We put a huge emphasis on “SEVA” which is something beyond just serving people and means selfless service.Shoreditch details You came top of the Yelp! UK 100 Best Restaurants, how did that feel? It was very exciting! All the hard work we’ve done over the past five years has all come together. We feel extremely privileged to have made the top spot! We are passionate about Bombay food and culture and having the opportunity to share this with our London friends is extremely special. It’s very important for us to stay close to our roots and the Yelp! Award was the best one we could have hoped for as it was voted for by our guests.
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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 10th June 2015

Naved Nasir, executive chef, Dishoom, London