Chef Nuzha Ebrahim’s Journey From Grilled Cheese To Comfort Food

As the unassuming entry staircase leads up to the well-lit experimental art café – Kuckeliku Breakfast House in Colaba, chef Nuzha Ebrahim appears to be of relaxed demeanour and seated at a table with her cat who napped cosily. She smiles warmly as she settles for a chat, while recommending placing an order for a bowl of Shrimp and Grits – one of Nuzha’s personal favourites on the vastly comforting menu of her restaurant venture. For a young restaurateur-chef who opened up shop during the second leg of the COVID-19 pandemic, running a full-service restaurant came with its own set of challenges; and yet, Nuzha managed to pull through with plenty of support and determination.

For those who have little context to her work, Nuzha began her career in the hospitality business by working her way through the kitchens of some acclaimed names in the business – like Indigo, Guppy by Ai and 212 All Day Café & Bar. In a fascinating turn of events, she conjured up the idea of serving up gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches at pop-ups, with a small venture called The Fromagerie in 2017, so she could hit reset on the concept of what the experience was really meant to be, for curious city slickers. Soon after, she went on to throw open the doors of Kuckeliku Breakfast House, a pet-friendly space for anyone looking to enjoy a hearty post-hangover breakfast or simply idle with a cup of coffee. Looking back on how it all began, the chef, who developed an interest in cooking at the age of 9 speaks to Slurrp in a free-wheeling conversation about changing the game of comfort eating, one plate at a time.

When quizzed about the philosophy behind The Fromagerie, Nuzha has a pretty straightforward approach. “The first thing that we standardised and have on every menu are two things – we have like a Signature Four Cheese Blend, which is a classic grilled cheese, and the classic Bombay Toastie. And, I would say that it's easier said than done because it's mainly three mediums – bread, butter and cheese; but what makes it good is the kind of bread that we use, the quality of butter that we use – like salted versus unsalted. Keeping the Indian market in mind, where like a vast majority is vegetarian, we had to figure out a rich a bread that was also not cloyingly rich. You want that really satisfying cheese pull when you're eating. So, we tied all of those things together to make that one grilled cheese. The second thing that we did was develop like a Bombay classic grilled cheese because at the end of the day, it needs to feel accessible to all kinds of people,” Nuzha says, about the work that went into building the menu for her debut venture.

While she remained persistent that the best way for people to enjoy her sandwiches were right off the pan, Nuzha was forced to adapt quickly to a disastrous situation, when the pandemic forced everyone to stay indoors. Speaking of how necessity became the mother of invention during these trying times, she says, “It's really funny because the reason why we do pop ups only is because we want people to have access to the sandwich made perfectly but it was received a lot better during the pandemic because people didn't want to be eating out; they wanted to be making their own grilled cheese, as the norm of eating out before the pandemic changed. If I had to suggest a DIY concept previously, they wouldn’t want to put in efforts to make a sandwich. But as soon as lockdown happened, that completely changed and when I suggested a DIY kit, it flew off the walls! When the circumstances changed, we didn't evolve at all, people met us where we were.”

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Steering the attention to her newest, two-year old restaurant that has been making waves on social media for serving up diner-style breakfasts and drawing eyeballs from all over the city, a curiosity to understand what the interplay of aesthetics versus taste was for her came about. After all, food must look good as it tastes these days so it can hold appeal. However, Nuzha remains firm about always maintaining that her food ideology has always been comfort first. “I don't prioritise the way food looks over what it's supposed to feel like, not even taste like. With this place, at the end of the day, breakfast is feel good food that we wanted to make accessible through the day. With the space, we got one in a historical building with really beautiful homes and we’ve had all of the original fixtures still in place. What we did with it is like just minimally aestheticized and added value to what we have. I also suppose we were a little mindful with respect tiny things like our tableware, or glasses. So, when you see that specific green plate, you know it belongs to us. But when it comes to the food I don't think we’ve done like very much to enhance its beauty. It's just beautiful in itself – like a beautiful mess, is what I believe. At the end of the day, like people are still willing to photograph your food which is what you’re talking about. What you're recognising is everything else that around the food has become synonymous with Kuckeliku as a space.”

What’s also most fascinating about Nuzha’s inherent creativity that reflects in her food, is the inspirations she draws from her travels and translates them into something that appealed to most people. Case in point, as most eateries struggled to crawl back into business after the lockdown, she saw crowds of people waiting to get a taste of Kuckeliku classics like Chicken and Waffles, pancakes, French toast and the delicious range of baked goods on offer. Elaborating on this, Nuzha asserts that, “What’s on offer is the all-day breakfast experience and while not everyone is comfortable with or happy to do breakfast for dinner; that was the first feeling we had to breakthrough. And I will credit the pandemic to have helped facilitate that mindset shift in people. When restaurants were shutting at four ‘o’ clock, we would stay open. When the lockdown timings kept shifting, people's visiting hours got pushed down more and more into the evening. So, people would take time off the day of work to come have a plate of pancakes or a coffee in the afternoon.”

“Secondly, there are a few dishes that I knew, when I put them on my menu are going to be tough sell simply because a people may not have heard of it; or if they had, maybe that experience in its country of origin would be different. We of course, had to adapt but it's also my representation of what this dish is. And then there are standard breakfast menu items like an oat bowl, which I have never eaten in my life, but knew to have on my menu. The easy answer for me to give would be the Chicken and Waffles. However, the most surprising for me, would be the Chilaquiles, which is a Southern American, throw-together dish made with everything that you have in your fridge when you're hungover. We do it differently – more like a nacho dish,” she speaks fondly of some of her best-sellers.

To strike a balance between creativity and business – a tricky territory for most restaurateur-chefs, Nuzha manages to tread the fine line between being a place that offers decadent, guilt-ridden comfort food and balances the scale with ‘health’ food offerings like the standard oat bowl and avocado toast. Piqued by the process on how she picks and chooses what to serve up, Nuzha responds, “The vast majority of people in south Mumbai are vegetarians or people who will not eat products with effs in them. So my challenge was how do I design it in a way that something is a Nuzha creation, that I wouldn’t typically order at a breakfast place but eat if I had to make it. As someone who does not engage with health food, we do have a have a reputation of being like a healthy food place; but then there's no way I can make an unhealthy egg white omelette or glass of juice. In that way, I also have to come to terms with people finding healthy food comforting too. That was an interesting challenge to explore.”

As the conversation progressed, Nuzha gets candid about feeling a sense of attachment for her creations and taking feedback to heart. Expressing her perception of how she allows the compliments and criticism to float simultaneously, she says, “An avocado toast is a really basic thing to order off a menu but what if I saw this on a menu maybe consider ordering something else during my next visit? We created latkes with plantains as opposed to potatoes, and also did   a variation with jackfruit that had a lot of vegetarians saying that it tastes like meat. Now, that’s something that I’ve designed because I would not personally order a vegetarian latke but this jackfruit is so much like, I would be okay picking this over the salmon option. It's designed in a way that I would enjoy it. We get a lot of people that work in hospitality, so we do get a lot of quote-unquote hyperaware people that come in here and tell us how to do our job. This is not a representation of a particular kind food. When you're running a brick-and-mortar place, people are coming for a very specific purpose. They are here to eat so the stakes are a lot higher. Of course, it is a lot more expensive to keep a restaurant running, financially than a pop up shop. Out here like that are a lot of very serious deliverables, but that's just on the back-end of things. People are coming especially out of word of mouth references, because we don't do that publicity spiel. But for me to talk the work that I do or look at all of this stuff that we're doing. It's really weird.”

“People come with very certain set expectations and it's just my job to be able to deliver that; if someone recommends a place to me, and I really value their opinion, I'm going with this person's expectations in mind. I know, that's where the level is. We’ve not set the tone of this place, people have done that for us. My idea was to open up a breakfast café and if people find us to be great, we just have to be good enough,” she smiles.