We chat with the chef duo about their newest baby Bhawan, running a delivery-only kitchen, and more.
Mumbai girl Kainaz Contractor was a prolific food writer with Time Out Mumbai and BBC Good Food. Rahul Dua grew up in Delhi, Bangalore, Aurangabad and Pune and was behind the extraordinary food at Delhi’s Cafe Lota. They came together to give the capital its first homestyle Parsi restaurant, Rustom’s, in 2015. As Rustom’s went on to become one of Delhi’s most loved restaurants and win accolades, Contractor and Dua started a catering company called Ink & Knives Catering, as a part of which they now run the kitchen at Cafe Dori in Chattarpur.
Their most recent venture is Bhawan: a delivery service that brings regional Indian street food to people in Delhi and NCR. An extensive menu and retro-style packaging set Bhawan apart. With a focus on chaat, snacks and mithai, the service has been an invaluable addition to Delhi’s food delivery scene. We chat with the chef duo about their newest baby, running a delivery-only kitchen and more.
What gave you the idea for Bhawan?
Bhawan was conceptualised over five years ago and it took us some time to bring the project to light. Rahul's stint at Cafe Lota and us launching Rustom's, were both inspired by bringing homestyle regional cuisine and recipes into the limelight. After successfully creating restaurant concepts around homestyle food, our next focus was to bring the streets of India into a restaurant setting. However, the idea was always to move away from existing staid formats of fully vegetarian, quick service restaurants, as we felt the food most times tasted rather homogenous and boring and the ambience didn't cater towards an exciting and fun dining experience. This is a far cry from the actually thrilling and stimulating world of authentic Indian street food where recipes, ingredients and techniques vary with every individual vendor. Street food vastly differs from region to region and we think it is rather unfair that most places offered an exclusively vegetarian menu, overlooking delicious non vegetarian dishes for example, from the khau gallis in many Indian cities. Bhawan aims to offer regional Indian chaats, snacks and mithais from across the country with a special focus on authenticity of techniques and ingredients.
Has Bhawan achieved what you had planned for it?
Bhawan was actually planned as a full service, casual dining restaurant format in South Delhi. The restaurant was in the construction phase and barely a week away from completion, when the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic derailed those plans and we had to exit that project. Since almost all of the work and research, including a team of chefs were all in place, we decided to pivot to a cloud kitchen delivery format until we had the resources to work towards a restaurant again. It has been almost 18 months of running the cloud kitchen successfully now and we're delighted that our restaurant in a new location is now nearing completion and we should be operational by April 2022.
Bhawan excels at regional Indian street food. What is your favourite street food memory?
Many of the fondest street food memories that Rahul and I share in common are those from the streets of Bombay growing up. We love Bombay chaat and personally feel that it's a lot lighter and fresher in comparison to the chaats from Northern India. We also loved some of our experiences forged during our research trips for the building blocks of Bhawan's menu: Shukla chaat bhandar in Lucknow, Badnaam kulfi in Kanpur and the street food cultures of Benaras and Kolkata were truly special.
Please tell me more about Bhawan Tea and Juice Centre.
As integral as food is to the street culture of India, beverages hold an equally important part. Growing up in Bombay, both of us had fond memories of little fresh juice shops and cafes dotted around the city with eclectic juice names like Ganga Jamuna, Mari Mari etc as well as the prominence of seasonal fruit products- from Mango milkshakes at Amar Juice Centre in the summer to strawberries and cream at Bachelor's and sitaphal rabdi at Haji Ali Juice Centre, we wanted to make simple, fresh and well priced juices and milkshakes available to our customers. The teas are of course an ode to the numerous chaiwallas that are the lifeline of this country.
Recipes and menu aside, how is running Bhawan different from running Rustom's and Cafe Dori?
Running a delivery-only kitchen is an altogether different working experience. Though it was a blessing in disguise to exist as a delivery brand during the toughest years of Covid, we love the interaction and immediate guest feedback that you would get in a restaurant setting. Even though we have our own fleet of delivery riders, in delivery there are a lot of variables that are not within our control including unexpected traffic conditions, long distances and food textures and temperatures not being the same once packed and dispatched. While we try our best to run our delivery kitchen as we would our restaurant kitchens - with the singular focus on a superior dining experience and guest satisfaction, there is nothing quite like having diners try the food fresh off the stove with a plated dish conceptualised by us.
What's in store for Bhawan in the future?
We're so excited and grateful to be finally opening Bhawan as a brick and mortar space in Gurgaon. We hope to open our doors to our street food superfans by the first week of April.
What's one food trend that you predict will dominate the Indian food scene in 2022?
Mithais have seen a huge resurgence over the past few years and we predict that this trend will only get stronger in the years to come. For decades, chefs have stayed away from experimenting with halwai techniques and flavours and as a result, mithais had slowly started losing their relevance with the current generation. With the current movement of many chef-driven mithai brands, working on everything from alternate flours, sweeteners, contemporary flavours and unique presentations, we hope that the trend of modern mithais will only get stronger.