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A peach and Gorgonzola salad at Pantry | Photos by Arif Mahmood, White Star
A peach and Gorgonzola salad at Pantry | Photos by Arif Mahmood, White Star

Much like going to the cinema, we Karachiites flock to cafes and restaurants for a break from the daily grind. Unlike cinemas in the city, the options for eateries are plentiful. We have food hubs in the city, where you will come upon a string of cafes sandwiched together. Lanes and streets in the upscale parts of Defence and Clifton house such a plenitude of cafes, that foodies are spoilt for choice. The appeal is that each eatery opens its doors to a nook of comfort, tasteful environs and, naturally, food at your beck and call. From décor and ambience to cuisine, every new place that pops up gains popularity for its signature dishes. The name of the restaurant does the rounds in social circles and the place picks up crowds of customers. “Have you had the steak at x? I love the Korean beef bowl at y!”

A few build a regular customer base which doesn’t wane over time — customer loyalty centred around the restaurant’s specialities. Some phase out in memory, because the food is forgettable, unlike the madeleine moment for Proust. For regulars at these joints, it is the owners who become ambassadors of their bustling business. The reason also being that most owners are hands-on with creating and evolving the menu and supervising the affairs of the kitchens. But, of course, there are chefs working magic inside these kitchens who produce the mouth-watering plates of food brought to our tables.

Okra’s head chef Mukesh Devtani (left)  looks out from the open kitchen
Okra’s head chef Mukesh Devtani (left) looks out from the open kitchen

Diners at Okra await their scrumptious meals
Diners at Okra await their scrumptious meals

Okra, which mainly has Mediterranean gourmet on offer, makes this connection to its small open kitchen immediately; as you enter, you can peek inside a small turquoise window to its white brick kitchen. Often, you can see Ayaz Khan, the owner, overseeing the activities of the chefs. You will also spot Mukesh Devtani, pristine in his black and white striped apron and black chef’s hat. As neat as the spick and span kitchen that has the stoves and oven fired, and the unending orders rolling in. Devtani has been with Okra for the last 15 years, so it is safe to say that he is well versed with the kinds of flavour and quality that the restaurant aims to put up. A particular dish is perfected after going through a few stages, as he and Khan work on it, sampling it and retrying twice or thrice until it’s just right. He says, “Khan sets the menu and then trains me on how to perfect the dish.”

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Devtani did not opt to be a chef because it was a calling for him, but rather out of necessity and for the sake of livelihood. He had his parents, wife and two sons to look after. He mentions though that in his long career he has been lucky to have found two great teachers. Before joining Khan at Okra, he worked for Wong Catering where he picked up a vast number of culinary skills from the owner. He would work for the latter in the morning and start his shift at Okra in the evenings.

Chef Abdul Samad prepares a salad of fresh seasonal fruits and veggies
Chef Abdul Samad prepares a salad of fresh seasonal fruits and veggies

Schooled only till the sixth grade, he entered the culinary profession as it helped make decent money — enough to “upgrade my family”, says the soft-spoken chef. When you draw customers for the food you plate up, ensuring that they keep coming back for more is paramount. For this reason, Devtani says that customers’ preference is an important guide to creating a dish that hits the spot. Okra entertains the well-heeled and a multitude of foreign visitors. “I read up a little bit about what goras like,” he says. For example, by he understands that they have a very light palette — spice is not what piques their taste.

Haydar Acik does his research on the Internet when looking for ideas to present a dish. He is not a proponent of fusion cuisine in his kitchen; the only fusion allowed is the mixing of Turkish, Urdu and choppy English. The burly chef at Clifton’s Lale-i-Rumi comes across as a patriotic Turk. He’s there to welcome the guests to a feast of Turkish cuisine at the restaurant, glowing in the dim kaleidoscope of Turkish lamps and plush with wall hangings, rugs and mirrors. Acik came to Karachi from Istanbul and worked as a chef at Sölen Istanbul, touted as the first Turkish restaurant in Pakistan. This was three years ago, when he came with his wife and daughter to the metropolis, but his training in culinary arts goes back over 20 years. His mentor was a restaurant chef in Istanbul, named Yusuf, from whom he learned the ropes — of grilling succulent Adana kebabs and making cheesy Künefe desserts.

Adapting dishes accordingly is the trick to keeping people coming back for more

Acik comes across as a no-nonsense, even taciturn, man who manages his team, but there is also an ease and familiarity when he is communicating with his colleagues. There isn’t much difference in what he gets paid here to what he could make back home in Istanbul, so he claims he works only to promote the cuisine of his land and its culture. “Allah made me come to Karachi,” is how he explains this trade of countries.

For Abdul Samad, head chef at Pantry – a cafe located on Zamzama – it was his brothers who inspired him to join the food industry. One of his brothers works as a chef in New York and the other works in Washington DC. Samad has been trained at Karachi’s Pakistan Institute of Training and Hotel Management, referred to as PITHM in the culinary circle. According to the owner of Pantry, Mohammad Ali Teli, PITHM sends many trained cooks that are recruited in the city’s restaurants.

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The kitchen at Pantry – a go-to cafe for comfort food – is crowded with a team of cooks, all busy chopping and cutting, tossing and drizzling, grilling and baking. Samad says it is a challenge indeed to manage two teams of chefs, who work the morning and evening shifts. Although he has been cooking for 16 years now, he reiterates responding to the regular customers’ suggestions; adapting dishes accordingly is the trick to keeping people coming back for more. Teli tries to also reinvent the menu every three to five months in order to keep things fresh.

Chef Haydar Acik grills vegetables for Turkish kebabs at Lale-i-Rumi
Chef Haydar Acik grills vegetables for Turkish kebabs at Lale-i-Rumi

The cooks are a motley crew, as they come from various backgrounds: a chef who works in the cold kitchen, mostly responsible for making salads, ran away from the army and has been at Pantry for two and a half years. Yasir, who comes from a family of fisherfolk, is the young chef in charge, who started out doing kitchen duty here. He says he only goes on a boat for “enjoyment” now, but his family doesn’t understand the kind of food he has learnt to cook here.

As Devtani explains: “They say if someone is involved with a certain skill or profession, it is around them and before them daily. So you can’t help but learn new things about the subject.”

This article was originally published in the Herald's September 2016 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.

The writer is a staffer at the Herald.