Session after session of watching Masterchef Australia, skimming, scanning and reading tons of cookbooks and her many expeditions to explore the world and its food. This is how chef Devika Manjrekar materialised the idea of a pasta restaurant. After the success of her venture Toast Doughnut Shop, Manjrekar is making her stand in the food business yet again with Toast Pasta Bar, which opened in June. Bringing a little glimpse of sunny Italy to a dainty restaurant in Lower Parel she has remarkably expressed her love for all Italian dishes, going beyond the popular hits.
In our conversation, we touch upon all topics from the why's and how's of this venture, to her approach to work and inclusivity. This interview is a rollercoaster ride, taking you through the chef's quirky details and significant projects.
Edited excerpts from the interview.
Where does your love for pasta come from? What motivated you to start a restaurant dedicated to pasta?
I think my love for pasta comes from my travel experiences. I ate a great deal of wonderful pasta, different kinds, when I lived in London. And then I travelled to Italy as well, the country that gave us pasta. It's a dish that has now come to be my comfort food and, you didn't ask this, but it would be my death row meal as well After the success Toast Doughnut Shop saw, I realised that focussing on one thing and doing it well really worked, especially for me. And that's how Toast Pasta Bar was born!
What is your vision for your restaurant? And what was your research process like in order to make this a reality?
My vision for Toast Pasta Bar is to be THE place to go to when you're craving good pasta and cocktails. The first name that pops to your mind. That's the kind of recognition and goal I am working towards. I have never approached the idea to start Toast Pasta Bar in a straightforward manner. It is infact a collection of my experience and knowledge in the field. I read a lot of cookbooks, of varying kinds. I do tend to watch Masterchef Australia for entertainment, but have managed to pick up a lot of tips and tricks from there as well. And of course, travelling has indeed given me a lot of exposure and perspective. This is what my research process looked like.
In a world where all the leading chefs are harping on Indian cuisine and ingredients, why did you think of a pasta bar?
I'll be honest here and say I've never cooked Indian food. Somehow it's never been something I've leaned towards or has been my calling. One possible explanation I can think of is that the Indian dishes prepared in my house were so amazing that I've never had to make an effort to cook it myself to enhance the flavours or make it better. I never had to venture into that area. On the other hand, Italian food I've loved since forever and have identified with. It somehow comes very naturally to me hence my interest in pastas and one reason among others for my venture.
What is your take on inclusivity and the role of women in the food and beverage industry? Do you see progress in the situation?
We may have come a long way but I still don't think most kitchens in India are the most conducive spaces for women. Taking into consideration my experience in the field I've worked in quite a few and have heard about a lot of disturbing experiences, sadly. Which is why I am also trying to work my way towards creating a more inclusive environment. It's my goal to run a successful female-dominated kitchen which is driven by equality on the basis of merit. It's the one important project to strive towards among my other plans.
How do you keep up the morale and enthusiasm in your kitchen? What are some motivational tactics you employ, to keep up the team spirit?
Having a sense of humour is super important to me. So everyone's always cracking jokes and making the rest of us laugh. It's generally a very happy kitchen which I'm super grateful and thankful for. I also talk to each employee one-on-one, to check in, every now and then to make sure everyone is happy with what they're doing and that no one is overwhelmed or taking on more than they can handle. I'd like to maintain a healthy work environment, which I believe will in turn keep up the team morale.
Sustainability is huge the world over, and we noticed that you propagate the idea of sourcing local produce. What other techniques do you employ to drive the idea of sustainability in your kitchen?
The sustainable approach is very important to me. 90% of our produce is locally sourced. Meat, fish, fruits and veggies, you name it. To not stray off this tangent, I do urge everyone to focus on mutton and not New Zealand lamb chops. The only ingredients imported to us are the Amalfi lemon, parmesan, olives, parma ham and olive oil. It isn't sustainable when most of your produce is imported, especially fresh produce. We have beautiful fresh cheeses in Mumbai currently and I'm so happy about that. Also the quality of meat and seafood is so great, I don't feel the need to import it. A number of the vegetables and herbs are available locally as well, which wouldn't have been the case a few years ago.
What are some habits you inculcate to keep the creative juices flowing so that your menu is always fresh and exciting?
Honestly, Masterchef Australia keeps my creative juices flowing. Just watching people cook with a hint of their own creativity, gives me ideas to try out various permutations and combinations with my dishes. Apart from this, I do read a great deal of cookbooks and scour the internet for inspiration.
Sonal Ved is the editor at IFN. She is also an author of an award-winning cookbook called Tiffin. She travelled through the first five tastes to be able to tell between a brie and provolone dolce. She can make stellar undhiyu and a green smoothie.