Wine & Dine
Text and Photography by Mallika Chandra.
Divesh Aswani, 33
Speciality: Baked goods, kitchen staples, condiments, confectionery, ice creams
What led you to start Commis Station?
I was 70 per cent down the line with my research and development for a restaurant when COVID-19 hit. The only thing that had been left to do was to find a space. So, a year after the lockdown, I kind of just broke the menu down into its basic elements and decided to take off. The only model that seemed to work at the time was the delivery model.
What was the concept of the original restaurant?
It was going to be a very casual space with no specific theme. A place where you could get a really good bowl of pasta, a nice noodle soup, a good roast chicken or sandwich.
And was that the kind of food that you had been making even before you ventured out on your own?
I left Mumbai when I was 17 and I had the luxury and the opportunity to train at Le Cordon Bleu in Sydney. During that course, I was working part-time. I lived in Australia for 10 years and worked at different cafes serving various cuisines. That’s where I picked up most of my cooking style from. I also ate out a lot which kind of defined how I cooked. Australia being a melting pot of cultures, there’s a lot on offer in terms of food and that just opened me up creatively.
So that diversity of cuisine has been carried into Commis Station?
It’s basically what chefs would now define as modern Australian cuisine. They’ve taken influences from different kinds of cuisines and put it together as elements on the menu. I like that you can go to a restaurant as a family of four where a child could want a noodle soup, the mother might want a sandwich or a salad or a fresh pasta and so on. I wanted to create a space where there’s something for everyone, really.
The name Commis Station itself is a nod to professional kitchen structures. An interesting choice instead of something more related to your product. What was the thought there?
There was a lot of thought behind the name. Essentially, a commis is the most junior person in the kitchen hierarchy. The first role that you can apply for in the kitchen is that of a commis and then you climb up the ranks.
Following that hierarchy, the idea was to tell our clients and guests that we are your commis chefs. Everyone was cooking during COVID-19, but they didn’t necessarily want to make fresh noodles or baos or gyoza wrappers. We wanted to be the place where people would reach out and say, “I feel like eating burgers tonight, what can you do for me?” And we’d say, “We can send you the buns, the BBQ sauce, the pickled cucumber, the hand-cut fries and you just have to put it together.”
In our logo, you’ll see the stripes on the lettering. The stripes resemble those on the aprons that commis chefs would wear back in the day. The commis station is where all the mise en place gets done. So basically, the commis station never stops. Even during service, they’re doing last-minute prep jobs and making sure that the kitchen is fully ready to serve.
Why offer simplified gourmet? What gaps are you filling?
The idea is very simple. We use our skill set and provide something that cannot be easily achieved at home. People learned a lot about cooking during COVID-19, but even then, they needed to get staples and condiments. If you look at our sauce range, we started with something familiar — a Sichuan sauce. One of our top-selling dips is the Lebanese garlic spread, which is essentially a toum but we add confit garlic to it to give it our twist. Everything had to be elevated, fresh and something that cannot be made or replicated easily at home. It is a constant battle to do things that other people aren’t doing.
I was surprised to see how short a time it took for a product to get made from scratch and get packed in the box.
Yes, but that does backfire sometimes. For instance, people would like to eat bagels for breakfast. But we start our shift at 8 am and by the time it’s ready, it’s like 10 or 11 am and by the time it reaches them, it’s noon. But it is important to me to create a very comfortable work environment for the team. It was difficult when we started because we didn’t know how much we would sell. Now we are almost certain that we’re going to sell X number of sauces every week so those can be made in small batches. And we’re quite vocal about the things that we make in small batches, things that are made-to-order, things that need 48 hours’ notice. It tastes different when it’s fresh. As opposed to any fancy restaurant in the city, which may still be serving portions that did not sell the day before.
How did you go about setting up your operations and space?
Tough! It was very tough. I don’t even want to think about those days. Everything that could have gone wrong went wrong. You kind of have to just be ready for it. We faced a lot of issues from licensing to water to the builders not showing up, and we were building during COVID-19!
I was scouting for deals all around town because so many places were shutting down. So, I was shopping for a coffee machine from one place, picking up someone’s shelves from another part of town, a second-hand oven from somewhere else. It was just full-on hustle mode.
But it was a labour of love and obviously we had to be very careful with what we spent. I wasn’t sure whether this was going to take off. Fortunately, things worked out and Commis Station has been growing both in terms of the services we offer and the business that we can take on.
How do you manage to keep growing?
It really helps to have a very strong team. My team has supported my decisions and backed me up with the long hours, when needed, or adapted to serving at catering gigs we take on at the last minute. I try to lead by example. I’m very proud of the fact that I’m always the first one in and the last one out, I’m very hands-on and that is central in keeping the morale of the team up.
The fact that I speak to all my customers and take their orders also helps. I feel that people have gotten so used to ordering on apps that they have forgotten the old school way of ordering food by calling a local restaurant guy and asking what was available that night. I have this group of select clients who just randomly pick up the phone when they don’t really feel like cooking and say, “Can you sort me out tonight?” And I think that’s a very nice part of the business. I’ve built very strong relationships with my clients, some of whom have even invited me over to their homes for special occasions!
It must take time to maintain these strong relationships. Do you take out time to focus on marketing and social media?
It’s not as well planned or designed as you may think it would be. When you’re an entrepreneur and you’re hands-on and you’re cooking, managing a team, doing sales and talking to customers, you just look for that five-minute gap and you jump on Instagram and post whatever is being done. Sometimes, I’ll be walking by a pile of bread and think that it looks great. And I’ll post that. A lot of it is just very spontaneous and very unplanned and I think that’s what makes it stand out. It’s organic and not staged.
Given that your offering is so much about being chef-driven and elevating staples, do you feel like the business is closely tied to your persona as a chef? How much of yourself do you have to put out on social media when it comes to creating content?
If you look at my profile versus Commis Station’s, I personally have more followers. But I’m not a chef who’s constantly on social media. It’s not that I’m not a social person. But I’m not someone who craves Instagram likes or thinks much about hashtags. I follow very few people. For me, being on Instagram for business is enough.
What are some of the challenges you face as a cloud kitchen?
The toughest part is figuring out how to get the food or the product to the client in the best possible way. That’s always been the challenge and always will be. Some days you can pull off a dessert and then a few months later it’s so hot that you cannot serve that dessert anymore. There’s a lot of science behind cooking, but it’s very hard to convey that to the customer.
It is also difficult to stay motivated while doing the same thing over and over again for years. That’s why I like the catering aspect of the business because it breaks the monotony. We go out, we cook in front of people and we interact.
Do you take time off?
I don’t. It’s mainly because of work that I travel. I’ve been working with Ishka Farms and producing a condiment range with them that’s caper-focused. So I travel to Kochi quite often because I have to be there for the production part of it. I love pop-ups. I do a lot of collaborative dinners. Once the work is over, I spend an extra day or two for fun and come back. That’s always going to be the luxury of being a chef — you can go to any part of the world and have a job.
How do you stay inspired?
It’s a process in itself and it actually happens when there is a lull. A quiet period might feel like something is wrong but usually it’s nothing to worry about. It could just be a festive weekend or maybe people are travelling. And so, every time there’s a lull, I use the time to create something new, post about it and get eyes back onto Commis Station. An idle mind is not always the devil’s workshop.
Some of your items, especially the tiramisu, have a cult following.
It does. I actually got the coffee machine for the kitchen thinking that I’d be this cool guy selling coffee in the compound. That never happened but because of that coffee machine, I started making tiramisu. Life works in mysterious ways. On average, we sell about 150 to 160 kilos of the dessert per month.
What is the perfect order from Commis Station?
It’s always going to be the tiramisu because that never lets you down and it’s in the sharing format, so everyone’s happy. But we can also help you put a meal together, so ordering something from the bakery, some sauces, some condiments, some staples, is a good way to go. I like to encourage people to kind of mix and match. Whenever someone calls for baos, I’ll also suggest ordering the kimchi and sesame. People don’t always have the knack of putting things together so the perfect order would always be to take the suggestions of the chef.
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