Wine & Dine
Text and Photography by Mallika Chandra.
Kunal Makhija, 27
Speciality: Middle Eastern
Kunal, tell me a little about your journey as a chef.
I developed an interest in cooking around 2007 thanks to my father’s restaurant in Dubai and after schooling there, I was pretty sure that this was what I wanted to pursue. I completed the culinary speciality programme at the Institute of Hotel Management in Aurangabad and then interned at Taj West End, Bengaluru for a year. I was lucky enough to also intern at Gaggan in Bangkok (now shut) for two months, following which I worked at Indigo Deli in Colaba for a year.
A batchmate, who had also been my roommate from college, called me one day and asked, “Do you want to come to Dubai?” I had been looking for a change at that point. So, I worked at a few places in Dubai, including a Lebanese restaurant where I learnt most of what I do today. Before I moved to Mumbai, the last place I worked at was a fine dining restaurant by the name of London Project.
How did you get into the cloud kitchen business?
I had always wanted to start something of my own. During the lockdown, I had seen a lot of home kitchens coming up and I thought I would give it a try. It was not a very calculated move, to be honest. It was a leap of faith.
How did you put together the concept, the menu, the name?
I must give credit to my family and to my girlfriend because while it may appear like I’m the only one who handles the brand, they are the backbone.
My grandmother let me work out of her kitchen and provided me with a base for one year. My parents, who live in Dubai, were very supportive. A lot of my ingredients still come from Dubai, like za’atar powder, sumac and fava beans which we use for our falafel and it was my father who found the best sources for these. My brother and sister-in-law look into the finances of the company. So everyone has helped me to get where I am today. The name was suggested by my brother.
Does your family still play a very active role?
Whenever I want to add something new on my menu, my family members are the first to taste it. My grandmother was my official hummus taster, and I like to believe that I never get any complaints because she tasted every batch. I often discuss future plans with my brother.
Despite the support, it must be challenging to juggle both roles — of chef and owner?
When I was working for someone else, I was responsible for a section. Now, I’m responsible for the entire brand — from sourcing of ingredients and prep to training of staff and marketing.
A big aspect of running a cloud kitchen is having a solid social media presence.
I underestimated the power of social media. I assumed I could focus on the food and everything else would fall into place. Two years in, I realised that it’s more than 50 per cent of the game. Personally, I’m not very active on social media so that’s been one change since my journey as an entrepreneur. Getting your name out there is difficult. This is where my girlfriend comes into the picture; she has a very good sense of aesthetics. I have done photo shoots in the past but people have told me to start clicking pictures in real time. I focus on that now.
Cooking the food, on the other hand, has been easy. That’s what I’m trained in. But again, we keep updating the menu. Sometimes, I try something on a Tuesday, get it tasted by Wednesday, and put it up as a special by Friday for the weekend. It helps keep me on my toes. But honestly, that little space I’ve created wouldn’t exist without the customers. They’ve been brutally honest which I really appreciate.
What kind of insight has interacting with your audience provided in terms of the gap Arabisque fills in the market?
I have done my schooling in Dubai and I was not happy with the Middle-Eastern food that was available in Mumbai. I did see a big difference in the taste and price points in what was offered here. There were brands that served rolls and then there were fine dining Lebanese restaurants. There was nothing in the middle. I felt that was a good segment for me to target. So that’s where Arabisque fits in. It’s good-quality food at good prices.
How do you maintain standards around the freshness of the food?
We produce in limited quantities. We can serve a large number of customers if need be, but everything’s made to order. We make hummus five or six times a day. We try to make everything from scratch. Our breads — pita bread, the whole wheat pita, pide dough, manakish dough — are made in-house and to order.
Did you have to do a lot of trials?
It took a lot of trial and error. Even though I had a recipe for the bread from my time in Dubai, I had to tweak it to suit the climate here. A lot of trials went into the hummus as well.
Does the cuisine suit the delivery model?
Since the lockdown, I have observed that people have come to terms with the fact that there is going to be a difference between eating in a restaurant and having food delivered to your home. Since I get a lot of direct orders, I try to consider the distance that the food has to travel. For example, falafel, which is fried, tends to get soggy. So, if a person is at a distance from my kitchen, I send it half fried, if they are okay with finishing the dish at home.
Have you been able to manage a work-life balance?
I’m still trying to figure out a work-life balance. I’m not saying I’m a workaholic but work is always on my mind, which I’m not very proud of. My work hours are fairly decent — from noon to 10 pm. Sometimes it may mean that I reach late for a social commitment, but I do try to make it. It’s part of the game.
In culinary college, they tell you on day one that you’re going to be working when everyone’s enjoying themselves. You can say goodbye to celebrating all the festivals. I do miss it and my family do miss me being there, but I’m more than happy to be in my kitchen or at a catering party because that’s the time that you get most of your business.
How are you thinking about the growth and scale of your business in the future? What are your metrics for success?
I do want to make a name for myself. If you think of Lebanese food, I want to be among the first five names that pop up in your head. So that’s the goal.
How are you influencing people’s ideas of what Lebanese food is?
Even when we go out to eat in Dubai, I see the majority of people ordering hummus and falafel, not much else. But there’s a lot more that the cuisine has to offer. What I’ve done with Arabisque is that I’ve kept the classics but I’ve also tried playing around with them. I have seven different flavours of hummus. Some of them — the truffle hummus, for example — are not authentically Lebanese, but they’ve been doing well. Even the peri-peri hummus has appealed to people. Indian audiences love a bit of fusion.
Given the current socio-political climate in our country, do you find serving food from the Gulf region to be a challenge?
None of my dishes trigger any religious or political sentiments though I have chosen not to serve pork or beef in my kitchen. I can do a lot with chicken, lamb and seafood. While I am not a very religious person, I respect the viewpoints of others and expect the same from them. If a customer has a problem with the food other than the taste then I can’t really help them. I can’t change the origin of a dish.
What is the perfect order from Arabisque?
If it’s a meal for one, I would suggest a mezze bowl. We offer falafel, paneer, lamb and different preparations of chicken. It is the optimum quantity for one person and gives you the opportunity to try several elements like the hummus, tabbouleh and our breads. It’s a perfect sample of what Arabisque has to offer.
Next: Rehan Mehta, East 7th Pizza & Deli