In the Kitchen with Gresham Fernandes

Even if you don’t live in Mumbai, you’ve likely eaten Gresham Fernandes’ food. The Head Chef at Impresario, and at the helm of almost 40 restaurants across the country, it’s his menus you’ll find at places like Smoke House Deli, Salt Water Café, and all those Social’s. But Gresham’s love of food goes way back, and he’s been in the kitchen since he was five years old, the springboard for a career that has included a short residency at Copenhagen’s legendary Noma, and a whole slew of cool culinary projects, like Gypsy Kitchen, the pork-heavy (and appropriately monikered) Swine Dine dinner series, and pop-up dinners at Bandra’s gorgeously ramshackle St. Jude Bakery.

When you speak to Gresham about food, one thing is immediately evident: this is a man who is a passionate advocate of inherited culinary traditions, about food histories, and about the flavours that bring together local communities. Gresham has long been involved in projects that aim to preserve Mumbai’s local food traditions, and that preoccupation finds its way into his cooking, whether in nose-to-tail cooking, in using seasonal produce, or in recycling ingredients in uncommon ways.

We spoke with him about the city’s changing food landscape, a few of his pet projects, and what comfort food means to him. And while he spoke, he cooked. A fermented mushroom and eggs starter, a buttery corn ravioli with super-fragrant truffle oil and fermented lime, and a raspberry yuzu with white chocolate fuelled our chat. Just thinking about it makes our mouths water.
Tell us about your various projects: Gypsy Kitchen, Swine Dine, and now St Jude Bakery?
Gypsy Kitchen started about five or six years ago, as a way to revive those handed-down home recipes and traditions that surround eating. Our generation doesn’t even know the food that their grandmothers grew up eating. Gypsy Kitchen is a platform that allows women to host small sit-down dinners at their homes, showcasing recipes that have been passed down through generations. Dining is communal, and the ambience is relaxed. The idea is to revive not just recipes but traditions around eating - like sitting on the floor or on small stools, and using specific vessels like matkas and kansa plates to serve food - because they add flavour to the food, or aid digestion. There are reasons for many of these traditions, and unfortunately this wisdom is lost as these traditions are discarded.

Unlike now, when people are accustomed to eating parts of an animal, and discarding the remains, I grew up eating everything, including the “unmentionables”—liver, heart, tongue, kidney. If you’re going to kill an animal, you should use all of it. At Swine Dine, we live this philosophy by cooking with the whole pig. Most establishments will only serve spare ribs, or pork belly, but we serve many-course dinners, all with a pork element, and we cook with parts of the pig that you won’t be served at other restaurants, like the cheek or the ears.

And finally, St Jude serves as our test kitchen. It used to be a bakery, and then was used as a godown. We took it over a few years ago, and then the St+Art gang painted it as part of their Mumbai St+Art festival, and we filled it with reclaimed furniture and equipment. We do pop-up dinners here spanning 12-20 courses, for tables of about 12 people. Like with Swine Dine, we try to push food that you wouldn’t eat anywhere else in the country. We’re making really fun dishes here, essentially experimenting with flavours and seeing what happens. We use tried-and-tested techniques, but the dishes we make are innovative and original. We have rules and regulations for the dinner, and the menu is made and sent to people in advance. It’s a fixed menu and can’t be changed. The idea is to influence people to push out of their comfort zones and eat what we want them to eat. So far, we’ve had about 60 dinners here, and served over 600 different people.

Who are your cooking influences?
Albert Adria, Alex Atala, Enrique Olivera, Dan Barber, Bomra, Alex Sanchez, Manish Mehrotra, Gaggan Anand, Floyd Cardoz, Manu Chandra.... and grandmothers all over the world.

Flavours you can not live without?

Smoked Goan chorizo, fermented tamarind, Bottle Masala, anishi, slow-fermented soy, miso, kudumpuli, Gobindo Bhog rice.
Your go-to comfort food?
Dad's tea, pork curry and prawn chilli fry, mum’s potato chops, Bombay duck chutney, Handbreads and pakhat (skate) khuddi (curry).

Favourite restaurants, anywhere in the world?

Mugaritz, Noma, Alkimia, Akelare, Amaas, Iwai, and The Commons, NZ, when Nick Honeyman was running it.

Tell us about Mumbai’s foodscape.
It’s changed a lot in the last decade or so. Food in Bombay used to be seasonal. During the monsoons, people would traditionally eat dried fish, because live fish was harder to catch. Pollution and development have killed these traditions that are rooted in cycles of nature, and the environment. People are no longer attuned to these things.

There’s also a lot more competition, and social media has become a huge factor in where people go and what they order. It’s hard to be an independent chef in Bombay. The market is saturated, and it can feel very hectic and crowded. The amount of restaurants that are opening breaks down the target audience. For example, Saltwater Café was the only place of its kind 7 years ago; now you have places like Smoke House Deli, Indigo Deli, a bunch of smaller places, all doing great food, and it’s tough to survive. Factors like ambience, plating, even parking availability, have become critical now.

Similarly, the timeline of a dish has died. There are institutions like Brittania, that can have the same menu for decades, and people come to expect certain things. But it’s harder to get there now. People come in and take pictures of a new dish on the menu, post it on social media, and you’ll suddenly have 300 people coming in for a week to taste it. After that, everyone is bored. They want something new.
Must have kitchen tool?
A sharp knife and sense of humour.

Top tips for new chefs?
Common sense. Taste taste taste taste taste taste. Live the basics.

If not a chef, you'd love to be:
A DJ or a toy designer.

Mumbai, in three words:
Home sweet home.

For Gresham's Bombay food list, visit here.