On a Monday afternoon, Humaira, a dessert consultant for Café Mews in Karachi sits at the eatery sampling desserts. The table is filled to the brim with a sugaroholic's dream – there's Lemon Meringue Pie, Triple Chocolate Skillet Cookie, Pistachio Cake and Nutella Banofee with Candied Pecans. Humaira has also ordered coffee to cleanse her palate every time she tries a different dessert.
She first digs into the Lemon Meringue — the signature dish with which she started her home-baked business, A Whisk Come True. "The crust is soggy. I'll have to tell them. But the curd is good," she says. Humaira goes through each dessert with the same level of care — sizing up the presentation and thoughtfully taking a bite as she evaluates each dish. "The ingredients have to be balanced, you don’t want it to be too sweet," she points out.
When she's done, she asks the head waiter to get the dessert chef, Sagar, to talk to her. They go through each dish with no detail too small to discuss. "The Triple Chocolate Skillet Cookie is perfect," she tells a beaming Sagar, "but why are you garnishing the Banofee with pecans? Use whole pecans."
Humaira feels the pistachio cake is too dry; Sagar agrees with her. They discuss how to store the cake once it's baked (in an air-tight container) and how to change its presentation (a blue plate — not white — Humaira emphasises). "If it has to be a white plate then add rose petals," she instructs Sagar.
The amateur baker and mother of two is part of a small but growing number of food consultants that help owners of high-end eateries create new menus, tweak existing ones and train the kitchen personnel and chefs. As different restaurants have cropped up in the past decade, all offering the same clichéd cuisine, owners are increasingly looking to outsiders to stand apart from the competition.
The rising popularity of consultants suggests that restaurateurs are now open to spending money where it matters the most — on the food.
And unlike earlier, food entrepreneurs have realised that spending on the menu and ingredients is worth it. "Many café owners start cost cutting even before they have opened their place," says Humaira but points out there are many exceptions. The rising popularity of consultants suggests that restaurateurs are now open to spending money where it matters the most — on the food.
"Times are changing. People are willing to pay someone to come in to get a [different] menu made," says Maha Javed, another food consultant and founder of Fatsos, a catering service.
Sehr Hafeez Pirzada, who launched the blog Food Review and is a food entrepreneur, points out that consultants are "the best thing that has happened to Pakistan's restaurants." Many top-notch cafés and eateries such as Xander's, Flo, Cosmopolitan, and Lals, she says, have turned to these chefs-on-hire to fix something that's 'missing' in their menu.
Pirzada says there are probably a "handful of consultants" currently. Those who are now well-known in the food community, however, keep busy between their catering business and advising their roster of clients.
For instance, in addition to Mews, Humaira also consults for Bond Street and Bella Vita. Javed has a long list of clientele including Karachi-based cafés such as Lals, Xander’s, Hoagies, Pantry, Café Chatterbox as well as Nishat Hotel and Bamboo Union in Lahore. Shamira Mapara, the former owner of (the now-closed) café Marigold and Honey, works with Café Flo, Xander’s and Gymkhana.
The modus operandi is the same for most consultants. Restaurant or café owners choose what kind of menu or dish they want and the consultant comes in, trains the kitchen staff — usually for a maximum of three days — and then hands over the recipe.
While how much is paid depends on the consultant and the owner, the market price, according to Humaira, is around Rs10,000 per recipe. However, fees can run in the lakhs. BBQ Tonight in Islamabad apparently paid a consultant hundreds of thousands of rupees to get a Mulligatawny soup on their menu 'just right'.
Chefs-for-hire also become essential when wanting to put a new spin on an old menu or to make a signature dish or a different cuisine. The coffee chain, Gloria Jean's, for instance, hired Chef Mehboob a couple of years ago to revamp its menu.
Mapara says that the fee can run from Rs100,000 for 3-4 recipes to at least Rs200,000 for creating an entire menu. She points out that most eateries are able to attract customers when they open but once the hype of being ‘new’ has died down, it’s the food that gets people in the door — and this is where a consultant becomes worth every paisa they charge.
Shamira Mapara says that the fee can run from Rs100,000 for 3-4 recipes to at least Rs200,000 for creating an entire menu. Pirzada feels that some consultants may charge a lot but the value they add justifies the high fees.
"A lot of people [without formal training in food] want to open up a restaurant to generate money but once they do, they are caught up in a situation. If they don’t know about food themselves and their kitchen staff doesn’t either, then they turn to a consultant to help out, to make a menu and train kitchen staff," she says.
Pirzada feels that some consultants may charge a lot but the value they add justifies the high fees. She emphasises that’s it all about being known for a cuisine or a dish in an increasingly crowded market. "I've gone to restaurants where the décor is great but the food isn’t that good. For a restaurant to run well, it needs to be innovative. Out of every 10, two make it. I think this [consultancy trend] could really develop.”
Go to any big city in Pakistan and you’ll have a myriad upscale restaurants and cuisines to pick from. But often the fare on offer is generic, uninspired and similar. All have molten cake, roast beef sandwich and blackened chicken on the menu. So what makes one café stand out from the other?
"The best restaurants, such as the top 15 in Karachi, have a different menu, and after that the food becomes repetitive — there is simply a variation of the same ingredients," comments Pirzada.
Humaira agrees with Pirzada. Even in dessert, she says, the same kind of monotony has crept in. "You can either have a cookie cake or a chocolate molten lava cake. This is what people are used to having and want. But hopefully, over time, they will be open to different tastes and options."
Pirzada says that consultants have made it possible for different cuisines to be introduced at restaurants. Food connoisseurs, she emphasises, are finally spoilt for choice. "Now when you go to a Thai restaurant, you get authentic Thai food. Previously it would have been a Pakistani version."
Part of the reason for such clichéd, repetitive menus, industry insiders point out, is the paucity of professionally-trained kitchen staff. According to Javed, investors and café owners turn to consultants because often the chefs on staff may not be able to create a particular dish or be familiar with a certain cuisine.
"This is where the gap is being filled in. People approach me to come up with something that the average Pakistani chef can’t make. On average, you have the same 15-20 chefs rotating around restaurants. These investors are being smart in designing a menu that no one does."
Pirzada says that consultants have made it possible for different cuisines to be introduced at restaurants. Food connoisseurs, she emphasises, are finally spoilt for choice. "Now when you go to a Thai restaurant, you get authentic Thai food. Previously it would have been a Pakistani version. Now you have fine dining, you have gourmet."
Neeshay Rabbani, co-owner of Café Mews, who has hired consultants, is on the same page as Pirzada. "They bring a variety of flavours on board. We use someone else for savoury and someone else for dessert. And I think they are valuable if there are any issues. It helps in quality control and creativity. It also helps us in executing the professional side of restaurants in Pakistan — which has never been done before."
It seems that these behind-the-scenes culinary geniuses may finally be bringing a much-needed overhaul to the restaurant business. Could we soon have our very own celebrity chef — along the likes of Britain's Heston Blumenthal, Spain's Ferran Adrià Acosta and India's Madhur Jaffery?
Perhaps, a chef trained in a kitchen where creativity is encouraged or an ambitious food consultant could finally put Pakistan on the culinary global map. Only time will tell which milestone this new crop of food professionals shall hit next. In the meanwhile, there’s always that new restaurant you’ve been dying to check out...