CHEF TALK: FIRE IT UP! with IRFAN PABANEY
Before I start on my intro of Chef Irfan I have a made a new self-discovery! I am a secret stalker! I have eaten at all but one restaurant that Chef Irfan has been with and not realised it until I met him. Even doing this interview was pure coincidence. On my very recent visit to Bombay (also known as Mumbai), I met a pick-up-where-we-left-off friend, Purvi, who knew Irfan and put us in touch. Now Bombay will always be home to me, but the food scene when I left it in 2003 has evolved so much in recent years, that I can hardly keep up, so I leave it to friends like Purvi, to keep me connected to the city I call home!
First impressions of Chef Irfan – unconventional, global citizen, Bombay boy at heart, total foodie. Oh yes, and sassy, so the name of his restaurant is quite in line with his personality, although it was not named after him. I met Irfan (one part of The Sassy Spoon duo – the other being pastry Chef Rachel Goenka) on a nice drizzle filled day in Bombay and as soon as I saw him in his black shorts, black shirt with fuchsia pink piping and a red bandana, oh how can I forget, neon green shoes, I knew I a great few hours ahead of me – and I was so glad I was proved right. Irfan is a lovely human being (and although I never met his mom, I believe some of her goodness has rubbed off on him) – I guess both of us being Bombay kids (although he can’t really claim that – read about it in the interview) it was easy to gel. Typing this interview 1000s of miles above the ground, I found myself smiling every time I typed the two buzz words of the interview – Singapore and pork. I wish I get more opportunities to meet people (and if they are Chef, even better) like Irfan in Bombay – the city will be a more fun place to live in!
Name: Irfan Pabaney
Restaurant: The Sassy Spoon, Express Towers, Nariman Point, Mumbai (INDIA)
From: Mumbai, India (born in Bogota, Colombia)
Culinary School: Hotel Administration Food Technology (HAFT) at Sophia’s College, Mumbai
Knife Hand: Right
Instagram: @irfanpabaney or @thesassyspoon
Were you a good kid, did you eat your veggies as a child?
Very good! I always ate my veggies. I grew up in Quezon City in the Philippines and was there for 9 of my formative eating years (4-13 years). The food there is predominantly seafood and pork. They have a dish called Tuyo which is fish that is dried and then fried and we ate it with rice. I used to love eating that. They also had a dish called Sinigang which is a soup with meat and a lot of vegetables and being Indian, my mom always made sure we had an Indian style vegetable with our meals. It was a family tradition where we were forced to be vegetarian every Tuesday and Friday.
You are the first Chef I have meet who has a World Record to his name. Tell us more!
I just got back from Singapore where 9 Chefs were invited by the ICCA (Indian Chefs and Culinary Association of Singapore) as part of the annual food festival called Suvai 2015. We were two Chefs from India and we were expected to cook a starter, main course and dessert which would be sold at the 4-day Festival. The Guinness Book of World Record was for us to cook the largest amount of curry – the previous record stood at 10.4 tonnes which was set in 2005 in England. The idea to break this record had been in the pipeline for 2 years or so and we 9 chefs were to be part of the record breaking team. We had hoped to make 15 tonnes of curry. We cooked a vegetable curry and the process of cooking started at 8am and finished at 2pm after which the final weighing of the final quantity started at 3pm and went on until 8.30pm. At the end of the weighing process it was announced that we had managed to cook 15.4 tonnes of curry hence setting a record in the Guinness Book. Most of the curry was given away to Charity. This experience I can only describe as insane, epic and humbling – cooking, cooking with so many people. In the process of setting this record, we even managed to set a second one – it was a world record for the cooking vessel being the largest cooking vessel.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
I wanted to be a pilot, but very early on I realised being a pilot was not what I would be – was not much of a science student. Growing up in the Philippines my parents used to travel a lot for work, and my mom ensured that she had cooked enough for when they were away and would put the food in the freezer. My siblings, Shahid, my elder brother and Naimet, my younger sister did not do much in the kitchen – so it was I who had to heat the food for our meals. I also had to make rice to accompany the food, and I did that from scratch. I was about 11 years old. When we moved to India when I was about 14, I used to help my mom in the kitchen and used to enjoy it. So that is where my introduction to cooking took place. I used to visit hotels in Mumbai, and I loved the hotel ambiance – the way things were and decided to go in for hotel management. At that time I had an inkling that I wanted to be a Chef, but after the 2 year diploma course, I knew that was what I wanted to do for sure.
It would have to be Under The Over (Kemps Corner). It is where I started my cooking career under my mentor Rahul Akerkar. I remember starting off doing all the basic stuff – peeling potatoes, slicing onions and so on. I was with Under the Over for 4.5 years and it is where I became someone who came in to cut veggies to a person who could manage a restaurant and kitchen and work on the line. It was also where I honed my skills which have made me what I am today. Rahul gave me the perspective of the attitude towards food, to making cooking fun and always being true to what you have decided to do in life – in my case it was cooking and being a Chef.
What did you have for lunch yesterday?
I had what was served as part of our staff meal – a little bit of chicken curry and egg curry. I had it plain as I am watching my intake of carbs.
Place you eat most often on days off?
We eat a lot at Dakshinayan which is my wife, Yashodha’s favourite restaurant at Teen Batti (near Walkeshwar). It serves South Indian food and you will find me eating their pepper dosa and the mini idlis with moplagapodi (means Chilli powder, but gun powder is what it is colloquially called), sambhar and chutney. We also love going to Royal China at VT to have their dim sums and the pork in a bun dish called Cha Sui pau (bread).
What’s your favourite ingredient/ condiment to work with?
I have three that I love. I love working with curry leaves – it’s just so good. It’s good in curries, deep fried, in chutney – it can be so versatile. I also like using star anise – oh what flavour! We use it in The Sassy Spoon – we braise the pork belly with cinnamon and star anise – and it tastes so good! Star anise is an ingredient that is good in most cuisines. I also love the kaffir lime – I even have a tree of it growing at home! It is used a lot in Thai cooking. We use it in our cottage cheese dish where we finely julienne the leaves and use it – it is simply divine. (PMF Note: I was introduced to this ingredient and the smell after crushing the leaves was addictive – I kept finding myself picking it up to re-smell it – the taste it infuses in food is something I imagine would be addictive too!)
If it’s the last weekend on earth – what city are you eating in and what are you eating?
Singapore for sure! Eating dim sums. It would be either at 126 in Geylang which is a small eatery serving Hong Kong style dim sums or at Swee Choon which is also a dim sum restaurant which opens only at 6pm until 6am. They have outstanding dim sums and are famous for their Sieu Long Bao dim sum which is a dim sum stuffed with pork and soup. Swee Choon is a street food restaurant and there are lines formed outside to place an order. Their dim sums are flavourful with their special chilli sauce and ginger adding the right flavour. Oh! I must not forget the most popular dish in Singapore – the Hainanese Chicken rice at Chuen Chuen Café.
If you left Mumbai to cook somewhere else, where would you go?
Totally for selfish reasons I would chose Singapore so I could eat the local Singaporean fare – it’s just so diverse! The food scene in Singapore is more transient and so the food that we love eating does not get stuck in a particular genre. When it comes to me cooking in Singapore, I would most likely be cooking the food that I love to cook because it’s what expresses me the best. I would make sure that what I cook is markedly different to what others do, keeping it interesting, working with different flavours and textures and most importantly keeping it simple.
Two ladies walked into The Sassy Spoon one of who had visited our restaurant before. A trainee came up to me and mentioned this and I thought it might be a good idea to go up to the lady and welcome her back. I of course did not think to ask him which of the two ladies it was! And so with great confidence I walked up to the table, looked one of the ladies straight in the eye and said – nice to have you back – to which she politely replied that it was not hear who was returning but her table companion. While this entire episode played out, the trainee was poking me subtly to indicate I was asking the wrong lady. Totally red faced, I went back. It was very very embarrassing.
Who is the person you would most like to cook for?
I would have loved to have cooked for my mom – Raihana. She passed away after my hotel management course and she never got to see me become a Chef. She was the most amazing human being. I honestly have no idea what I would have cooked for her, but I know with certainty that she would be the one I would have loved to have cooked for.
What is the dish on the menu you eat most?
The warm lemony couscous salad with prawns and squid served with lettuce and veggies. It’s pretty much a complete meal. Or you might find me eating the spaghetti with a lemon beurre noisette which is a spaghetti dish with lemon, toasted almonds, fresh basil and garlic. We do a lemon juice and lemon rind (hint of bitterness) which gets compensated with the basil – it’s got pasta, the crunch of almonds and the zesty taste of lemon.
How would you describe your food philosophy?
My philosophy is simple – Great food never tastes like it’s trying too hard. It’s always nice to see what you are eating.
What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten?
Balut (half fertilized egg which is then boiled and eaten) – it’s something that I ate growing up do I never thought it to be weird because everyone ate it. There was a guy who used to come round on his bicycle selling it. My favourite part was the slightly softer textured yellow and the chewy textured white. I wouldn’t eat the whole bird but would eat parts of it with a pinch of salt.
What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten?
It was at the Tippling Club in Singapore. Our fixed menu had about 12-15 courses, each of which was paired with different alcohols which would complement the dish. The food was progressive food – molecular gastronomy, food that I would not have thought of doing because it’s something that I personally would not do. The experience lasted over 3 hours and one could sense the effort taken to create the drama and also have spectacular food.
What’s your biggest guilty pleasure food?
Walking back home from school in the Philippines, I would buy a sachet of choco nut nearly every day. It’s a powdery chocolaty peanut which came in a small packet and was sold in small shops on my route home. I also absolutely love Tibbs mutton fankie in Mumbai. It was one of those things that I ate growing up and I remember calculating my pocket money based on how many frankies I could buy – that’s how good they are!
If you were an ingredient what would you be, and why?
Salt. You need salt with everything, so I would like to think I am important in people’s lives and I make a difference.
What’s the best piece of advice you have been given?
Always be nice to everyone – you never know what they are going through. Be good to people – it’s just the right thing to do.
If you weren’t a chef, or in the food business, what would you be?
A Mumbai taxi driver!
Best culinary tool? Mortar and pestle. The flavours you get out of the pounding of the ingredients cannot be compared.
A chef that inspires you? Rahul Akerkar. I learned a lot from him, not only with regards to food, but other things in life.
Favourite cuisine? Very tough to say. I just love food. But I do like my mutton sukka and Cendol which is a Singaporean drink made of palm sugar with coconut milk and green think vermicelli.
One dish you can’t live without? Bhindi (lady fingers) – I just love it since my childhood and I can eat it any way it’s cooked.
Favourite food from your childhood/ Describe one of your first food memories. My mom’s khichdi (Indian rice dish) with split green moong (mung bean) which she made with a blob of butter and was accompanied with dahi kadhi (a yogurt based curry). This used to be cooked regularly at home. In fact recently when we had a charity event which I hosted at The Sassy Spoon the dish I made was this – exactly the way my mom made it.
Something in your fridge or freezer that would surprise people? Bakkwa – it’s grilled pork from Singapore which you eat straight out of the fridge and has a barbecue sauce on it. It’s a bit sweet and it’s so good to eat.
Last thing you cooked for yourself? Chicken dressed on the board. It was a pan seared chicken which was cut on the board, in which I mixed mint, coriander, lemon, bell peppers, chilli, and lemon juice. Basically you cook the chicken in olive oil, then cut it into pieces and toss it in with the things you chopped on the board. Of course you add salt and pepper at the mixing stage.
Describe your cooking style in 3 words. Simple, Respectful (respecting the ingredient based on the dish it goes into) and flavoursome.
THIS OR THAT
Food on a skewer or food in a tiny spoon?
Hot curry or haute cuisine?
Buffet or sit-down dinner?
Mints or gum?
Soup or salad?
Greek yogurt or labneh?
Butter or olive oil?
Chicken breast or chicken thigh?
Baked or fried?
Waffles or pancakes?
Lobster or steak?
And lastly, cake or pie?
Well, that’s that! Thank you. Thank you. Thank you!