You will forgive Hamid Ali Khan’s hubris once his croissant reveals its soul — past the paper-thin golden dome, a pillowy centre emerges. After you work beyond the perfections of its texture, you notice the quiet humming of butter in your throat.
Such heavy-duty diction for a piece of bread? But it was precisely the frustration that he couldn’t find a proper croissant in Karachi that set Hamid on the journey for one. The result is Upper Crust, his bite-sized bakery that has opened at Zamzama.
“The idea was born about four years ago,” he told The Express Tribune. He had tired of the “hot-dog rolls” that masqueraded as baguettes in Karachi’s wannabe bakeries.
Food was an obsession since childhood (first soufflé at 11). It was fuelled by a family in the business. His father signed LU Biscuits. But Hamid’s real education came in the company of two men, the late Rafique Kachelo and uncle Hussain Haroon, “giants of gastronomy.”
They took the Oxford student to the Waterside Inn, Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons during the heady days of Nouvelle Cuisine. “They were spraying chocolate on the plate,” Hamid recalls. “It was food architecture.”
Hamid was no stranger to experimenting. He made his own pasta, “none of that packaged crap”, colouring it with carrot puree. There was the mad hat seafood sausage stuffed with layers of lobster, crab and prawn. One friend changed the way he scrambled eggs by showing him how to do it with a bain marie.
To address the lack of official credentials, he got serious after university. On one of his first days of an eight-month course at Alain Ducasse’s L’ Ecole de Cuisine in Paris, his scrambled eggs were binned, copper pan et al. “These are English,” sneered his instructor. “At L’ecole, they threw things at you,” Hamid recalls. “I learnt every French cuss word there was.”
Back in Pakistan, there were distractions such as Club Havana and food coma-inducing beach parties for up to 50 people (ask for the chocolate pizza). One and a half years ago, when the itch got too big to scratch, he went back to the kitchen. Hamid had a bun in the oven.
At a Dubai food fair he bumped into award-winning gelato chef Giovanni Augusto. A flight to Bologna later and Augusto was wooed to teach the Upper Crust team. “You know Italian bhenses are blond?” Hamid asks. He’s importing their milk for his pasty gelato — hazlenut, strawberry, coffee — that starts to evaporate the second it hits the tongue. But don’t be fooled, it is after the melt that the flavour unfolds — the coffee rises up the nose, rolls around in the brain.
The secret to Upper Crust will not just be technique; the ingredients have to be the best. The key limes are from Miami, the vanilla isn’t ersatz, it is from the pod. The sheets of croissant butter are flown in. The coffee is from Miscelle d’oro, which he says is Italy’s oldest roasting company. Curiously the flour is quite desi — from the family mill.
Pakistani flour actually has the right amount of gluten and protein. The secret is being able to manage the ingredients. “You have to massage the dough,” he explains. The mill is even providing him bran for a brown bread baguette. “Bran is difficult to control,” he explains. “It will throw off the elasticity completely [unless you know what you’re doing].”
The challenge will be to maintain quality; will it slip if he delegates the kneading? (Three pain au chocolat wobbled on the rubbery side). With so much riding on imported ingredients, he will have to stay stocked. When the croissant butter ran out, he had to lug back 18kg in an emergency Dubai trip. “The customs guys joked I had become a khepia.”
Fortunately, all this decadence is priced reasonably. His red velvet cake is Rs1,000. “I’m not here to make money off people,” he says. “That’s no fun.”
Hamid’s motivation is entirely selfish: a personal passion for food. He exudes the kind of culinary snobbery that men develop in the kitchen. One suffers it only because of the product.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 4th, 2011.
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