Growing up with a mother like Shama Askari who is a phenomenal baker, Hasan Askari was lucky enough to pick up on recipes and techniques from a real pro at home. Hasan built on everything he learnt from his mother by working in different restaurants and eventually put all his culinary knowledge to use when he starting cooking and catering professionally. From his delicious sandwiches and dishes to the delectable Shama’s signature cake and other desserts; Hasan tells us all about his inspirations and what he loves most about what he does!
You’re a cooking enthusiast! How did you become interested in cookery and how did you start your career?
My first influence was my mother, Shama Askari. I grew up watching her spend hours in her bakery kitchen, tasting everything she made until she perfected the recipes, procedures and process flows. Time that wasn’t spent in the kitchen was otherwise spent butchering cuts of meat, filleting fish and combing various flavours to develop our own unique taste. A lot of the early cooking that took place was inspired by French food, so we spent time making sauces, canapes, hors d’oeuvres and various cuts of protein. We eventually started developing our own style. I find it’s important to be constantly inspired in the kitchen and then challenge the very fundamentals of cooking. Don’t be recipe driven, be technique driven. I spent four years during college working in different restaurants, cafes and cafeterias and the diverse experience helped me apply my skills in home cooking, catering, Shama’s Bakery and Yeh Cheeze Sandwiches. I experimented at Karachi Food Festival with “Breast and Loin” in 2016, and the response we received inspired me to continue working with meats, alongside the sweets.
Did you receive any formal training before you started?
The only formal training I received was through books, videos, various chefs I worked under and of course my mother. I chose to spend the time, effort and money that would otherwise be spent on culinary short courses (which I strictly do not believe in) on ingredients. Instead of spending hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars on a week long course on bread, pasta, meat or cakes I instead chose to spend that time and money on playing with ingredients, reading culinary books and constant trial-and-error in the kitchen.
What do you like most about your job?
Working with my hands. I love the idea that I created something on my own. I also love the fact that I get to see the end results almost immediately.
What is most challenging about your job?
My job is physically demanding and all consuming. It is laborious in nature. In pursuit of consistency, one has to devote hours to quality and control. That includes checking all products, tasting everything along the way, making sure temperatures and textures are right. Even the smallest negligence can cause the entire product to be discarded and then the process starts all over again.
Is there anyone whose style of cooking inspires you?
Gordon Ramsey and Heston Blumenthal are sources of inspiration for me; their attention to detail, the ability to create masterpieces with inexpensive products is sheer brilliance to me. I am, however, equally inspired by Shah-Jehan, the head chef at Waheed Nihari; their ability to maintain consistency and flavour each and every week (and I have Nihari on a weekly basis from them) is commendable. I can equally appreciate a perfectly seared foie gras as I can a great tikka, or saalan. We don’t take enough pride in our local food. A Frenchman or Italian will not be impressed with our version of their food, they would however be impressed with the perfection and attention to detail in our aloo ghosht, for example.
If you had to pick between cooking and baking, which would you pick?
Cooking. Cooking is an art whilst baking is a science. There are hard and fast rules in science (baking) which cannot be taken lightly. One has to be extremely precise in baking. Cooking however, allows me to play with ingredients in different ways and allows much room for experimentation and constant adjustment.
What made you start Yeh Cheez – Grilled cheese sandwiches?
It was initially started to provide school kids with a cleaner, more wholesome alternative to canteen food. I also believe that it is a great way to sample a product. If the same person is willing to pay money to eat the same thing every day, five days a week, you’re set. Now that we have spent a year sampling, we intend on moving on to bigger projects.
What do you like to do when you’re not in the kitchen?
I love the outdoors; I am a licensed scuba diver and also a novice at paragliding. So when I’m not in the kitchen, you can most likely find me either at the beach, in the sea or in Balochistan trying to find a hill high enough to leap off.
Describe yourself in three words.
Passionate, aggressive, adventurous.
Do you wish to expand and open a bakery or a restaurant?
Most definitely a combination of both.
How do you wish to a make a change in the Karachi food scene?
I don’t know how much of a change I alone will be able to bring to the cooking landscape in Karachi, however I am interested in seeking out the best local ingredients (which we have plenty of), and showcasing them in a no holds barred fashion. I don’t want to be restricted to one kind of food style, I would like to innovate instead of replicate.
Is there anything exciting you have planned for Shama’s and Yeh Cheez in the future?
Many many things. It’s currently too early to discuss. All I can say is that retail, and consumer engagement are the two things we are gearing towards.