When you see a generous serving of homemade egg and chicken cold cut sandwiches arranged neatly on a platter and steam leaving a cup of freshly brewed tea, you wonder if your host has a knack for cooking. But when you bite into the delicate, well-seasoned treat, all doubts leave your mind. For my host Samar Husain, whose food insights are reflected in the menus of some highbrow restaurants in Karachi, this is a way to whet the guest’s curiosity to investigate into the makings of this kitchen maestro.
Although Husain has numerous degrees in culinary art, including one from leading culinary school in London Leiths, and has also spent time at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, her childhood food experiences have shaped her tastes today. Recalling her early travels with her father and grandfather, she says, “They were both foodies and loved to eat. They were the only ones I travelled with so I acquired a taste for good food from a very early age.” Along with developing a taste for good food, Husain started experimenting in the kitchen at an early age to recreate those flavours. During one such kitchen escapade in Ramazan, her cook got into an argument with her and was dismissed by her father. “My father was fasting and there was nothing to eat. I went into the kitchen and prepared iftar for him and I have never really stopped cooking since.”
Pinch and Co’s exquisite ponzu beef salad. PHOTO COURTESY: SAMAR HUSAIN
Upon returning to Pakistan 10 years ago, after completing her formal education, Husain tried her hand at cooking commercially. Her growing portfolio includes working at places like Chairman Mao and Pizzo. “I used to prepare one dish every day, then text the menu to everyone saved in my phonebook. Miraculously, it worked! Soon, people started expecting the texts and I started getting orders in advance,” shares Husain. Later, requests started pouring in from friends to cater events. They gave Husain free reign to select dishes for the menu and were delighted with the results. She soon became a household name with her food gracing the tables of the King of Greece and dignitaries from various countries.
Husain started working for herself much later. Her first business was whimsically named San-wich. “It started with my mother’s salon. She wanted me to make a few sandwiches that clients could buy and munch on. I sent over five the first day and they sold out so I sent 10 the next day and received a similar response. From there it grew and kept expanding. I was literally making sandwiches till the day I went into labour,” she quips. After having her daughter, however, Husain decided to take a break, which meant shutting down San-wich.
Discussing the fine details of pasta making.
But Husain couldn’t keep herself away from her passion for long and made a comeback in 2012, designing menus for restaurants including Café Chatterbox and Lals Patisserie. While speaking about her experience as a menu planner, Husain explains that first she has a meeting with the restaurant owner to get a clear picture of what his/her expectations are as each restaurant offers its diners a unique food experience. She then brainstorms and comes up with numerous dishes that fit the bill. A tasting is held for the client to pick the dishes they fancy on the menu and Husain then trains the chefs at the restaurant on how to prepare the dish. “Sometimes I have to have 10 sessions with the chefs but I don’t stop until they have memorised the recipe,” she says, emphasising her meticulous attention to detail.
Spicy Arrabiata with mixed olives and handmade fettuccini.
Despite having prior experience in designing menus, Husain explains how planning a menu for a restaurant differs from planning one for a catering service. Although pricing and produce play a vital role in both, her clients allow her a certain measure of freedom to select seasonal produce whereas availability of produce is key for restaurateurs. Even the cost has to be within a certain range or else the dish, no matter how good it tastes, will not make it on the restaurant menu simply because of its high price. “Sometimes I’m asked to tweak dishes, once they are on the menu, which is actually more fun than designing the menu itself,” she says, adding that keeping the ambience in mind is as important. “You can hardly serve steak in a five-star, fine-dining setting. It won’t sell.”
Getting hands-on experience during a pasta making session.
Husain’s latest project is the Karachi café Mews. She has worked on its menu from the beginning and is still a part of the project as a food consultant. Presently, she is coming up with new ideas for a summer menu for the café. While talking about the versatile menu, Husain explains that she rarely restricts herself to a particular cuisine. “I think we should push boundaries. Food is about experiencing new things; it’s a celebration. So, as long as a dish makes sense on a menu, I put it there.”
Husain already has a lot of things on her plate and a recent addition to her long list of culinary achievements is imparting culinary knowledge to aspiring, young chefs. Unlike conventional cooking classes, Husain offers a uniquely enriching experience. One starts at the beginner level, where Husain teaches students fundamental cooking techniques, for instance how to boil an egg properly or how to properly fry chicken, and advance further to prepare challenging gourmet dishes. The philosophy behind Husain’s carefully- designed cooking course is to help enthusiasts sharpen their skills rather than master certain recipes. “The classes are held in small groups so that they can be interactive. I want it to be an honest, open discussion about food,” Husain shares.
Three cheese stuffed ravioli with sundried tomato reduction.
Alongside teaching, Husain is currently expanding her catering business, rebranding it Pinch and Co. The kitchen is under construction these days and her team consists of three people — all trained by her. Later, she plans on expanding the business and establishing a large-scale event catering service. With so many stars in her chef’s hat, it’s hard not to imagine Husain in chef’s whites, calling orders at her own restaurant. To this, Husain responds, “I believe the catering business will ultimately turn into a restaurant, but that time is far. With changing times, I think I want to create a takeout place with good, healthy meals which people can pick up on their way home and share with their family.” And with such soaring ambitions, it won’t be long before one spots Husain’s healthy takeout joint on every street corner.
Hurmat Majid is a subeditor at The Express Tribune. She tweets @bhandprogramme
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, June 28th, 2015.