A tale of two commis
A heritage building in Fontainhas houses a restaurant dedicated to Portuguese culinary fusion and built on the dreams of two innovative chefs
Rashmi Krishnan & Rebecca D'Costa
One crisp fall night in Paris, beneath the golden lights of the Eiffel Tower, two young Indian chefs drunkenly vowed to open a restaurant that would make waves in the culinary world. One year and two phone calls later, Madhav Dayal and Varun Menghani found themselves hanging up their chef’s jackets from the world’s leading kitchens to begin a new chapter as commis (junior chefs) in their own restaurant, Miguel's in Goa’s Latin Quarter of Fontainhas.
Kitchens, like many workplaces across the world, are built on structures of power and authority. At the bottom rung of the ladder are the commis. They do the grunt work – peeling potatoes, chopping carrots, juicing tomatoes, and such. Line cooks prepare and mid-level chefs plate, while the head chef manages and represents the kitchen. In other words, chefs supervise, while commis prep. Over the years however, executive chefs have grown more and more disconnected with cooking. “They rarely visit their kitchens, maybe once or twice a month,” says Menghani, who has trained in Michelin-starred European kitchens. "And they hardly cook. How can you be a good chef if you don’t cook?” He shakes his head in disapproval. Dayal, meanwhile has trained at the now-shut Gaggan and led the international catering section at Diva by Ritu Dalmia.
By physically integrating an open kitchen with the dining zone, Miguel’s offers their customers an authentic, interactive experience with food. The design, conceptualised by Dayal and created by The Busride Design Studio, deconstructs the power pyramid between commis and chefs, and brings customers closer to their food. “Ideally, we would serve our customers delicious cocktails, and they would watch us cook. We would chat as they sipped on their drinks and we prepared their food,” says Madhav. Miguel’s has adapted their service to suit curfew timings and lockdown restrictions, but hope to offer their customers the unfettered medley of boozy dinners someday. For now, they have mocktails like Chocolate Quente (spiced hot chocolate), and Mexicano Punha Lunta (orange juice infused with chilli and lime).
With its sleek and opulent design, Miguel’s exudes the aura of fine dining and elevated experience. As we know now, however, there is more to Miguel’s than meets the eye. It upends the hierarchy that has grown to dictate professional kitchens today, and is powered Dayal and Menghani's love of cooking and feeding people. “I just want to feed people,” sighs Menghani. “We want Miguel’s to show India how the kitchen should be, where chefs take pride in cooking and take responsibility for preparing food with love from scratch.”
Every morning, Dayal and Menghani visit markets, handpick ingredients, and return to the kitchen to prepare for the day. Some of their dishes require hours of preparation, so they spend their mornings braising meats, drying fruit rolls, along with cleaning the kitchen, and prepping the vegetables. “We have hired staff to help us with serving customers and washing the dishes, but that doesn’t mean we need to disassociate from the process. We are deeply involved in the entire process of running a kitchen, whether it requires going to the sabzi mandi or serving the customer a glass of water,” says Madhav. Their dedication to authenticity doesn’t stop there. Madhav also dreams of building partnerships with local farmers and working towards restoring the connection between farm to table. “There’s so much we can do, as chefs who have worked in the Google of professional kitchens, under leaders like Ritu Dalmia. Miguel’s is just the beginning. “We have a long way to go,” he smiles.
At Miguel’s one can expect to find seasonal menus that are thoughtfully curated using fresh, locally available ingredients; they employ a nose-to-tail approach to cooking. One such dish is Vista Sul, which literally translates to ‘looking South’ in Portuguese. The dish is designed to look like the Fall, incorporating traditional flavours of the South. It uses an emulsion of coconut and yoghurt, with dehydrated mango chutney cut into delicate leaves. The dish is served with some rice crisps on the side and flavourful Chettinad powder sprinkled atop.
“Each dish on the menu is our baby,” says Menghani, when asked to pick his favourite dishes. “But I love chorizo and potatoes, so if I have to choose, I would pick that one. It is simple, wholesome and utilises the most underrated vegetable in the world. We get our chorizo from an amazing pork producer in St. Inez called Crasto's, and I love cooking with potatoes, so I almost always go to town with this dish.” Madhav’s favourite dish, the Cajueiro, is pure poetry. “We wanted to call this dish 'the hands of the cashew farmer'. When farmers peel the cashew fruit, the skin on their hands is corroded by acid from the cashew apple. We enjoy our cashew curries at the cost of the farmer’s hands,” says Dayal. “When this lockdown is over, I’m hoping to hire a potter to make us some bowls modelled on a local farmer’s hands. We will serve this dish in those bowls as a tribute.”
Miguel’s (Cocktails & Petiscos), a venture by East Slope Hospitality, opened its doors to the public on July 29, 2020 after several delays. Lockdowns and curfews were announced on the brink of their previously planned openings, which left the crew of Miguel’s disappointed and anxious. “Honestly, I thought we were cursed. Every time we cooked, a new disaster would strike,” says Menghani. With their chips all-in, the two young chefs sailed rough seas by holding each other up. “We’re sort of like yin and yang. I’m the optimist, while Varun is the realist,” says Madhav. “The hospitality industry was crumbling around us, and we had nobody to turn toward for inspiration. Restaurants were turning into soup kitchens or shutting down. For the first few weeks, I stress baked quite a bit, while Varun glued himself to his PS40. The uncertainty was nerve wracking. Somehow we made it work.”
They have received an overwhelmingly positive response to their opening: they have been fully booked almost every day, with customers calling ahead to make lunch and dinner reservations. The men of Miguel’s have been working round the clock, from 7am to 11pm, and are inspired by the energy and life breathing into the restaurant. “We are currently serving 30% of our capacity, and hope to get to 50% over the next few weeks. We should be able to open as a bar very soon, so Miguel’s can offer the experience we originally envisioned: boozy dinners where each dish is paired with a cocktail,” Dayal's voice rings with anticipation, excitement and hope.
Miguel’s is a story of authenticity, liberation, learning and resilience. Most importantly, it is a place where the food is intoxicating and the chefs are cooks.