Stranded in the daunting locales of the Northeast, Kashmir and southern India while shooting, filmmaker-turned-chef Arun Kumar turned to food to distract himself. His distraction evolved into a loving hobby and he was soon recording the indigenous recipes of the remote regions he travelled in. “It is a work in progress,” Arun says today. The result so far is a healthy food legacy which the chef now shares with the patrons at Zambar, where he is Brand and Cuisine head. He took over the kitchen after making sweeping recommendations to the owners of the restaurant chain.
The menu at Zambar offers Chettinad, Kuttanad, Malabar, Coorgi, Mangalorean and Madras curries and vegetables, spanning all four southern states. Chef Arun takes particular pride in serving the Sadhya (a Kerala feast), during Onam and Vishu. “Sadhya is said to have its origin in the Nair community of Kerala and I belong to the community. As my interest in Sadhya grew, I tried to trace the biggest Sadhyas in terms of the number of dishes served. A typical Sadhya contains 16 courses. I found the Maharaja of Travancore went to the extent of serving 60 plus courses in a Sadhya and have found that the number of dishes he got arranged actually went up to 68. In fact, serving the Sadhya became a challenge because it is typically served on a single banana leaf. In this one, double leaves were used to accommodate the vast number of dishes. Taking inspiration, I served 24 dishes at Zambar for Sadhya and am working towards taking that number up to 36 for Vishu (New Year) in April 2014,” the chef says proudly.
Chef Arun explains his food philosophy thus, “Food is what is visually appealing and tastes good too. Local preparations set the tone of most meals and these are basic meals bursting with regional flavours and are most often very simple preparations. When we shot in remote areas we ate almost anything and everything we got and that is when we starting valuing food even more than we did earlier. I visited locals in their homes and had their food and asked them for recipes and then replicated them at my home for my vegetarian mom, my wife and my son who is my biggest critic.”
The desire to open a restaurant was always there. “I always wanted to open a restaurant and tried to figure out a way of doing so. Three friends (including my wife) and I settled upon this idea of doing a South Indian pop-up lunch. After a little effort we settled upon a friend’s house in Vasant Vihar as the first venue where about 35-40 people tasted our food. We called it Ammi (a flat stone grinder). Here, I met people like Ritu Dalmia for whom I started catering and then I met Vir Sanghvi, who sampled and then recommended my work to the owners of Zambar chain of restaurants. My mainstream culinary foray began, thus.”
When Chef Arun has his way, he does things differently and is always willing to experiment. This willingness found its way to the hearts of people at Zambar, when acting on a request by one of the patrons he started serving South Indian breakfast in a Bento Box (a Japanese single-portion meal in a disposable box shaped container with compartments). Going a step ahead, Chef Arun also introduced The Zambar Lunchbox. “It is a simple South Indian home-like meal in an insulated steel dabba, which many Indians carry to work. We pack a freshly prepared meal in these dabbas and deliver it at an affordable price. The vegetarian dabba comes for `255 and the non-vegetarians at `295,” he explains. “We have a lot of corporate clients in Gurgaon as also single and couple diners. We thought the idea of a Zambar home delivery would click with them and it did. We are concentrating on Delhi and Gurgaon deliveries for now,” he adds.
“This apart, we are taking the food at Zambar to the next level by adding to the menu delicacies from neighbouring coastal states like the Parsi food from Maharashtra, Goan, Bengali and Pondicherry culinary jewels.”