It is 9am and the smell of baking bread fills the air at The Philosophy Club on Ahmedabad’s posh Satellite Road as Gemma Ferre (36), the Catalan national who manages the cafe, bakes bagels, cakes and buns, hand-kneads the pasta and gnocchi dough, and prepares the rest of the ingredients for the day’s artisanal vegan dishes.
When Nimi Hirani (43) and Gemma started the café in September, they decided to call it The Philosophy Club. Not only is the name unusual, the café is also the first pure-vegan restaurant in the city, serving vegan versions of food from around the world.
Explains Nimi, “I hail from Kutch but grew up in East Africa before moving to the UK where I worked with the National Health Service. When I returned to India, I decided to settle in Ahmedabad as it is close to my ancestral farming land in Kutch and western Rajasthan and is a good-sized city but less congested and expensive than some of the metros. At the same time it has international schools where I could send my children. I discussed the idea of a café with my friend Gemma, who once worked for me and was great with children, and we decided to start in Ahmedabad. The name, The Philosophy Club, came to our mind because we wanted to create a café that would be a social place for people to meet each other, talk, discuss their respective philosophy or just write, read, listen to music or relax. Since I am a dietary vegan, and Gemma is largely vegetarian by choice, we decided to offer only vegan food here.’’
When they discussed the idea locally, many were unsure whether it would work. “While Ahmedabad is known for its large number of vegetarian restaurants, many felt that vegan food without milk and honey may not work and that the city was not ready for a European-style cafe. They opined that Gujarat has for long been known for its pastoral culture and cattle, and has a huge dairy cooperative movement, and that ghee, curd and butter form an integral part of Gujarati cuisine,” says Nimi.
“But our patrons are loving it and many have become regulars here—the food, the ambience, the concept and the social interactions with us and other guests have made The Philosophy Club popular. Apart from my belief that vegan food is ethical and environmentally beneficial, I believe that vegan food is healthy–it is rich in fruit, legumes and vegetables,” she adds.
The café opens at 9am for breakfast and runs till 11pm. Natural light streams in through a glass door, bathing the interiors in daylight. The wooden furniture is reminiscent of casual European eateries, and the lampshades are converted utensils. There is also a coffee bar. One of the corners has been dedicated to books for those who want to read. “From the crockery bought by me from markets in England to the very woman-friendly washroom, we have worked on every detail. Even children are welcomed—Gemma is great with kids, and we have provided high-chairs, toys, games and art materials for them. We encourage creative patrons to give us paintings and other artworks that can be displayed, and even sold,” says Nimi. “We have events related to books, music and even propounding causes from time to time. Since I am involved with philanthropic pursuits, charitable causes and social development organizations, we have many meetings of those too,” she adds.
Gemma worked on the challenge of replacing animal products like milk, eggs and honey with alternative butters and cheeses, soya milk, tofu, nuts and imported substitutes. The house specialties include hummus with grilled vegetables in hand-kneaded bread, the falafel platter and the freshly hand-rolled potato gnocchi which is served in a rich pesto sauce topped with vegan parmesan. They have their vegan take on the kartoffel, the German potato salad. The Tofu Quiche is another hot-seller. Says Gemma, “The Beet Burger is made with almond butter. We use cashew cream to replace dairy products. We do specials, usually on Sundays, like my homestyle paella, Nimi’s recipes from Kenya, fusion, or even something Japanese or Mexican. Apart from those who come for meals, we have patrons who come for a bagel and beverage breakfast or for tea or coffee with a dessert —our chocolate cake with pomegranate molasses, spicy carrot cake and even ice-cream made from banana cream. Since I spend time with each guest, I understand dietary restrictions or allergies before recommending a dish.” Based on feedback, they also plan to introduce some spicy options. “Since we are farming in Jaisalmer and Kutch, we get some produce from our own land,” says Nimi. A three-course meal for two costs `1,200 to `1,600.