Most chefs dream to open their own restaurant someday. Celebrity chef Sabyasachi Gorai never wanted one of his own, but destiny had other plans. Having worked with big names, launching successful restaurants and donning the hat of a TV show host, Chef Saby, still thought the same. “I could never figure out what to cook in my own restaurant and I didn’t want to open just another one,” says he.
Then he stumbled upon some old pictures of graves that reminded him of his hometown Asansol in West Bengal and its Armenian settlers of the 19th century (they first came to India during Mughal emperor Akbar’s time). This memory coaxed Chef Saby to study Armenian food, and he eventually contemplated opening his own restaurant. Thus, was born Lavaash by Saby, his restaurant that serves Armenian cuisine with Bengali touches.
The restaurant is set in the picturesque Ambawatta Complex, overlooking the Qutub Minar. The interiors are playful with the Mediterranean/Armenian blues and motifs like peacocks. As I bite into a perfectly done mochar puff (banana flower stuffed puff), Saby explains quickly, “Mocha is a staple food in the Bengali household and baking is a gift from the Armenians. As a child I went to bakeries run by the Armenians every Christmas. They gave India the tonir (tandoor), the Lavash bread (recognised by Unesco’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage), tolmas and a lot more.”
The chef elucidates the food that he serves. “Manti, a hot-selling dumpling here, is not found in West Bengal today. We bake it in a clay vessel to give it earthen flavours. Whatever Armenian food is found elsewhere in the world today has influences of other cultures. There are Georgian-Armenian or Russian-Armenian or Armenian/Turkish dishes,” says Saby.
First he understands a particular dish, then lends his touches to it. “I am a logical person and apply science in my cooking. I try and think how a dish would’ve been cooked back in time without modern tools,” says the chef. The dishes served at Lavaash are Saby and his team's understanding of the pictures they see or what they read.
They plan to serve beer in clay glasses, the significance being that Armenians introduced Bengal to pottery. Hence, most of the crockery being used at the restaurant is clay based.
While launching Lavaash By Saby, he realised that it was in a way his family legacy too. “My father had preserved the recipes in the form of paper cuttings, diaries, and my grandmother’s 1930s cookbook,” says Saby, adding, “I realised that Armenian food wasn’t being cooked anymore but their methods are still being used. We make stuffed pointed gourd (parval), dumplings, stews and use curd and cheese which the Armenians brought to West Bengal.”
Though he could have opened the restaurant two years back, the meticulous chef first waited to find the right location and concentrated on gathering information about the rich history of Armenian food. The challenges were aplenty. After all, to revive a near-primitive cuisine is an arduous task.
“I had set my heart on Delhi as the location, but sourcing local ingredients was a Herculean task. The suppliers in Kolkata were reluctant and I had to build a trustworthy relationship with them in the West Bengal capital or elsewhere in the state to procure local bounty,” says the chef. His hard work is finally paying as Saby now serves up a Jurassic Park Pizza with three kinds of cheese—Kalimpong, Bandel and Bandel Smoked cheese—all brought down from West Bengal.
“I am talking to chefs in Armenia to come here and I am also planning to visit the country. I will approach the Armenian embassy to promote the cuisine. The agenda is to reach out to as many Armenians as we can,” says Saby.