In a small part of Karachi where restaurants weren’t that common stood a two-story building. It wasn’t in a bad shape considering it was still standing. But then there also wasn’t anything about it that screamed ‘Restaurant’, on the contrary it more likely screamed ‘Get out before I fall on your head’. No wonder it wasn’t functioning.
On the inside it was a fading mustard color on all the walls. If that doesn’t sound bad, you would not believe what color it was paired with, guess, take a second and think what is worse than mustard yellow. Lime green, if you guessed that, applause to you and if not, I urge you to never pair these two colors. Other than that, there were holes in the center of the walls and not just small holes big ones which they tried to cover with paintings and bad lighting. The furniture doesn’t get me started on that. The chairs were wobbly and when I sat on one just to calm myself it gave way and I fell. The sofas were hot pink but had faded into a dirty red over time and had springs coming out of them and the tables were just…I don’t even have words, blue tables, where were we in the live version of Ludo.
Moving on to the kitchen, more horror awaited me. The stoves were covered in layers and layers of grease, the freezer was broken, the food the main chef prepared for me to evaluate was bland, no flavor, no spice, and no aroma. The head chef, sous chef, assistant chef, grill chef, fry chef, fish chef, dish washer, cleaner and so on were not even in proper attire. Their hair was all over the place, and nothing told me their positions until they pointed out who was who.
If you do not understand what I am going through, then I believe you are having the most peaceful time of your life. I had to fix all this and have it running and making profit in a month. I could not believe what I got myself into.
But before I tell you any further, I need you to understand who I am and why I’m here. For starters I was the youngest chef in the entire Karachi who was able to land a job at Karachi’s leading restaurants in 2010. I was 15 then, and I was famous. People from all over Pakistan came to eat my cooking. That doesn’t seem much if you compare me to world famous chefs, but it was good enough for me. And as the years went by my name “Chef Tara” became a household name. I had everything, from money to a good life. That was until I found out my own family had backstabbed me when they gambled my money and reputation in return for what, a measly share in a company that wasn’t even real. You heard me right, my own brothers who raised me after we lost our parents took my hard-earned money and gave it to a random guy who bought shares for them in a fake company. My idiot brothers didn’t realize they were cheated on until it was too late. By then the news had traveled to the media, my reputation was tarnished.
They fled the country, but I never left, who would go visit mama and baba if I left as well. Who would clear my name? But clearing my name was impossible. Rumors spread about how I used money to get where I am and how I never cooked, and it was just marketing. The news and media had torn me to the point that I stopped leaving my room. I had no friends, no family, and no support. All I had was a small apartment to myself and a noisy, loud, and irritating new neighbor.
He, unlike me, was much more outgoing and I could tell. I often heard him come home late at night. Our homes weren’t and still aren’t soundproof so I can hear almost everything. I got to know his name, Arham, when unexpected knocked on my door.
“Umm…hi” he was tall, had a nice build and talked in an appealing tone. “I was wondering if you have milk, I’m all out so…” he said sheepishly like he was beyond embarrassed.
But I was a good neighbor, and I gladly gave him a box of milk. “Here” I said as politely as I could.
This exchange of food, sometimes plates and mostly batteries went on for a while until he popped the question, I dreaded the most.
“I don’t mean to pry but you’re that chef, right? Youngest chef of Karachi.” He came to ask for yet another set of batteries that day, but he had to ask me that as well.
“Yeah. Why? You want to make fun of me too like the rest of the city” I handed him the batteries and slammed the door in his face.
The anger, I was furious that day and I vowed to never speak to him again. That was too excessive for me but think about it. I was ridiculed on TV, fired from every job because of that scandal and left alone by my family. I thought this exchange could lead to a friendship because all the friends I had no longer wanted to do anything with me but no, he was interested in more gossip, things that were not on the news yet.
He did not knock on my door for a couple of days, and I thought he got the message. But boy I was wrong. He came back, this time with boxes of takeout food, Pizza, biryani, chicken karahi, tikkas and so much more. He pushed me aside and came in, did not even wait for me.
“What are you doing?” I was too to understand what was happening.
“I brought food for my neighbor, come before it gets cold”
“I’m trying to apologize for that day, I didn’t mean to offend you, you just looked familiar and so I asked.”
“Well, you did” I moved towards the table, leaving the main door open.
“So, is everything on the news true?”
I looked at him with all the hatred I could muster at that moment, “Almost, but I don’t like talking about it.”
“Ok, then let's just enjoy this.”
We started eating, I went straight for the biryani, got my favorite leg piece and the raita on top was just heavenly. We ate in silence for about 2 minutes to be exact before Arham spoke again.
“I was a sound engineer, they fired me and now I work remotely” he didn’t look up.
“What?” I was confused.
“Oh, I thought I might lighten the mood by talking about my terrible experience”
“You were fired, I was humiliated before they fired me. It's different.”
“It’s not that different. They fired me after accusing me of espionage.”
“Espionage? In Pakistan. Shocking” the mention of espionage was shocking.
“Yeah, I was humiliated and blacklisted”
We talked long after we were done eating. He was quite pleasant to talk to. And he understood how I felt, and it was nice to talk to someone after a year of solitude. But it didn’t end there, after a week he asked me to make something for him, he wanted to taste my food since he never really got the chance. We started talking again and he told me about this restaurant, ‘SNACC SHACK’ owned by his friend. He dared me to run it for a month. I refused; I didn’t want to.
“I see, you’re scared. It’s normal. I knew you weren’t up for it.”
“Who said I wasn’t up for it?”
“Don’t worry I’ll find someone else”
“No, I’ll do it. I’ll show you I’m not scared.” I fell into his trap.
“Beat, the loser makes dinner for the winner for an entire year.”
“Done” I accepted in a heartbeat.
And that's how I ended up here. In a restaurant that was a live, decaying version of Ludo. I took a seat on the least wobbly chair. I didn't want to fall again. I was staring at the place up and down, from corner to corner until my phone rang. A Turkish mashup, I set as my ringtone blasted. It was Arham and I was adamant to give him a piece of my mind but then I remembered the beat.
I told him everything was under control and hung up. Everything was not under control.
“We need to change everything, the wall colors, furniture and the kitchen.” I told them with the least amount of emotion, I was a chef that kind of qualified me in not caring what others thought if I could make something as horrible as this into something praiseworthy.
Their frowned faces told me they didn’t want a change, but I was in charge, and I was the law now.
Arham had told me in the morning before I came here that I had a budget. Enough to renovate the place and the kitchen staff as well. I had 10 lakhs; it wasn’t a lot considering the changes I had to make but I had to do with it.
I left the kitchen for the end.
The first thing I did was take their measurements and send that to a tailor to make custom chef attire. I could no longer look at their messy clothes and uncombed hair.
“I am not changing myself, not in a million years” the head chef ranted when I got her a salon appointment. The rest didn’t mind.
“Look, when this place starts running, people might want to meet the chef, the person who cooked the amazing dishes they ate. Do you want them to not even recognize you are a chef?” I had to argue with her to make her understand but she still didn’t listen.
She did come back after a day to apologize and accept the offer for the salon. I was glad and extremely happy.
Next thing the walls and the furniture. For the walls I choose a gray blue color in combination with an off white near beige color. I had hired a team to paint the whole place. They did an excellent job because they were done in a week. It was good and bad at the same time. It was good because it was done in time but bad because the smell of paint was so intoxicating, I didn’t want them to finish as quickly as they did.
The next thing was the furniture. I never knew furniture could be this expensive. The one I fell in love with was a gorgeous Italian wood, a beige color table to match the wall. I only had enough to buy around 5 of those and I needed 10 to 15 tables and chairs. If I bought that table, we would have seats or enough to work in the kitchen.
I looked for other options, but my heart was set on that one.
“Why not have those made in a different wood? It's cheaper and Pakistani craftsmanship is better than any I have ever seen” the fry chef told me when he saw that I was still staring at the table.
“I know this guy, he lives near my muhalla (neighborhood), He could do this for cheap.”
“I can’t trust someone with a big order like this and what if he ruins it,” I told him.
“You can check his work, ask him to make one table and if you like it then give him a big order, this will help with the furniture.”
I had to think about what he said but an idea was better than no idea. I gave this craftsman the order for one table. He called me back 3 days later to let me know the table was done. When I saw it for the first time, I was shocked. It was the exact replica of the table I picked. It even gave out the exact vibe. I gave him the order or the rest in a heartbeat, and the chairs as well.
Finally, we were on to the kitchen. I made sure all the chefs took regular cooking lessons, it's not like their cooking was bad but it wasn’t up to my standards. And they cooked a small portion for me to try throughout the renovation period. They got better by the day. At times I would cook with them, and old memories resurface. When I came home those nights Arham would wait for me to come. He always wanted to know how far we had reached. I would tell me the day's events; everything and he would just sit and listen.
The kitchen renovation went smoothly, we had new ovens, new stoves, shape knives and a whole storage freezer.
The day of the opening was near. The whole menu was set, everyone was prepared. But the one thing I never did was market the opening. I was so engrossed in the renovation that it had slipped my mind.
“What do you mean you didn’t market the opening?” Arham with his mouth full of green chili peppers asked.
I forgot and the opening is so soon. I don’t know what I’ll do” I told him defeatedly.
“Just use your name” he said without an ounce of emotion, “I mean spread the news that Chef Tara is back with her new project. You were in the news before, do it again.”
I took a second to think. It was the fastest way to spread the news. I could use my tarnished name to bring people there. People would come to only gossip, but I could use that to my advantage.
“That. Is. A. Good. Idea.” I said taking time with each word.
The next day I anonymously sent out a message to a few news channels with a picture of me at the restaurant and you wouldn’t believe it the news spread like fire. I was in the headline again.
On the opening night, the entire place was filled with cars, mostly people from news channels but there were people. We caterers to all, I cooked and made sure the waiters knew what they were doing. The night ended with the restaurant making over Rs. 50,000.
The restaurant was in the news the next day, and the day after. We were so full we had to take advance booking to accommodate more people. My name wasn’t cleared completely but the general opinion of the people was changing. Arham came to the second opening night and came directly into the kitchen. Everyone stopped working and looked at Arham like he was a spectacle.
“I’m not here to disturb, get back to your work. I’ll be done in a minute” Arham gently said with enough force to make everyone get back to work.
“Weird” I said under my breath, but I moved him out of the kitchen after he said good luck to all of us.
He later started managing the place while I managed the kitchen.