“Who wants to see some magic?” Chef Arun calls out.
He flings the rolled out dough into the air, sending it soaring above the counter.It spins and twists, a graceful dancer in the air. The children watch its arc, their eyes wide with wonder, until it lands gently back in the chef's hands. The children shriek in delight.
The table is a mess of flour and dough, rolling pins and small hands. A group of children surround our Chef-walla as he demonstrates how to make the most delicious rotis. As they work, flour bursts in puffs, dusting white their clothes and hair. One child is flattening her dough as thin as possible, another has rolled his into a perfect circle. He beams with pride as he holds it up for his classmates to see. The teacher tells me his dad is a chef in a French restaurant.
I am here once again, at our annual Magic Breakfast Takeover in Kings Cross. Magic Breakfast’s partner schools are invited to enjoy a lovely breakfast and meet some Dishoom Chef-wallas and some of our team. I find joy in hosting these events and even greater joy to announce we hit another milestone. By January 2024, we have donated 20 million meals to children in India and the UK.
If you will, let me take you back to the beginning of the story, to how 20 million meals came to be. Oddly enough, we have to give part of the credit for the inception of our ‘meal for a meal’ work to a nasty piece of bigoted hate mail that we received back at the end of 2014.
A man sent us a message telling us that he wanted to book a table but then didn’t. Not because he didn’t like our food, or even our booking policy, but because we are Hindus who celebrate Eid with storytelling and feasting and because he saw pictures of smiling young Muslims on our website observing Ramadan. He called them “fat ugly suicide bombing children”, called us “backstabbing traitors”, colourfully insulted our female relatives (“tell your mothers and sisters to do mujra in front of your Muslim masters”) and generally wished us ill (“I hope your restaurant shuts down.....Bloody traitors.”)
The email was articulate, and full of rage. At first we felt a symmetrical rage. How dare this man write such an email? We were deeply affected by it in different ways. A few of us were just furious. Chef Naved, a devout Muslim, was upset too, but also had a trace of shrug in his shoulders, telling us that he had read just too much of this nonsense recently.
Then, as we all talked about it, we decided that raging actually wasn’t much use. We should surely do more of exactly what the hate mailer had accused us of. We decided that the next year and beyond we would do more to help those fasting during Ramadan, perhaps to hold Iftars for our teams and our guests, and to do more to bring different people of different cultures and faiths together, whether it was by holding a big Holi or a big Eid celebration.
When Ramadan approached again, a few of us were sitting around a table full of food, which, as you might imagine, is a common event at Dishoom. Most of us knew that charity was one of the foundations of Islam, but we learnt from Chef Naved that the holy time of Ramadan is particularly associated with giving to those less fortunate than yourself.
Our food-laden table was beautiful, but in that context it gave us pause for thought. We decided that our zakat (charity) for the month of Ramadan would be to feed children in need for every meal we served. We put this into place and worked with the charities Magic Breakfast in the UK and The Akshaya Patra Foundation in India to provide nourishing, free meals to school children who would otherwise go hungry. Both of these charities do a valiant job breaking down the corrosive social barriers that arise when kids are too hungry to learn, or when girls don’t get sent to school at all. The data from both charities are completely clear, that educational outcomes for children improve dramatically when they learn undistracted by hunger.
Later that year, at Diwali, a special time for my own Hindu faith, we decided to make our zakat a permanent feature of what we do at Dishoom. Since then, for every meal we have served, we have donated another to a hungry child, and we’ve now donated over 15 million meals to children in the UK and India. A meal for a meal. This is, without doubt, one of our very proudest achievements.
So, sincerely, I extend my deep gratitude to all of those who have supported us in this magical endeavour. And in the end, it is you, dear customers, who dine with us and each time doing so, spark off a meal for a child who would otherwise go hungry.
(And here too I must briefly nod thanks to the hate-mailer. If you are reading this, thank you. Your words helped to start this charitable journey for us.)
I wish you all much love, light and gratitude.
With February comes a gladdening of spirits, lighter morning skies and discernibly louder birdsong. It is also the month to bid farewell to our winter cocoons (at least partially) and tune back into the world beyond our blankets. Allow us to ease the de-hibernation process, by sharing some of the things piquing our interest this month.
January is a most divisive month. For some it heralds the hopeful turning over of new leaves; for others it is a month to trudge begrudgingly through towards the promise of spring. Whichever camp you find yourself in, we have plentiful diversions to share. See them as the cherry atop your already gleeful January cake, or a welcome distraction while you await winter’s end.
I AM HERE, dear reader, slovenly and slouched, staring into my drink at the end of the bar in our new restaurant in Battersea. My mind is still down and out, sifting around in the dregs of ’23 but of course it knows that I should really straighten my back, raise my chin and look squarely up into the cold new light of ’24. My drink – Choti’s Punch – clear and strong, sweet with a little salt, may help.
For Chef Rishi Anand Khatri, our newest café special is in fact an old family favourite. His earliest memory of eating Bhatti Chicken is aged 7 or 8, and he recalls his father – the late Khatri Saab – cooking it regularly, thanks to the tandoor on their Delhi terrace. (Bhatti refers to the scorching flame that the chicken is roasted over, until succulent).