MUMBAI (AFP) – The coal-fired tandoor oven sends a mouth-watering scent wafting through the Mumbai kitchen as celebrity chef Saransh Goila, maker of the world’s “best butter chicken” according to MasterChef Australia, takes a break from Covid-19 relief efforts and resumes work.
Although the pandemic has done little to slow the global appetite for his delivery-only signature dish, business has been the last thing on his mind of late with India battling a brutal second wave of infections.
Much to his shock, Goila – who has over a million Instagram and Twitter followers – started getting dozens of messages daily from Covid-19 patients and their families, asking for assistance sourcing healthy meals.
“You don’t think of people being stuck for home-cooked meals in India,” he told AFP. “We are a country where you have your neighbours, friends, family always ready to help.”
But with the coronavirus forcing people into isolation and making entire families sick, those networks were of little use.
So Goila launched a non-profit platform called Covid Meals for India in April to connect thousands of volunteer home cooks with coronavirus patients and frontline workers in around 400 cities.
Somehow, he also managed to open his second overseas kitchen in London’s trendy Shoreditch neighbourhood last month, five years after launching his business.
His menu includes innovative – or sacrilegious, depending on who you ask – spins on the traditional dish.
Diners can order a butter chicken biryani, a butter chicken burger, chips with – you guessed it – butter chicken gravy, and even a butter chicken khichdi, a rice-and-lentil gruel usually served to sick people.
Goila found his calling early, winning a televised cooking competition aged 25 that led him to host a travel programme showcasing regional Indian cuisine.
It was then, while covering a distance of some 20,000 kilometres, that he realised butter chicken had a universal appeal that cut across India’s diverse cultures.
So the bearded chef, who prefers vegetarian food himself, decided to establish the world’s first global butter chicken brand.
His profile exploded in 2018 when he was invited by former MasterChef Australia judge George Calombaris – a fan of Goila’s cooking – to be a guest on the hit show, with contestants asked to recreate his signature dish.
Even before the pandemic, the popularity of the creamy tomato-based curry has defied every health trend going – there are no vegan or low-calorie options on his menu – with eight outlets across India and Britain.
Butter chicken’s reassuring familiarity has long made it an Indian restaurant staple, while its mild flavour is unlikely to sting even the most sensitive taste buds. Quite simply it is, as Goila puts it, “a hug in a bowl”.
But Covid-19 has turned up some unexpected challenges, with extended lockdowns transforming even fine dining restaurants into delivery businesses offering discounted meals.
The fierce competition has chipped away at Goila’s margins, slashing orders at his Indian outlets by 30 per cent and forcing him to lay off 10 per cent of his staff.
“It’s a tricky, tricky spot for the hospitality industry,” he said.
But his overseas outlets – both in London – have given him something to cheer about, serving up dozens of orders daily.
London is only the first stop on his international wish list, which includes New York, Los Angeles and Melbourne.
As India’s latest coronavirus outbreak eases, Goila’s relief initiative is still going strong, operating at a scale that leaves the usually chatty chef temporarily lost for words.
“I mostly use social media for my own benefit, you know, to promote my work… But this is different”, he said. “You can actually make a change if you want to. That’s what I have realised.”