How good do you think your home-cooked biryani recipes are? Well, this newly minted chef-at-home in Dehradun gets calls from celebrities such as Swara Bhaskar and Mrunal Thakur, some of whom even make the trip to this home of the valleys — just for a serving of his delicious Yakhni Pulao and creamy Chicken Korma.
On any given Sunday, Sameer Sewak is up at 5 am to prepare at least 60 kebabs, 20 kilos of biryani and 5 kilos of Butter Chicken. As he lives on the edge of Dehradun, going into Mussoorie, he says, “People passing through to get to Mussoorie stop over to order or people who have summer homes here also order from me.” Taking a maximum of 20 orders, till his new venture opens up, he shares that his earnings touch Rs 20,000 on the weekends.
Interestingly, Sameer didn’t plan on being a chef. He wanted to be a pilot. “I grew up next to the airport in Agra, and while I spent a major chunk of my childhood there I also spent some time in Nainital. My grandfather was in the air force and that rubbed off on me a little bit,” says Sameer, who went on to do his pilot training after completing Class 12.
Though it was not too long before he made a life-changing decision to trade in his wings for a chulha and a few big degchis (copper vessels, often used to cook biryanis).
Taking Off as a Biryani Chef
“It is probably the worst time to be a pilot in three decades,” Sameer tells me over a phone interview, in reference to bigwig airlines like Kingfisher Airlines and Jet Airways shutting down. “There was a huge line of pilots, who already had the experience, waiting for employment. And with COVID-19, more pilots lost their job,” he says, adding that his career as a pilot never got the chance to take off.
For four years from 2008 till 2012, Sameer underwent pilot training at the Prairie School of Mission Aviation in Canada. On returning to India the following year, he couldn’t convert his Canadian license as he couldn’t complete his hours of training.
“There’s a lot of bureaucracy and red-tapism when it comes to pilot training in India. To convert your license here you have to pass a lot of exams. If you want to be employed by a particular airline, you have to pay for your own training on the aircraft. Which could go up to Rs 15 Lakh for a two-month course. They also kept saying that I needed to complete my training back in Canada,” he says.
While waiting for his big break as a pilot, Sameer dabbled in digital marketing for a few brands and also worked as a research assistant. “I was supposed to do my training as a flight instructor in Canada in the summer of 2020 but then COVID-19 happened,” he laughs, admitting that as fate would have it, he always came back to his other passion — cooking.
“I cooked a lot in between, even in Canada, to sustain myself. I had a string of odd jobs like working at a gas station and in a Mexican grill as a cook. Or I cooked simply because I missed Indian food,” says the 30-year-old.
His love for food, especially Lucknowi cuisine, stems from the memories of his grandmother cooking on a chulha. “At big family get-togethers, my grandmother used to cook on the chulha on a big deghchi. Due to the pandemic, when we couldn’t get out, this was a fun thing to do as a family,” says Sameer, whose Instagram account is filled with pictures of him cooking amidst a breathtaking view of the Dehradun hills.
The boy from the hills
After experimenting with just two dishes — Chicken Korma and biryani, and receiving enough encouragement from his friends and family, Sameer decided to start his own catering business on the weekends in September 2020.
Now, every Thursday, he uploads a new menu to add to his Awadhi flavoured-dishes like Methi Malai Paneer, Dal Bukhara, Butter Chicken, Mutton Shami Kebabs, and Baingan ka Bharta, among others.
The chulha expert’s cooking venture took off in a big way and how. “Now I have people coming from Mumbai, Bengaluru and Delhi for my food,” he says, including the outpouring of requests he gets from Dehradun. Recently, he even catered for an in-flight crew. The meal, of Mutton and Kaale Chane ke Shami Kebab Burgers, was for a Mumbai-Dehradun flight.
But his most surprising customer, till date, was the Veere Di Wedding (2018) actor, Swara Bhaskar. “Swara posted a picture of Mussoorie on social media and I know the area pretty well. So, I tweeted to her saying, ‘I know this is a long shot but just in case you’re craving some chicken biryani & korma up in the mountains… I’ll come up & deliver it to you’,” Sameer says, adding that he was stoked when she got in touch for an order.
“She was kind enough to post it on her social media,” he adds.
Hey @ReallySwara I know this is a long shot but just incase you’re craving some chicken biryani & korma up in the mountains, I’m cooking this batch on Sunday & would love for you and your friends to try some. I’ll come up & deliver it to you 😌 https://t.co/ZSaLt9f0yv
— Lebrown James (@Naa_Cheese) September 25, 2020
Swara vouched for his biryani and korma on her Twitter and Instagram handles. “A #twitter short story with a yummy happy ending! @sameersewak I cannot thank you enough for your generosity, effort & thoughtfulness. I deeply I appreciate ur gesture. It feels like there is hope in the world when strangers are so kind. thank u! And the Food was DELICIOUS..(sic),” she tweeted.
A #twitter short story with a yummy happy ending! @Naa_Cheese I cannot thank you enough for your generosity, effort & thoughtfulness. I deeply I appreciate ur gesture. It feels like there is hope in the world when strangers are so kind 🙏🏽🙏🏽😍😍 thank u! And the Food was DELICIOUS pic.twitter.com/7SeCRTQ6Sf
— Swara Bhasker (@ReallySwara) September 28, 2020
Sameer was later approached by Batla House (2019) actor Mrunal Thakur who was in town for a shoot, playback singer Ankur Tiwari who was also in Dehradun, writer Snigdha Poonam, who also took a portion of Yakhni Pulav for her husband in Delhi, and Mariellen Ward, an award-winning Canadian blogger.
To Cook on a Chulha
Currently cooking Lucknowi cuisine up in the mountains from his own backyard, Sameer says his Yakhni Pulao dish is a replica of his grandmother’s recipe. Having learnt the dish from his mother, Swapna, who learnt it from his grandmother, who passed away four years ago, Sameer says, “My grandma was from Lucknow and Yakhni Pulao was her signature dish. It is revered among the Muslim community, and in Bareli, Allahabad and even in Pakistan. The other dishes are just my take on Lucknowi cuisine.”
Speaking of his love for cooking on the chulha, Sameer says, “The food flavour hits differently,” he says, adding, “My grandma used to cook with a lot of passion and I used to learn just by watching her cook. But it takes a lot of work to cook on a chulha, and that is how she wanted to prepare food on special occasions. The high flame from the burning firewood, the coal all contribute to unique flavours.”
Cooking up a storm in the mountains requires one to constantly monitor the flame, which is no mean feat.
To set up a make-shift chulha you need mud or bricks, firewood, coals and a fan to intensify the flame. “Biryani, pulav and korma, cook better on an intense heat,” he says, adding that he bought a battery-operated fan to control the flame.
To cater to all-time favourites like Butter Chicken, Paneer Makhani, Chicken Korma, and Shami Kebabs, Sameer invested in a commercial freezer along with up to 50kg deghchis.
And while he used to get stressed about the consistency of taste when cooking larger quantities, he now says he has become more organised. “I went from cooking 5 kg biryani to 20 kg, but the taste has been consistent,” he says.
Na Cheez foods
“My venture has picked up enough for me to open a bigger kitchen. I have rented out another space with a nice backyard and I am currently interviewing chefs, kitchen staff to be a functioning daily kitchen instead of taking orders only on weekends,” Sameer says. “I am looking to open by the end of this month. But the hiring phase is a big task as I am very particular about how the dishes need to be cooked. I don’t want there to be any dilution of the recipe,” he adds.
Sameer plans on naming his new venture ‘Na Cheez’ from the Urdu phrase, which is also his Twitter handle.
Sameer doesn’t fail to mention that this wouldn’t have been possible without the help of his family who initially helped him out with his bulk orders. His mother helped with the ‘food prep’, his father taught him how to set up the chulha, and his little sister, Rhea, helped him get organised with the orders by preparing spreadsheets. He regularly takes his dog Lisa, who is “the happiest” in his family about his cooking venture, on grocery shopping trips as well.
“It brings me great joy and pride that the food we love in our family is being loved by so many people,” Sameer’s father, Regginald, adds.
(Edited by Vinayak Hegde)