Post 50, their food careers have just started

All late bloomers but fantastic cooks, three food entrepreneurs speak of starting late but with a bang

Every time Roswita Akolkar opened her dabba at lunch time in office, colleagues would salivate. "‘Please ask your mother to send us a tiffin. We will pay,’ they’d tell me," recalls the 29-year-old.

Having seen her mother, 53-year-old Smita, feed family and guests, she once told her to launch a food service. "Apart from her Maharashtrian spread, the crab, chicken and Punjabi fare are to die for. But she was content feeding just us," the daughter recalls.

Last November, she encouraged Smita to finally join hands with AuthentiCook, a service that offers home-cooked food experiences across Mumbai.

Meanwhile, two months ago in the capital, wedding planner Sylvia Qureshi coaxed her grandmother, Begum Musharaf, to launch Ammi’s Kitchen. And so, Musharaf turned entrepreneur at 90.

"My sister Pernia and I grew up in Rampur where my grandfather was a leather exporter. During his time, food was an integral part of our lives. There would be close to 50 guests at lunch or dinner on any given day. The family also followed the tradition of sending food to friends and family, every day. Ammi [Musharaf] was in charge," says Sylvia, daughter to meat magnate Moin Akhtar Qureshi and sister to actress, Pernia Qureshi.

With Ammi’s nod, Sylvia took charge of the commercials and menu. "Ammi moved in with us two years ago. Of course, she had age-related problems, but she has always been forward thinking, and believes women should work. She owns a hotel in Rampur and has a steady income, but this venture, is close to her heart," says Sylvia, who has hired two khansamas to carry out Ammi’s instructions. "We take three orders per meal so that the quality isn’t compromised and every order is delivered fresh.

"One dish, the binahappa (black dal and rice cooked together) served with ghee, chutney, dahi and onions, is a favourite. It’s not on the menu but I remember Ammi feeding it to us as children," says Sylvia.

Farzana Gabuji, 52
Last year, Farzana Gabuji returned to her Lokhandwala home from back-to-back meetings for her interior design firm. "After chasing deadlines all day, cooking is a stress buster. Each time I went to organic food stores, I’d find granola bars with preservatives. I started Eat Me was to introduce genuinely healthy nutribars," she says.

Farzana Gabuji. Pics/Sayyed Sameer Abedi
Farzana Gabuji. Pics/Sayyed Sameer Abedi

Her top sellers include an all seeds bar laden with flaxseeds, pumpkin seed, sunflower seeds and sesame, bound with figs, dates, oats and organic honey. "It is a power packed recipe.

The apricot and cashewbar is coconut based and high in magnesium.

The most innovative one, I think, is the Breakfast on the Go, made with poha, brown rice, oats, almonds, honey."

Begum Musharaf, 90
When Begum Musharaf’s cousin puts our call on loudspeaker, the nonegarian throws a question at us: "Why do you want to interview me? If there is something wrong in the food, don’t come after me."

Begum Musharaf started a food service two months ago, with two cooks, serving Rampuri fare that includes the delectable lamb chops. PICs/Rajeev Tyagi
Begum Musharaf started a food service two months ago, with two cooks, serving Rampuri fare that includes the delectable lamb chops. Pics/Rajeev Tyagi

When we tell her we wish to chat about Rampuri food, her voice mellows. "The orders have to be taken 24 hours in advance so that I can oversee the preparation. Every portion (serves four) should contain half kg of meat," she explains.

A khansama prepares for an order
A khansama prepares for an order

Rampuri cuisine, unlike spicy Awadhi and creamy Mughlai fare, is lighter on the palate and layered with flavours. The meats are marinated in spices, including cardamom.

"I learnt to cook from my mother, when we lived in Chandausi, Rampur. Two months ago, my granddaughter suggested we start a food service. She was very excited, and I agreed. But I am weak, and old (laughs)."

The menu, she calls, Hindustani food. "Nargisi seekh kebab, kofta, mitha chawal, kadi kofta, machi biryani, varaq biryani, mutton biryani, sevaiya dudh...sab banate hai," she says in a mix of Hindi and Urdu.  

While her blood pressure and diabetes keeps her away from spending too much time by the stove, she says, "I sit on a chair a little away and give instructions. Chakh ke bataa deti hoon kis masale ki kami hai."

Smita Akolkar, 53
Smita Akolkar moved to Mumbai from Bhopal after she married her husband, an automobile professional. While she learnt Maharashtrian cooking from her mother, Akolkar was curious about alien recipes she’d see on television shows.

Smita  Akolkar  cooks an authentic Maharastrian vegetarian thali. pics/nimesh dave
Smita Akolkar cooks an authentic Maharastrian vegetarian thali. Pics/Nimesh Dave

Having dedicated her time to raise her daughter, she didn’t give her career a thought, despite a Masters in pottery.

The kitchen became her lab, and family and friends, guinea pigs. In November, on her daughter’s encouragement, she signed up with Authenticook and hosted seven hungry guests to a Maharashtrian Brahmani jevan (meal). "I was nervous because I hadn’t charged someone to eat my food before. All the participants were non-Maharastrians and non-vegetarians. Traditionally, the meal is always served one-on-one, not laid out as a buffet. We placed a vedge of lime, salt, chutney and koshimbir (salad) on the left of the thali. I cooked an elaborate meal of puran poli, varan bhat, potato vegetable and puris," says Akolkar, who charged Rs 600 per head.

"I am doing a session again this month, and this time, I am more confident. After 50, people usually want to retire, but my life is just starting," says Akolkar.

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