Now, reconnect with the flavours of iconic Chennai institutions Adventure Zone and Alliance Française
As businesses pivot to stay connected, loyal customers reach out as well, hankering for a comforting taste of their pre-COVID lives
For 24 years, Mohamed Yousuf Khan punctuated French classes with chocolate cake and lemon tea. From a little kitchen at Chennai’s Alliance Française, blanketed in the scent of vanilla, he whipped together light, fluffy cakes the old fashioned way: with butter, flour and muscle power.
When the pandemic hit in March 2020, and business abruptly stalled, he found himself at home for the first time in decades, with nothing to do. Then, the taciturn baker, who had exchanged nothing more than nods with many students over two decades, suddenly found — to his surprise — that he was a local legend. His number circulated on Whatsapp, and the orders began again. This time, he is baking from home in Royapettah.
“My cooking was never really commercial, as there were a small group of regulars: students, as well as the actors who came to Alliance for rehearsals,” he says, adding with a chuckle that most of them were fuelled by his signature lemon tea. “That used to be my biggest selling point. People are still messaging me to order it.”
When he began to run the canteen, Yousuf says he taught himself to cook. “It was all survival instincts. I was working with McRennett, and I took a gamble to run my own show. To sustain business, I kept learning new recipes from everywhere.”
His menu is short but includes his greatest cafe hits: dark chocolate cake, quiches with buttery pastry bases and spicy chicken cutlets. He also makes family style servings of creamy butter chicken, pepper mutton and an old school Chennai style biryani, if you want something more substantial.
“Everything is made by me, from scratch, with no short cuts,” says Yousuf, adding that he focusses on quality ingredients and precise techniques to maximise flavour. Business is unpredictable, so he is quick to adapt. “Suddenly someone will share my number on Facebook or a Whatsapp group, and I will get a rush of orders,” he says. “Then, some weeks are quiet. But that’s OK. I was 21 when I joined Alliance, and now I am 45. The students treated me like family, and it is nice to be able to still cook for them.”
Message Yousuf on 9840082252 to order
Ranna Mashi’s kitchen
Mutton curry is an unexpected addition to the parasailing, rappelling, camping and scuba-diving offerings of Adventure Zone. Unexpected, but very welcome.
The sprawling property and campsite, popular for corporate training programmes and city getaways, recently started offering a comforting, typically Bengali Sunday lunch.
In a refreshing no frill format, instead of expending energy on a gush of Instagram reels and influencers, this Sunday popup is expanding slowly, the old-fashioned way. For the past four weeks, they have been cooking first for friends, then as word spread, for friends of friends, slowly expanding their reach.
Major SR Roy, who runs Adventure Zone, says he chose to launch Ranna Mashi’s to showcase the skills of his talented Bengali cook. “He used to run a fast food restaurant in Kolkata, serving kati rolls, chops, chicken curry and that typical Bengali biryani,” says Major Roy, adding that they source ingredients, from the mustard oil to the spices, from Kolkata to ensure an authenticity of flavour.
“Adventure Zone has always had a kitchen, with cosmopolitan food,” says Major Roy, adding, “We curate it from an activity point of view, keeping it light since people are outdoors rappelling, diving, canoeing etc.”
Once COVID-19 struck, the venue fell silent. “Over night we went from catering to 650 visitors to absolutely 0,” says Major Roy. As restrictions ease, though locals are beginning to trickle back in, he decided it was time to find ways to get busy again.
“I have a kitchen. I have the infrastructure. And very good Bengali food,” he says. The menu is succinct and simple, with big, homely flavours, tasting like lunch from an aunt’s house. There is fish, usually a river fish like Catla, and chicken or mutton curry. The typically Bengali vegetarian accompaniments include crisp slivers of fried potatoes, ridge gourd in a rich poppy seed gravy and yellow dal. Orders close on Friday evening, giving the kitchen time to get organised.
For now, they do just one meal a week. “Many of our customers now order our Sunday lunch every week,” chuckles Major Roy. “Then, they can just close down their home kitchens and relax.”
Whatsapp Major Roy on 9444384606 to order