MOSHE SHEK – India’s First Signature Chef

Moshe Shek, India’s first signature restaurateur has grown from strength to strength and in a very short span of time indeed. Fame has not changed this very polite and courteous young entrepreneur since I met him at the launch of his first outlet in an old bungalow at Cuffe Parade almost 5 years ago.   One thing has changed for sure and that is trying to get him to give an interview.

Does the name Moshe have anything to do with cuisine, catering or anything related to food? ‘No’.Is catering a family business? ‘No, it never was’.  Moshe breaks into a slight smile and says ‘My name means ‘drawn from the water’ just like Moses was.  Perhaps that speaks about the calm demeanour of the man.  His  patient hearing and  humble personality are the features that strike you the minute you meet him.

Wise men say ‘Give back to Society the benefits it has blessed you with and Moshe Shek, is definitely doing that and much more, and all of it single-handedly.  Born in Bombay, Moshe grew up and visited Israel at the decisive age of 20. He found himself working in the Kibbutz – the famed community kitchens, as they are known. ‘I worked in the kitchen for 6 months at a stretch’, he says very humbly. Boys of his age perhaps, try to figure out what lies ahead in life and enjoy the last few years of fun and merry-making but for Moshe, it seemed as if the passion for cooking and exploring the innumerable nuances associated with cuisine was innate. 

‘Yes’, he says ‘I came back to India and joined Sophia’s College to complete a 2 year course in catering, got an opportunity to work at the Taj for 10 months’. Call it passion or perseverance as Moshe says but he next found himself being given an opportunity to work at the Langham Hilton Hotel in London! ‘They wanted only 4 chefs and I happened to be one of them’. 

A two year course in bakery and confectionery followed by a scholarship to Switzerland came in the form of a welcome blessing. Was it tough? Did he face any racial bias?  ‘Yes, it was tough from a financial point of view. Racial bias? None whatsoever.  Infact, he adds, ‘I had approached the Principal and asked him if I could pay my fees on a monthly basis which was agreed upon immediately. I used to work 6-8 hours to incur all my expenses. It was difficult, but I knew I wanted to do it’.

A 4 month study course in confectionery and bakery at Richmont, Switzerland brought him back to India when he could have returned to the beautiful  London !  ‘I missed the Sun’.  It took a nano second for the answer to seep in before I broke into a smile. Moshe actually missed the bright sunshine back home! ‘Yes, because you get up at 6 am, it’s dark and by the time you wind up, it’s way too late and the winters there are cold and long. I love London but I could never stay there for work or business.

Moshe made his professional debut in India with a catering unit very uniquely and aptly named ‘Caterbility’ in 1992.  With catering services at every nook and corner, the going was very tough. ‘Yes, of course’, comes the honest reply. ‘I, myself, went door to door, approached clients, and corporates but since no one had heard of us, the initial response was totally negative. It was disheartening until we got our first positive response from the Bank of Nova Scotia!’  ‘But,’ he adds, it was a 3 day trial with Rs 40/- per lunch but we bagged a 1 year contract! This was followed by Citibank, the entire Essar House at Mahalakshmi, many smaller banks and many more companies. At the end of 3 years, I had a clientele of 600 and perhaps more’.  And how did he manage it all?

“Well, I used to go the market early in the  morning to buy the vegetables, then to Byculla to buy the meat, load it all into my jeep and start the day.” This went on until 1997 and then Boom!. One fine day Moshe just gave it up all in toto and went back to Israel.

A huge decision like this especially when things were beginning to look bright! Why?  ‘I just wanted to get back. I knew if I didn’t, the regret would always hang over me like a Damocles’ sword!’ Back in Israel, Moshe studied ‘Ulpan’, the official Hebrew language for six months, worked 8 hours a day and later worked as a Chef in the kitchen of the  Tel Aviv Hilton for 3 years even though it was an on and off affair!

 From London to Tel Aviv – how different was the experience? ‘Actually, a piece of cake. After having worked in London, where the levels of professionalism are beyond one’s imagination, this was too smooth’.

 Had I been trailing Moshe then, I would have guessed his next move – it would have to be India.  He returned back to India! What brought him back? ‘My roots are in India. I came back a more experienced person with more knowledge of running a business. I started looking for an investor and soon met the Indage people and it was ‘Athena – the lounge’ which I helped them run successfully for a year and a half after which I parted ways with them. Then came ‘Basilico’, again for a year or so. I parted ways with them for professional reasons. That was a turning point in my life. It made me realize it was time to set up something of my own’.

 Moshe’s ‘Oliva’ in Delhi was the first of it’s kind in the country. The chef turned restaurateur Moshe Shek had arrived!  But Delhi? ‘Well, we thought it had a lot of potential’.  The man minces no words.

Hospitality being his second name or so I choose to believe for Moshe soon set up his first endeavour in Bombay by setting up shop on the premises of an old bungalow at Cuffe Parade!  It was very simply branded ‘Moshe’s’.

The city of Bombay soon saw another ‘Moshe’s’ at the Pavilion on Bombay Gymkhana’s first storey which ran successfully for four years, at the Crossword’s flagship store at Kemps Corner, Fab India at Fort and now of course in the prime locality of Colaba!  Sweet success for sure but  it has been a rough and tough ride for this gentle man.

Dark-wood furniture and big glass windows that become a European style café are the trade mark of all Moshe’s outlets. A lot of Mediterranean flavours, Moshe’s offers some of the best international food in Mumbai. Moshe’s has it’s own in-house speciality bakery and patisserie and delivers fresh bread and desserts at each of the outlets. You can relish pastas in creamy sauces, crusty cheese garlic bread, hearty soups and Israeli stuffed chicken. Trust me, you can go on a never-ending binge!

Today, Moshe’s boasts of having the largest dessert menu in the country!  An achievement by all standards.  Moshe’s has earned a reputation of serving the most delectable dishes! Regulars swear by the cheese fondue, the char-grilled chicken and espresson chicken! Fitness freaks forget about diets and calories when it comes to Desserts at Moshe’s. All-time favourites are the mouth- watering Philadelphia cheese cake and  L’ORANGE!

Aah! So does Moshe become a natural culprit for people larding up fat!. ‘Indeed not.  We have both the rich and the healthy offerings. We are extremely conscious of all our ingredients and stay away from artificial food colorings, flavours and additives. We make a conscious effort to source produce that is fresh, natural and preferably local. Our jams, breads, beverages are all prepared in-house. Our central kitchen is well-equipped to take great care of all this’. My eyes very naturally shift to the counter across me wherein a basket of goodies states 0% cholesterol fruit and nut bar!

Moshe’s! A  name to reckon with for all who have a classy palate. Four outlets in the best of the city’s locales. Surely the man must be subject to a lot. ‘Yes, we do but that is a part of life. When I started out on my own, without any financial aid or guidance, it turned out to be a long and winding road of experience. We are still learning’.

What about wastage, un-sold stuff?  ‘Part of the business’, another matter-of-fact answer. I recalled the Cuffe Parade outlet having a décor of many, many blue evil-eye hangings and smiled at the innumerable small kettles which lent to the décor at this new outlet. ‘So who decides on the locations, the décor of all your outlets’. ‘ I decide on both.  And the ingredients? ‘Oh, that is only me. Totally my call’.

The personnel serving are ever so courteous and asked me very politely, at least four times if I wanted to have something. Well if I had the choice, I would have gorged but I had too many questions for Moshe.  Looking at the well-trained personnel, I couldn’t help but ask Moshe ‘Do you get your staff from the reputed catering college of Dadar or … ‘No. We train them in hospitality and they rise from the ranks. We don’t make them the front liners unless they have mastered the art of perfection’.

Seeing Moshe mingle casually amongst his staff, taking interest in every little activity could leave anyone amazed at the way the man manages his tasks.  ‘There is no ‘I am the boss’ attitude at any of my outlets.  No one behaves like he is in command, not even me. That is what I believe in’.

 It’s been a one-man show all along but now Moshe feels he needs to take on someone to manage the day to day operations. ‘Yes, I do plan to bring someone on board for me to move ahead and explore more’.

If you think that means national plans, pat comes an emphatic ‘No’. “I don’t plan to go national but the very fact that I have set up a factory at Navi Mumbai is a part of my plan to introduce Moshe’s to Pune! So when do Punekars get to taste the flavor of Moshe’s?  ‘Perhaps by the end of this year’.

With so much on his hands, does he have time to contemplate competition? ‘That is something we all have to live with.  Most of my products are aped and sold at various outlets but it does not bother me. My trained staff is poached at times but that again is a part of life’. There is not a hint of dislike to those who indulge in this and you wonder how can someone handle all this with such equanimity.

Are you religious? Do you follow a strict regiment?.  ‘Well I am religious in the sense, I do go to the Synagogue but I am not regimental. Being a good human being is the ultimate religion.

It’s been a tough ride for Moshe to have established himself but it doesn’t seem to have hindered the man.   So what is Moshe’s message to those who share a similar dream and perhaps are faced with similar circumstances?  ‘If you have the passion and the perseverance, you will surely live your dream’. And what does the man outside of Moshe, the signature chef like? ‘I love photography, especially capturing emotions, expressions. I really enjoy the outdoors and trekking as well’.  And when was the last time he took off to the mountains?  ‘Oh, I do that whenever I can. I work for long stretches and then take a real long break’.

Even as I am about to bring up family, his mobile rings and he says ‘ I have to take this call, it’s my Mom’. The man talks with the utmost love and patience to his Mom even while trying to explain something to her. So where did you imbibe all these qualities of humaneness?  ‘My Mom is a Jew and Dad is a Muslim and I guess I have imbibed the best of both the worlds’ he smiles. A complete family man, Moshe dotes on his little 8 year old neice and is very, very attached to his family. His next surprise treat to Bombay may be an outlet in the Queen of suburbs –guessed it right- Bandra!

Today, Moshe’s is the very natural choice when it comes to catering be it Corporates, Celebrity parties or family celebrations.

But there is more to Moshe than just culinary delights.  A great sense of humour which most people don’t, a love for the wonders of Nature and likes and dislikes just like all of us. A rapid

Your most memorable experience with a customer who patronised ‘Moshe’s'? And your  worst?
When two very small children walked in with their mum, who then drew a picture of the two of them along with me.  Worst experience – Last week we had a waiter who bumped into a guest.  The guest created a scene , abused the waiter and called me up ready to sue me for the act.  I said -go ahead . 

Your first Bollywood guest?  Did it give you a ‘high’?  Does such clientele get preferential treatment?
They do not impress me. But we do appreciate serving the likes of Madonna, Salman  Rushdie, Jefferey Archer. (I agree with Moshe totally.  I never liked the Bollywood ‘noses-in-the-air’ myself)

Besides the outdoors and photography, what else do you do to de-stress?
I travel a lot within the country and take time off visiting remote beautiful places.

Is  ‘Moshe’s’ a male-dominated industry?  Would you welcome women to work for you?
I would love to have more women working for me.  We’ re always looking for women   managers, service personnel, chefs , etc.

The most ‘requested’ for item at Moshe’s?
Moshe’s Penne,  Moshe’s Signature fondue, Baked Philadelphia cheesecake

Bombay is ?
A chaotic and frenzied life

 Life to Moshe is ?
A struggle that gradually unfolds itself to beautiful things every day.

  If not in the restaurant business, where do you think you would have been?
 I would definitely have had my own photography studio

A man of few but very meaningful moods who knows what he wants in life.  I thank Moshe for his time and start walking down Colaba thinking to myself, ‘If I had to confer a few academic degrees on Moshe, they would be ‘MI – Master of Ingredients, MH – Master of Humility, M3P – Master of Perseverance, Passion and Patience & last but not the least, MV – Master of Virtues! 

I go back 10 minutes in time recalling my final question to Moshe – A future dream?  ‘To have a ‘Bed & Breakfast’ service nestled in the mountains, growing my own produce and living  off a farm.

That is Moshe – Forever on the Move!

‘A connoisseur who pleases all

His gasrtronomy skills, a humble effort

His delicacies leaving

An indelible mark”.

                               -  Canta Dadlaney