It’s a tale as old as the pandemic. An out-of-work chef is stuck at home and needs to make money to get through the coming months. They decide to take matters into their own hands by creating a brand and it skyrockets in popularity — ultimately changing the trajectory of their culinary career for good.

And that’s exactly what happened to Nabil Ansari. The Melbourne-based chef took a leaf out of his mum’s book and began cooking for his apartment block which soon turned into Ansari Indian; an experience that launched with takeaway, led to a pop-up and will likely culminate in something much bigger.

The chef talks to Hospitality about the changing face of Indian cuisine in the local market, discovering his roots and the virtue that comes with waiting until you’re ready.

Nabil Ansari moved to Melbourne in 2015 to study commercial cookery at the William Angliss Institute. His first official gig was at The Pancake Parlour, but another opportunity soon presented itself during an event at the college. “Some chefs came and cooked and I ended up with a job at The European,” says Ansari. “I was there for almost two years and it was where I learned all my training.”

But Ansari’s parents had a certain type of venue they wanted their son to work in. “My family don’t understand fine dining and they were like, ‘You need to work in a five-star hotel’,” says the chef. “The Hotel Windsor is next to The European, so I applied for a job there and I got it.”

Ansari worked in the hotel’s kitchen for around eight months, but missed the buzz that comes with a fine dining environment. Itchy feet coincided with The Windsor’s launch of Sunda spearheaded by Khanh Nguyen. “I asked if I could be moved there and I’ve been at Sunda ever since,” says Ansari, who is a sous chef at the restaurant.

When restaurants first closed last year, many visa holders were not eligible for the government’s JobKeeper or JobSeeker payments. The very people who keep the
industry running found themselves in an incredibly difficult position with little to no work available. Ansari was one of them, but as they say, mum knows best.

“Back at home and out of boredom, mum told her friends she was going to cook Indian food,” he says. “So I thought I could do the same thing. I put a menu in the mailboxes in my building and within the first week I had maybe 10 orders, which I was really happy about.

“People started posting on Instagram and then my friends were asking what I was doing. Initially, I wanted to keep it in the building, but it grew, and by the fourth
week, there were 136 orders.”

The letterbox drop snowballed into the creation of Ansari Indian; a platform that allowed the chef to explore his Indian heritage. While Ansari was born in India, his family moved to the Middle East when he was young, which meant his experiences of the cuisine largely came from his mother’s home cooking.

“I didn’t know much about Indian cooking because I grew up in the Middle East,” he says. “In 2017, I went travelling to India and that’s when I realised how diverse the food is and how different it is to what we have here. I was inspired and motivated to cook Indian food.”

One of the first dishes Ansari released was butter chicken; but his version was a departure from what you’d usually find. Tomatoes were braised in chicken stock for over 10 hours before being combined with chicken tikka, butter, cream, fried fenugreek, salt and brown sugar.

Kheema pav (spiced lamb mince with peas served with ladi pav); chicken tikka skewers and palak paneer (spinach with cheese) followed and presented an opportunity for the chef to reinvent the food he experienced during his travels. “Paneer is made by splitting the milk and the whey,” says Ansari.

“The way I learned from my mum was adding the vinegar, splitting it and draining it as soon as possible to get a firm block of cheese. I do it more like how you make ricotta; you just let the milk stay in the whey and it naturally forms a big block of cheese. You slowly drain it and press it with half the amount of whey. You get a nice crust on the outside and a soft centre.”

Ansari’s iteration also looks a little brighter colour-wise compared to your standard palak paneer, which usually turns dark green during the cooking process. “If you slowly emulsify butter, it stays bright green,” he says.

The chef returned to his role at Sunda once restaurants were able to reopen last year and another opportunity soon followed. Sunda launched a pop-up called Summer Exp by Sunda, and Nguyen asked Ansari if he wanted to take on the head chef role. “I obviously said yes,” says Ansari. “Khanh wanted to keep doing takeaway but in a dine-in manner and there was a free space at the hotel. He said you can run it if you want.”

Exp combined South-East Asian and Italian flavours together and also marked the first time Ansari ran his own kitchen. “It was challenging; I was the youngest,” he says. “There were times were I was undermined, but everyone was open to suggestions and I did have good support so there weren’t really any issues. It was a good opportunity to learn; running Exp as head chef opened up other opportunities.”

During the final week of Exp, the venue served an Ansari Indian menu. When it was announced on social media, it sold out in four hours. “We added another day and that sold out as well,” says Ansari. “It was really good for me because it was the first time I was hosting.”

Ansari returned to Sunda after Exp closed, but it wasn’t long before the city was faced with another lockdown. This time around, Ansari knew exactly what he wanted to do. “I called up my bosses and I was like, ‘Let’s do something’. First, they said no, because they thought the lockdown would end in a week. But as soon as it was extended, they said, ‘Let’s do it’.

The chef took over a spare kitchen in the hotel and restarted takeaway for the first time in nine months. The demand was definitely there. “The first week was amazing, we had great revenue, but sales dropped in the second and third weeks. The market is so saturated now — everyone is doing takeaway.”

The solution was simple: sandwiches — but not with sourdough or ciabatta. “I’ve always fancied doing something with naan bread,” says Ansari. “We were able to get a tandoor oven and that’s like a new toy for us to experiment with. We’re doing Indian sandwiches, which are quite common back home.”

Ansari’s naan is made with a sourdough starter and uses yoghurt to enrich the dough, which is bulk fermented for four hours before it undergoes a 72-hour cold ferment. The team, Ansari and two other chefs — including tandoor pro Parminder Singh — cook the naan to order in the oven for just 50 seconds.

The bread is brushed with smoked garlic butter before it’s stuffed with fillings such as shredded lamb with yoghurt or chicken tikka and coriander chutney.

It’s been a huge hit. So much so a late-night kebab concept is potentially in the works. “Mumbai has a lot of barbecue shops on wheel carts that do amazing kebabs and sandwiches, so I would want to do something similar here,” says Ansari. But the chef isn’t in a rush.

He has since returned to Sunda and is taking baby steps towards his next venture. “The first lockdown, I was so hyped up and thought I could open my own business by myself. But now I have really good support from The Hotel Windsor and Khanh in terms of mentoring and how things are done,” says Ansari.

“It gave me a view of all the things you need to get in order to start a new business. I’m just going to work my way at Sunda and there will be a time where The Windsor decides to do something with me, which I have been approached about. I still want to learn and I want to be ready before I start my own business.”