It’s kind of funny when I think about it; my colleagues and family actually laughed out loud when I told them about this kitchen studio in Karachi that I wanted to explore. They all know how aversive I’m to the idea of cooking. All my aunts had given up trying to impress me with the food my younger cousins could make; I was happy for them, not jealous. So imagine me standing with my colleague outside MasterClass Pakistan one fine Friday, excited and not nervous!
It’s been a year that Karachiites have been enjoying the space to move around and experiment at MasterClass Pakistan. (Their popular sushi and baking classes are testimony to that.) It’s the first cooking studio in Pakistan, which is built on international standards. MasterClass Pakistan started with the concept of providing lifestyle cooking classes to people who don’t want to attend long courses but are keen to learn in an environment. They want to have a good time and MasterClass Pakistan is all set to coach (= guide + facilitate) them and see they have a successful culinary experience.
“The idea of opening MasterClass was new to us,” said Usama Ahmed, Marketer and Co-founder of MasterClass Pakistan. “More than the ‘theoretical’ aspects of cooking, we stressed the importance of learning techniques. From home cooks and budding chefs to entrepreneurs and brands, our team was one to cater to everyone.”
So what’s it like to be chef in Pakistan? Us talked to Chef Abdul Hadi, who is also one of the Co-founders of MasterClass Pakistan. Prior to his founding the institute, he spent a significant period of time in the hospitality industry. His name has been associated with a number of renowned restaurants, including LalQila, Cafe Zouk (Lahore and Karachi), Pearl Continental (Lahore), Salt & Pepper Village, Cafe Express, Chacha Jee, China Grill, Snack Attack, Tao Pan Asian Cuisine, and Premier Caterers & Decorators. His expertise and skills have helped MasterClass develop some very creative classes and outlines, which have played a huge part in the growth of this institute.
Tell Us about your inspiration and your journey.
Nowadays, a lot of kids are aware of their options; a lot of them are making a conscious decision to go in the hospitality field whether it’s hotel management or culinary arts. Back in 2008, when I started my two-year advanced diploma, I was merely an individual with an IT background looking for new opportunities to grow professionally. Yes, I had been fond of cooking shows, closely following Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver’s shows on BBC Foods, being inspired by Chef Mehboob at Masala TV. Yes, I was excited during Eid-ul-Azha because it meant family barbeques. But I had never been this crazy about taking it as a profession or had even the slightest idea of considering this skill set any important while applying abroad until then.
For a long time, however, I couldn’t socialise or attend family events because I was working on weekends, too. That was a tough time, especially for someone like me who had all the perks as an IT administrator – i.e. air-conditioned room, four servers, 32 LCDs – and now had to do all the basic work like wash utensils, mop the floor, clean washrooms, etc. As an intern in this field, you feel like you have made a mistake. Almost everybody does. If you survive the rigours of the industry, overcome selfishness and think beyond to serve the customers, you’ve done it. All the trainings, all the hard work’s paid off.
I shifted from the kitchen side to the management quickly, mainly occupied with the research and development department of food chains, treating each step as a new challenge. In 2012, I was given the Best Talent award by Chefs' Association of Pakistan. I was an assistant food and beverage manager at the time. It was a big achievement as I had been part of the industry for three years only. Then in 2013, I was inclined towards the education sector. I was later made an approved judge of the World Association of Chefs’s Society. Last but not the least, is the MasterClass Pakistan.
What’s the scope of culinary arts?
This industry has been glamourised for the past few years, thanks to the social media where, as clichéd as it sounds, content is the king. Food is a good content to share. A good plate of food grabs attention, therefore, everybody wants to share that stuff. There are people who merely join culinary industry to show off, not as a career. They have a hobby (read “blog”) and they can only monetise it if they have these skills to engage their audiences.
That’s at least better when you think back to the times people only took admission in culinary institutes when they had failed every other option and they couldn’t get a degree elsewhere. Of course, the best scenario is when individuals both young and old with good educational backgrounds look at the scope of this field and wish to become professional chefs. When it’s the latter, you know things have changed. The mindset is different now. “Tum cook bano gay?!” The incredulous tone has changed to one of pride. “Tum cook bano gay!” Perhaps, it’s because the pay’s improved. Chef’s can also start from 20k+ and earn around 100k within a year or two. Perhaps, they’ve realised the fast-track growth (not as competitive as organisations seeking MBAs and BBAs) in this profession as compared to others of the service industry. Perhaps, the fact that international market values skilled people (doctors, engineers, chefs, etc.) appeals to them. Perhaps, they simply want to fill the supply-demand gap in market of customised goods (customised catering/arrangements are all the rage these days).
Whatever the perspective, being a chef is not about getting familiar with a specific cuisine. A chef’s responsibilities include everything from menu planning to restaurant management.
For this purpose, one of the programmes we offer is the MasterClass Foodpreneurship. It’s a one-of-a-kind course to empower future entrepreneurs by providing initial investment besides mentoring in baking, cooking and management skills. It is divided into three levels: Diploma, Certification, and Accelerator.
The first is solely for idea builders who have a vision of starting their own business and have entrepreneurial skills but lack culinary knowledge including baking, cooking and patisserie skills. The second benefits whoever has the basic knowhow of culinary skills but needs to polish and develop them, while also sharing and converting their vision of business into a reality. The third is exclusively for existing business owners who want to develop their technical expertise to grow their brand across avenues.
One of the 10 students of our first batch of this course needed motivation to start her business all over again. She wasn’t aware of social media marketing and needed help to figure out how to use Facebook for promoting business and customer building.
That’s our aim. By the end of the course, our students will learn strategy and business planning, marketing, financing, management and decision making, negotiations, managing risks and adapting to change, recognising business opportunities, and so on.
Advice for newcomers?
The culinary industry has seen an immense growth these last eight or nine years. Not much when you consider five-star or even four-star hotels. However, a new restaurant would pop up every two and three months. And for every 40 percent of students graduating with a diploma from culinary institutes like MasterClass, 60 percent choose to work in Pakistan only, which shows that there is a lot of scope for newcomers.
My advice to them is not to apply “copy-paste” style over here. If they have this in mind that they have to innovate and not replicate recipes, they’ll be able to concentrate on techniques and then they can easily create an amazing dish. Seriously, it does not matter how much salt or rosemary or oil is being used to prep a chicken piece; this can be noted afterwards after trial and error. What’s more important is to pay attention to techniques. For instance, the mentor would probably be giving three and two-and-a-half minutes to each side of the chicken steak respectively. If you know this, you’ll get a perfectly cooked chicken. Every time. Irrespective of the kind of dish.