From the remote Indian town of Shillong to Melbourne, Ayanav Eddie Dhar’s food merges the memory of both home and foreign
On the Facebook page of One & Half, you will see photos of quotes on life which instantly draw likes from patrons. For chef and owner Ayanav Eddie Dhar, that is a drill he likes to follow as he sets up his day. The writings on the wall convey beautiful thoughts of the day.
“Sometimes you see something inspirational and it just makes your day. People come in and give me a hug saying that’s exactly what they needed,” says Ayanav or Eddie as he is more commonly known as. If people skills and customer service are his forte, food is an extension of who he is.
If you are driving through the heart of Melton, just at the corner of Bakery Square, you will find One & Half, a four-year old dream for Eddie that came true this June. It seeks to serve food that evokes home cooking while avoiding the clichés of butter chicken and rogan josh that most Indian chefs serve up.
“My café is small and niche and I do a lot of specials every day. The menus change every second day,” says Eddie. If you are paying just 10.95 dollars for a large baguette with special spice rub, mushrooms, tomatoes, generous filling of meat and cheese, it is well worth it.
In fact, the baguette is one of his fast-selling items. “I obviously didn’t invent it but I was inspired by something similar I had when I was in London. Every time my friends and I had a night out, there was one place we used to go. Over time, the people knew me so well that they used to give me one without paying, which I would the next day of course; it was a baguette friendship and I improvised on that memory of the baguette,” he laughs, adding, “You will not find it anywhere.”
Eddie’s love of innovation, backed by his penchant for home cooking and use of his own spices animate some of his best creations. Take for instance, his Aubergine Chicken, where he makes the aubergine sauce, which is a very uncommon combination for tandoori style-baked chicken. A customer who had never eaten aubergine in his life actually tried it on Eddie’s insistence. Not only did he finish the whole plate, he asked for more to take it home for his family.
“Nobody in my family could ever feed me aubergine and now I love it,” says the customer, who makes sure he packs at least a few plates on the day the menu comes up.
Eddie’s methods are a marvel. He has always had the habit of writing down new and different recipes that he tries in his small blue book. And if something nice came up, it felt like a lifeline for him. “Every recipe is well thought of,” he reflects. With the years, his foods have adopted a tone of expertise. His newly introduced Souvlaki comes with specially marinated beef and chicken.
Growing up in the remote north-eastern Indian town of Shillong, Eddie did not think of cheffing as a career choice. But by default, he was always cooking. Having lost his mother at the age of two, he grew among relatives and he was not particularly fond of his aunt’s cooking, so he used to make his own food. The town is also known for its picnic culture and every picnic it was Eddie at the helm adding, as he says, “Masla musli (spices) into the jingbam (food) being cooked at the picnic spot. I used to give it my own twist and the end result was always good”, gloats Eddie. “When people asked me for the recipe, I always told them I was an artist, I don’t do the same painting twice,” he laughs. And that is how his intimate association with food actually began.
After completing his adventurous years of high school when he changed quite a few schools, Eddie ended up studying hospitality management in Kolkata. He had initially enrolled for law studies in Pune but at the time he had to go to nearby Mumbai to help look after a close friend’s elder brother who was suffering from cancer. “This was a matter of life and death for someone close to me. I ended up staying in Mumbai for a month by which time I missed out on the admissions.”
Hotel management in Kolkata was his next option. It would open up for him the strange and wonderful possibilities of working in London. “I knew if I worked in the hospitality industry in India, nobody would understand me. So I started looking and all of a sudden found an opportunity to go to London. I got into post graduate diploma in hospitality at Cavendish College.” The year was 2005. Eddie went home to Shillong, took a bit of loan, sold off his bike and set off for London with 220 pounds in his pocket.
Life in London was full on. He worked as hard as he studied. While waiting at Holiday Inn, he became the supervisor by the end of his course. The next year, he was elevated to the post of acting manager. The opportunities kept coming and he became the food and beverage manager at the Hilton. Though he hardly had the time to seriously reflect on his cooking skills, he began to appreciate the know-how of food even more.
As food and beverage manager at the Hilton, Eddie got the opportunity to design the menu for gymnasts for the 2012 Olympics. “The head chef knew I could cook and that I was very good with the health and safety aspects of the kitchen so he gave me the position of sous chef. After that, me and another chef Anthony Roach designed the menu for the gymnasts.
“The gymnasts had different diet, all the fat content had to be low and the food had to be roasted every day. So we had pork, chicken, lamb and beef on the menu to ensure they don’t eat the same thing. We did this for three weeks, it was massive business too raking in something like, say, 300,000 pounds in three weeks,” recalls Eddie.
It was a career milestone which got him more opportunities to cook at the Hilton. “I even got to create one of my own dishes in the menu, an Indian dish made in European style – fish with coconut in mustard sauce. I introduced that.”
But Eddie’s path from a small town boy to working with great chefs had its moment of turn when he decided to leave his lucrative career in London to join his Australian wife Paula in Melbourne. “Before leaving London I was offered to be trained as the acting general manager for a new hotel given my background. I left because I had to come for Paula. But I have no regrets. However, I was determined not to go back to hospitality till I didn’t start something of my own. I had already built my reputation, I didn’t want to start from scratch again.”
Exactly four years after his arrival in Australia and many odd jobs later, Eddie set up One & Half this June. “My passion was food. I had to come back and cook what I like. Going back to hotel meant abiding by their menu. I wanted to do what I know best and serve those creations of mine. So that’s why I worked odd jobs, got some money and just pulled this business off.”
Five months into his small enterprise, Eddie is pumping all his energy and creativity backed by his very affable wife. “Paula has been my rock, she has always supported every decision of mine. I have long days and she comes back from work, helps me roll the momos, does all the accounts as well.” The momos, stuffed dumplings, famous in northeast India, is one in which Eddie infuses his flavour of memory once again.
Nothing is boring or predictable at One & Half. The menu keeps changing. There is a Chinese, Italian, Russian or French week that showcases his excellent merging into mainstream or foreign food as well. You may get a chicken or beef Stroganoff, or lime beef and paneer combination – which Eddie explains is “a dish without spices, not even turmeric. I use only fresh ingredients like garlic, tomatoes and I dust the meat, sauté it, take it out and add fresh tomatoes and garlic. The colour is red and nice, and I finish that with lemon rice.”
The high of eating at One & Half is slowly but surely spreading through word of mouth. Patrons have left lovely messages. Named after their dogs, One and Half, it has “a special meaning of offering more with love and loyalty,” notes the Melton Town Centre on its Facebook page. Other community pages such as Melton/Bacchus Marsh Thumbs up, Thumbs Down Page have also taken note of One & Half’s presence.
The Dhars love their dogs and the plan for the future is to have a dog friendly cafe, which will gave the café unprecedented visibility, apart from their food which is an expansive vision of taste and culinary skills.
(One & Half at 42 Bakery Square, Melton, is open from Monday to Friday. From December it will be opened on Saturdays as well)
By Indira Laisram