Butter chicken, babka and Brazilian pies: Melbourne's side hustle revolution

Nabil Ansari outside Sunda.
Nabil Ansari outside Sunda. Photo: Simon Schluter

The pandemic hasn't been kind to hospitality and its many visa-holding workers but out of the rubble and struggle, something always rises. It has forced some of these backstage players to step into a spotlight many thought was not for them.

Chances are you heard about Sunda's sous chef Nabil Ansari during the first lockdown. When he and his partner were both stood down, they began offering dinners to neighbours in their apartment block. Ansari's mother had once done the same when they moved from Mumbai to Abu Dhabi.

Those first runs weren't formal, but were formidable enough that Ansari, with the help of Sunda chef Khanh Nguyen and restaurant backer Adipoetra Halim, has now founded his own line of curries, Mumbai snacks and ice-creams, which are flying out of The Windsor Hotel's online shop as fast as dishes from his hatted employer.

The vada pav, a milk bun with potato fritter and coriander chutney.
The vada pav, a milk bun with potato fritter and coriander chutney. Photo: Jana Longhurst

That's not surprising. I tasted Ansari's Kerala-style fish curry, delicately flavoured butter chicken and sourdough naan when he was cooking it illicitly from his apartment. Now he's doing it from his workplace's shutdown kitchen, and with a business plan under his belt, it's even better.

There is a Mumbai snack of a milk bun swiped with fresh and gently fiery coriander chutney and a fat, mustardy mashed potato pakora. There is crisp naan filled with spiced lamb in a hat tip to murtabak, and a roolio troolio lamb biriyani, where the saffron rice and meaty hunks are steamed beneath a pistachio-bedazzled, lamb fat-licked pastry lid that you smash into the mix. The dhal, yellow lentils slow-cooked with curry leaf, is a COVID comfort blanket.

This story of out-of-work chefs making good during the pandemic has already been told. If you haven't heard about Grossi chef Andrea Vignali and his pasta racket, Al Dente, or Adiityaa Sangwan from Pt Leo Estate who is delivering contemporary Indian dishes around the Mornington Peninsula, look them up. But there's more to the tale.

Ansari's slow-cooked butter chicken.
Ansari's slow-cooked butter chicken. Photo: Jana Longhurst

What we're witnessing in the success of these chef-restaurateurs-of-no-fixed-abode is the disruption of the hospitality industry. Anyone who can cook, get into a commercially approved kitchen and operate social media can go punch for punch with any restaurant in town.

Why does that matter? Because people who might not have been given the top job, or had the confidence or capital to go it alone, have backed themselves and found that people want to hear what they have to say.

Case in point: Thiago Mateus, who is bringing Brazilian empadao​ to tables that didn't know they needed them. Mateus started out as a journalist in his homeland of Brazil, but gravitated to food. When he moved to Australia in 2013, he started working as a dishwasher before quickly moving into the kitchen of a Brazilian barbecue restaurant, Mamasita and Polperro in Red Hill. Despite his experience, Mateus was shy about his cooking. He shouldn't have been.

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When restrictions first eased, Mateus made his friends a familiar, comforting empadao – an epic, five-centimetre deep pie with a short, rich crust (traditionally made with pork fat, but he uses butter for strength) filled with creamy, gently spiced and finely shredded chicken and corn, and not to be confused with turnover-style empanadas. A friend asked for one for his 40th birthday.

Mateus added a cheesy vegetarian version of sweet, caramelised leeks with the crunchy accent of palm hearts to the mix. Three guests at the party placed orders. Desire has spread like corona, for good reason. The pies are works of art, cross-hatched, golden, dense and delicious. Samba Empadas might never have seen the light of day had the pandemic not forced Mateus' hand.

Across town in Bentleigh, Avi Azoulay is making babka, the Ashkenazi Jewish braided bread, thickly zebra-striped with sweet fillings. It's huge in Israel and his is a wonder, the rich dough twisted with chocolate hazelnut spread and toasted nuts in tight five millimetre intervals, sparkling with a little sea salt.

Thiago Mateus is bringing Brazilian pies, empadao, to Melbourne.
Thiago Mateus is bringing Brazilian pies, empadao, to Melbourne. Photo: Supplied

It took one post on Instagram for the Jewish community to come (metaphorically) knocking, and Babka Boi now has requests far outstripping his capacity to make 15 of the famously labour-intensive loaves each week.

Azoulay wasn't stood down. He left the industry in December to pursue studies in community development but also because the industry consistently failed to provide work-life balance. If that sounds like laziness, the opposite is true.

You'll find the proof in his show-stopping hummus. Two days in the making, he starts with high-quality chickpeas and soaks then cooks them with a little bicarb to bring out their softest side. He uses 30 per cent tahini (the good gear from Israel that his former workplace, Miznon, uses), and adds in his own step of rubbing the skins off every legume by hand to get the silkiest result. Garlic? It's cooked confit-style, for a smooth and sweet finish.

Avi Azoulay aka Babka Boi and his babka.
Avi Azoulay aka Babka Boi and his babka. Photo: Simon Schluter

These are incredible products. Pure ideas that haven't been forced to reckon with commercial rents, penalty rates and Uber commissions. This is what disruption does. It shows an industry its weaknesses and for restaurants, there are many.

As diners, we will always want the glamour and the glory of the spaces, and the service. But COVID-19 has raised a curly question: do all chefs need restaurants? Do they want them? Maybe not. Perhaps a revolution has begun.

The lowdown

Ansari Indian is available from The Windsor Gift Shop for pick-up or delivery within 15km. 111 Spring Street, Melbourne, giftshop.thehotelwindsor.com.au.

Choc-hazelnut babka from Babka Boi in Melbourne.
Choc-hazelnut babka from Babka Boi in Melbourne. Photo: Simon Schluter

Go-to dish: vada pav, a milk bun with coriander chutney and potato fritter, $12.

Samba Empadas are available to order via Instagram @sambaempadas. Numbers are extremely limited.

Go-to dish: Leek and palm heart empadao (a vegan version is also in the works) $45.

Babka Boi babkas and hummus can be ordered via Instagram @babka_boi. There is a wait list.

Go-to dish: chocolate-hazelnut babka. There are sometimes apple versions, $36.