When the shutdown of hospitality businesses was announced in March, thousands of hospitality professionals were stood down. Even when the lifeline of JobKeeper was put on the table, temporary visa holders like chefs Nabil Ansari and Adiityaa Sangwan did not qualify, and so were unable to be hired back by cash-strapped businesses.
At the time, Ansari was in line to be promoted to the sous chef position at hatted city restaurant Sunda. Both he and his partner were stood down and had to start thinking of what they might do to survive.
In those first troubling days, Ansari says, "as with many people, I became infatuated with sourdough. My sourdough turned into a naan." He began printing menus of curries he loved and dropping them into the letter boxes of his neighbours.
In that first week, Ansari's independent side hustle, which he called Bouverie Kitchen after his Carlton apartment block, resulted in two orders. By early June, word-of-mouth praise for his butter chicken, Kerala-style fish curries, and confit garlic naan meant he was hand-delivering 130 meals around Melbourne a week.
Ansari has since been hired back at Sunda full-time, and has received his promotion to sous. But he has maintained momentum and developed his own range of ice-creams. "I was addicted to sharing my food, but love my job at Sunda. My newest passion, ice-cream, became a viable way to do both," he said.
Ansari has developed a range incorporating Indian flavours, which he is making at an Oakleigh factory and will market as Ansari's Gelato. His current favourite is chai, "a strong black tea and ginger flavour". There is also guava, lime and Kashmiri chilli sorbet, a Mumbai favourite; mango with fried bread and coriander; and there is a tamarind, cumin and palm sugar sorbet in the works.
Sangwan is another self-made star to have gained a name in the shutdown. An army brat, his parents are from Haryana and Rajasthan in northern India, but he grew up travelling the country with his fathers' postings, moving to Melbourne after he completed his hospitality training in 2016.
Based on the Mornington Peninsula, he has worked at Jackalope, Petit Tracteur, and most recently was under the wing of chef Phil Wood at Pt Leo Estate. In 2019, he completed a revelatory stage at the now-shuttered but world-renowned contemporary Indian restaurant Gaggan in Bangkok. He says it revealed "there are no boundaries to the flavour profile and texture you can create whilst keeping the essence of a dish still Indian".
With the encouragement of Wood, and after multiple talks with his mother, Sangwan created his own contemporary Indian menu, which is now available for home delivery to peninsula residents. Dishes include ghevar, a lacy, fried, syrup-soaked pastry popular in Rajasthan, served with dulce de leche cream; a scotch egg cocooned in a fragrant jacket of spicy Amritsari fish with a nasturtium and coriander sauce; and garam masala-roasted cauliflower with a cashew-coconut sauce.
Beyond delivery, Sangwan is now offering private catering and, after a successful June long weekend lunch at his aunt's vineyard, Avani Wines in Red Hill South, plans to hold pop-ups on the first weekend of the month from the cellar door.
For Sangwan, continuing this side hustle is not a dream but a necessity. Restaurants are now slowly reopening, but visa workers, for whom businesses can't claim JobSeeker, are likely to be out on their own for some time. Community support is not just encouraging, but a lifeline for chefs like Sangwan, who says "no one knows what is going to happen in the next few months, but I hope to keep going with the business for as long as I am able to."
You'll find Sangwan on Instagram at @Kesarmelb and Ansari at @nabilansari.