Wine & Dine
Text and Photography by Mallika Chandra.
Kartikeya Ratan, 32 and Rishabh Doshi, 32
Kiki & Pastor
Kartikeya, tell me about your beginnings as a chef and how you co-founded Kiki & Pastor.
Kartikeya Ratan (KR): For the last decade or so, I’ve worked at a number of fine dining restaurants in India and abroad. And I increasingly felt that I wanted to cook more soul food, comfort food — food that actually satiates. When I returned to Mumbai from Delhi in 2019, I felt like the pandemic had taken a big toll on the nightlife of the city. There wasn’t any place where you could just hang out and not have to sit down and dine in. A taqueria was a great way of bringing that vibe in. But given the circumstances of COVID-19, things were very uncertain around 2020-2021, and yet Rishabh and I kept discussing how we could do it on a small scale.
While I was home during the lockdown, I started selling taco kits and there was a good response. But I wasn’t happy as a chef although the product was doing fine. I wanted more control. So now, we no longer send customers the ingredients and ask them to assemble it. We build your taco and deliver it to you. We are also big on catering because tacos are a lot like chaat, right? You want to eat them fresh. And yet, the deliveries work because we have a good radius, being in Bandra.
A lot has been spoken and written about how Mexican food just doesn’t do well in Mumbai. Do you think there’s something in particular that is working for you?
KR: I think one thing we realised pretty early on was that there’s no substituting good ingredients. Working in fine dining taught me that no dish can be greater than the ingredients used in it. And I think that with Mexican food, that is very true. You can’t just make a mole (sauce) out of a Bhavnagri chilli, for instance. Sometimes, sourcing a good, dried chilli from Mexico is crucial. Freshness also plays a huge role in components that are almost served raw, as is the case with most of our salsas and marinades. So freshness takes precedence over everything else and the quality of ingredients can never be compromised.
How have you tried to elevate or differentiate your food from what is available in the city?
KR: A lot of people ask us for Indianised versions of things because that’s what they’ve grown up eating. You may have seen corn queso balls on our menu, but they won’t taste like the ones available at New Yorker in Mumbai, for instance. In no way are we saying that we are better or dissing an experience that we too have grown up eating. But we are offering a new experience when it comes to eating Mexican food. There’s more to Mexican food than just putting cheddar sauce over everything.
Tell us how you are able to deliver the food as fresh as possible.
KR: Delivery is a difficult format. Especially during the monsoons, it becomes tough for a rider to get your food to you in perfect condition. But people still expect to get piping-hot food; fresh food shouldn’t get soggy, hard or dry. One of the things we do is that we add either a layer of chilmole or a jam that we make with salsa verde between the meat and the tortilla so that the juices from the meat don’t make the tortillas soggy. We also do a double tortilla so that even if the first tortilla gets soggy, you can just slap the second one over it.
Rishabh Doshi (RD): Basically, proportions matter. So, if you sauce it up too much or too little, it’ll change your whole experience of the taco.
KR: Absolutely. When we hire a new chef, we can taste the difference between them and someone who’s been making it for four or five months and has understood what these sauces do. Everyone has their own tastes and the dish gets its personality from there. So, the question that arises is how do you give it that personality while maintaining a high standard? It comes from the base recipes, which are tried and tested for a long time before we put them out there.
Tell us a little more about how you set up processes for the cloud kitchen model.
KR: Mostly, it was about keeping in mind the taqueria concept and the freshness of the produce. When we fixed on a delivery model, where the food was going to be on the road for 30 to 40 minutes, we had to do a lot of tests. Rishabh lives in Bhandup and I live in Wadala. So, I would send him dishes, and we would note how they travelled. Did it get soggy? Did we need two tortillas or extra salsa? From that exercise we decided to send the salsa separately, for example.
In terms of prep, it was very different from when I worked in restaurants that served tasting menus. At Eleven Madison Park in New York, for instance, we knew that 120 people were going to be coming in for dinner each night and that 14 dishes would be going out to each guest. In a cloud kitchen, you may not get orders for, say, two hours straight, and then suddenly they may come in non-stop until midnight. A match might mean people are ordering in or if it’s a long weekend and people are out travelling, then orders reduce. Still, there’s no way of gauging the volume of business for a particular day.
We try to keep the prep fresh, but we balance that with some back-up, which will last a little longer. We are very particular about the shelf life of our guacamole and pico de gallo. It’s better to make them twice a day, rather than to serve them the day after. Whereas we make refried beans in bulk because it tastes better the next day. Like dal makhani. Our pork carnitas and lamb barbacoa are made in big batches because they need to be cooked for four to six hours in the oven. So, we freeze them in batches. For the tortillas, we actually have this lady coming in every day. She makes them fresh for the lunch and evening services. We know now that we will need about 200 tortillas from Tuesdays to Thursdays. On weekends, we need more.
I would’ve thought that as a chef-driven taqueria you would be making the tortillas in-house.
KR: At first, we tried to make the tortillas ourselves but it’s tough to get it right every single time. At the same time, we were looking for someone to make a tiffin for our staff lunch. It struck us then that the person who makes the rotis that came in our tiffin could perhaps be trained to make our tortillas. So, we took a chance and reached out to her. It took some time for her to get used to the different flour but she turned out to be an expert. Even today, if I tell my cooks to make the tortillas, they’ll take probably four hours to do what she does in one.
People ask us, “How come your tortillas aren’t masa?” Firstly, there’s no corn available in India. There are some farms that are doing it, but it’s not the same. Even the calcium that you get in India, the chuna, it’s not the same quality. We tried multiple batches and there’s a long way to go in terms of sourcing and finding the right grinder because you need that volcanic stone. So, when we do get it right, we’ll do it but we did not want to do it half-baked.
How did you think about the branding, the naming and positioning of your taqueria?
KR: Kiki was my nickname when I lived in Goa many years ago. We then discovered that Kiki also means “get-together”. In African-American slang, the LGBTQIA+ community calls it a “Kiki” when you’re getting together to gossip, drink and have fun. The pastor, on the other hand, is considered by some to be the greatest of all tacos; it’s a topic of debate in Mexico City. We just wanted to give a fun name.
RD: In that same spirit, we do a few specials, especially on match days. We also do a Taco Tuesday special, where you can make your own combos. That pushes people to try new things because you can get a single piece instead of ordering a full portion. It’s also because Tuesdays are generally considered slower in terms of business.
KR: Plus, the guacamole is free on Tuesdays.
RD: In terms of the design, our designer flaked on us and it was too close to launch to find someone else. The only option was to do it ourselves. We did multiple iterations based on a list of keywords that we wanted the brand to be associated with, like “approachable” and “fresh”. That led to the primary colour of the branding being a muted green. The logo itself is hand-drawn and in it, the taco is bitten into already because we want to portray it as so good that you forget to take a photo.
KR: Which is actually seen in a lot of Instagram posts where we are tagged. We see a lot of bitten tacos.
RD: We have a few people who’ve taken a photo of an empty plate and said, “I forgot to click it, but it was amazing.” And that’s exactly what we want.
KR: Tacos are often called “ugly delicious” so they don’t need to look perfect. We don’t cut our tortillas with a cookie cutter either because we want that organic shape. That imperfection makes it approachable.
How do you employ social media?
RD: Unlike in a restaurant, things aren’t happening with us all the time. We also do not want to overwhelm our followers. So, we moderate our social media uploads. Reels that share a glimpse of the kitchen and the behind-the-scenes activities generally do well so every day at noon, we post something from the kitchen that announces we are open for orders.
KR: We do want to put a face to this otherwise invisible operation.
RD: Our kitchen is kept spotlessly clean by the team. We actually had a couple of customers come in just to see the kitchen. One of them wanted to do catering and one of them wanted to place an order. He wanted to see the place that he’s ordering from.
Would you say convincing your customers to order the best recommendation is your biggest challenge?
KR: When you’re in a restaurant, you have a server who recommends dishes. And when people call us, we do the same. But most of our orders come through Swiggy, Zomato or our website. So, there’s no room for recommendations. There’s no room for understanding what they are looking for. It is also challenging to communicate the size of our portions. People have all kinds of expectations. It’s easier to manage those expectations face-to-face.
Do you feel like there is pressure to employ social media and put your persona out there?
KR: This takes me back to when Instagram started. Friends, both chefs and otherwise, told me to post more. But when I was working in kitchens, we just weren’t allowed to use our phones on the job and that is something that’s stuck with me. So, it doesn’t come naturally to me to take a photo and post about something I cook. When I’m cooking, I’m cooking.
Rishabh has considered making a brand out of me as a chef but for me the food is enough. I’m not Mexican. I haven’t grown up around this food. It is something I’m extremely passionate about. I enjoy eating tacos myself. But if you look at my personal Instagram, people are disappointed to not find any food there.
I am now okay with being in front of the camera because I do realise that people want to see the faces behind the food. Otherwise, you’re just another cloud kitchen. So, when we do events, we make sure that at least one of us is attending. It makes sense for people to know about you. When you know the story behind why someone is doing something, you appreciate it more.
Did you anticipate that cloud kitchens would become a long-lasting format?
KR: I think so because even someone like me, who was never a person to order in, did so during the pandemic. Post-pandemic, there are so many cloud kitchens opening up, and so many shutting on a regular basis as well. But there are a few that have stuck because they have modified their product to fit the delivery model. A lot of restaurants have also realised that a chunk of their business is coming from delivery. The culture has shifted drastically. There is also an interest in trying something new. I think people are going to continue ordering in. But the product, and the way that kitchens think about their product while delivering it, is going to make the difference and be the deciding factor in whether that brand succeeds or not.
RD: The perception of a ghost kitchen or a cloud kitchen before the pandemic was that it must be a small place, probably not very hygienic. The food wasn’t supposed to be great, just cheap. But over the last three years, people have realised that these small kitchens are often serving better food than established restaurants. And they’ve allowed them to come into their lives on a daily basis.
What is the perfect order from Kiki & Pastor?
KR: My favourite customer’s order is the same every time and he doesn’t modify anything. It’s three of this, two of this, four of this…. And he gives us an hour’s heads-up. I feel like that’s the perfect order. It’s a big ticket. It’s straightforward.
So, you’re not particular about what is being ordered?
KR: No, order anything from my menu and I am happy. It just gets tricky when a customer makes too many modifications and the food loses its essence.
KR: Our other favourite customer orders a burrito bowl every week and says, “No corn please and thank you,” and I love that. We are quite emotional about our orders.