In A Conversation With Zaineb Shah To Dive Into Her Culinary Journey!

In a conversation with Sunday, Zaineb gave us insights into her personal and professional life. With numerous years of experience in the industry,and owning her own restaurant, The Fig Tree, Zaineb has garnered recognition for their innovative techniques and commitment to using fresh, seasonal ingredients. Here are all the questions we asked her.

A meal when you weren’t expecting much but were absolutely blown away.

I once had Thai Curry in a remote island in Thailand. At first, it looked completely unappetizing but of course I wasn’t going to waste it, so I ate it anyway. I was completely blown away. The flavors were so complex, and it was beyond all my expectations. I truly became a fan of Thai cuisine that day.

When asked about one dish that no one could convince her of, she mentioned Offal and one dish that she could keep for the rest of the life would be a paratha that she absolutely loves. Upon asking, Zaineb also mentioned her favorite breakfast, to which she replied, “I have always loved, and will continue to love, a slow-cooked paratha with chopped or pureed tomatoes and topped with green chilies”. It sounds tempting, no?

Q. What is the most fun you have had on your culinary journey?

My most memorable experience was the time I trained informally with the late and great Antonio Carluccio. It was a time I will never forget.

Q. How often do you get to cook at home for your family? What do you like to cook for them?

I cook fairly regularly at home, especially for my niece and nephew. They love calzones and they come running to me, asking if I could make them one and of course, I can never deny them. So, I try to emulate the perfect calzone they see in cartoons and movies. Honestly, it is a big test of my cooking prowess, but the entire process feels meditative and rewarding. It reminds me of the late nights I would spend cooking cinnamon beef stew for my brother while we waited for tennis matches.



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Asking Zaineb about her own establishment, she said, “It has always been my dream to run a small bistro where I cook and serve delicious food to customers myself. My vision was to keep a rotating menu, dependent on what I was inspired to cook on the day”. She also mentioned her aim which was “to achieve this goal and then travel to Europe to expand my expertise but unfortunately, Covid-19 put a stop to that. Things changed but I guess my passion didn’t. I decided not to waste time and open my own restaurant, and Lahore felt like a good place to start”. 

During the conversation, Zaineb also mentioned the challenges that she faced in creating her own eatery and she mentioned that the biggest issue was the procurement of quality ingredient as she only wants to serve the best. One advice that she would like to give to all aspiring chefs would be, ” to love your food, be open to learn constantly, believe in yourself and most of all work harder than ever. Always appreciate your staff as well, they are part of your team and any success you achieve, they will always have a hand to play in it. And when you are exhausted, put on a smile and greet your customers. They are what make or break you and your restaurant”.

What are some things one should keep in mind before pursuing this venture?

Being in the food industry can be tricky because food itself is very temperamental. Ingredients behave differently all the time; certain chemical reactions are delayed or stalled altogether. Cooking times can increase or decrease. Or a sudden shift in the quality of the ingredient can throw the whole dish apart. There are lots of things we cannot control so in the face of all this uncertainty, one must be ready for criticism. And, be prepared for failure but don’t let it dishearten you.



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Where do you see The Fig Tree down the line in 3 years?

I hope to see The Fig Tree change perceptions about food. I want people to eat with their heart and really feel the food rather than aiming to just satisfy their hunger.

To gain greater insights about her personal life, she was asked about what she loves about food and she mentioned, “⁠I can safely say that food is my language. It’s how I understand people and show them my love. When all words fail me, food rescues me and becomes my medium for communication“. As far as her experience is concerned as a culinary maestro, she clearly stated, “I feel as though I still learn daily, and that is my main takeaway from being in the food industry. There is never a time when you know everything there is to know about food because it is just so dynamic. And this learning process is what is the most exciting because it presents a new way through which people can be brought together. I’ve noticed this across the board, when my staff learns something new as well, I can see a glimmer in their eyes as they excitedly replicate their learnings. It an incredibly inspiring thing to witness”

Who do you look up to in the culinary world?

There are too many people I look up to in the culinary world, but if I had to name one, it would be Marco Pierre White.

If you could keep only one dish on the menu, which would be?

The one dish I would keep on the menu is Foie gras. It is, hands down, my favorite thing to eat.

What is one dish your family loves to indulge in when you cook at home?

See Also

My family loves anytime I bake. I feel as though that is my specialty at home.



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What is the biggest challenge you’ve had to face as a women owning an eatery?

⁠As a woman entrepreneur, one major challenge I face constantly is not being taken seriously. I have noticed that, more often than not, people assume that women entrepreneurs are frivolous and entitled women whose husbands or fathers open a business for them so that they can remain engaged. This is not the case. Most women open business out of passion, just like I opened my restaurant out of the desire to share my love language with the rest of the country. I built it with my heart and soul, not on a whim.

What is a fond memory from your culinary journey?

My fondest memories in my culinary journey include learning how to make Makkai ki roti and homemade butter as a 5-6 year old from my nanny. Then later, my grandmother taught me how to cook on an open wood fire while we were living in my village. I made countless loaves of bread and cakes in the tandoor. As I grew even older, I spent extended amounts of time in the kitchen with my late mother. My focus was always on absorbing all that she was doing, and all that she was teaching me, not knowing then that she was prepping me for my future. Everything I have accomplished today has been because of her. She has played a major part in instilling resilience in me, and all I hope for is that I am as good of a cook as she was. I know I still have a long way to go; my long-lasting goal is to replicate her chocolate cake and I hope I can do it very soon. The world needs to take a bite of it! I hope she is resting in peace and is proud of her little sous chef.

It was a pleasure having a conversation with such a strong woman like Zaineb who is determined about her goals and is working tirelessly towards her destination. We need more women like her who are no longer dependent and are working for themselves!



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