UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL WITH IMTISAL ZAFAR AND MISHA REHMAN

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ANUSHA BAWANY CHATS WITH LAHORE’S TWO BIGGEST FOODIES, WHO HAVE RECENTLY OPENED UP WITH MUCH TALKED ABOUT NOM NOM

Imtisal, you are a very prominent event manager in Lahore, tell me about that.
Event management has been a passion of mine since school days. I remember organizing my first event and getting hooked on to it during A’level. Arsalan and myself started Verve in 2007. It has been one hell of a roller coaster ride with many highs and lows, but it has been a truly incredible experience! Many people think it is as all glamour, fun and games, but event management is one of the most stressful jobs in the world. I wouldn’t be into it if I absolutely did not love it.

And Misha, you’re a lawyer by profession. Tell me about a little about that.
After having studied law from LUMS and graduating from Harvard in 2011, I practiced as a Constitutional and energy sector lawyer, as well as working with a Research Collective on socio-economic issues for communities in Punjab and Balochistan. However, for this food venture I have taken a brief hiatus from law and research work. I felt that this profession requires my full attention, especially when trying to make an impression upon Lahore’s dining scene in a creative and unique fashion. Our first pop-up largely being a success, we are now well acquainted with its workings, so I plan to resume my legal work shortly.

How and why did you decide to go into the food industry? Was this always a passion?
IMTISAL: It started with appreciating good food as a child, but then grew into a passion, where I wanted to learn how to cook as well. What drove me towards starting my own food business is perhaps a lack of quality options available in the market, and the fact that so much can still be done in the growing food industry of Pakistan. I’ve always been a go-getter in life, having a flare of entrepreneurship.
MISHA: Having spent most of my life in Lahore, it’s no surprise that I too am a foodie. But I also had great luck in two other respects; Apart from my mum who is a brilliant cook, all three of my brothers are exceptionally talented and passionate about food. On top of that, during my travels I experimented with various cuisines and often came home with narratives revolving around exceptional food.  All this nurtured my passion for cooking and I decided that I too wanted to provide nourishment to diners through a wholesome culinary experience.

Where did the concept of a pop-up restaurant come from? The name?
IMTISAL: Having decided that the food industry is something I seriously want to dive into in some way, the concept of a pop-up is something that made a lot of sense. Pop-up restaurants are quite popular all over the world, but so far Pakistan has not caught on to the trend. It was a great way to test the market, introduce our style of cooking and create a buzz for our brand in a cost-effective manner. Proper, permanent establishments require so much investment in terms of money and time, so for us this was a very clever way to gain experience and for people to get introduced to our brand. The name was just something that struck me one morning. We were trying to look for a name that would be catchy, informal and incited the thought of some delicious food! The word fit perfectly with all those qualities we were looking for and viola! Nom Nomwas born.

Tell us about how you prepared and planned for this venture.
IMTISAL: Over the past few summer I’ve been traveling and have been taking upcooking courses on all my vacations. This year in Bangkok and last year in Tuscany I took short courses to learn local cuisines. That, coupled with experimentations and several trials and errors, enabled us to prepare for our first pop-up restaurant

How did you decide on the menu and the types of cuisine?
MISHA: When dining out, Imtisal and I always looked for authenticity in flavors and a variety in cuisines. So for our pop-up, we knew those were two essential elements we wanted to achieve, hence we decided that every pop-up will deliver a different menu and no plate would be repeated. For the first one, we were determined to provide a choice of starters so to ensure variety, we thought of doing a tasting menu of sorts, albeit they were big plates, we brought together different cuisines such as Thai (Green Curry Chicken and Pad Thai), Chinese (Soy glazed Sesame Chicken), British (Beef Wellington), and Italian (Pizzas and Panna Cotta).

Tell us a little about the ambiance and the vibe you want your patrons to feel.
IMTISAL: Nom Nom, is not only about good food, it is a whole experience. We created an environment at our first pop-up that was interactive and relaxing. There was jazz music, a soiree area for people to lounge about and mingle and a very fun ‘Nom Nom Kitchen’ photo booth for people to take pictures and create memorabilia from the night! We want people to plan their entire evening around our event and not just quickly come, try out the food and be in a rush to leave.

What are some of your favorite dishes to make?
IMTISAL: I’m a fan of stir-fries. So anything that involves a wok and some flash frying.

What are some of your favorite comfort foods?
MISHA: Lobster bisque at Legal Seafoods in Boston, a medium rare chefs cut steak at Sophie’s Steakhouse in London, Spaghetti Bolognese with lots of parmesan cheese, and Keema alloo!

Who are some of your culinary influences?
IMTISAL: Gordon Ramsay is definitely one of my biggest influences. Marcus Bean, Ferran Adria, Tyler Florence and Curtis Stone are some other people that inspire me.

Who’s your favorite TV chef?
MISHA: The man behind ‘Fat Duck’, the British Willy Wonka: Heston Blumenthal. He is an absolute culinary genius: using every bit of science to create the most thrilling plates I have ever seen.

How will Nom Nom be different from other eateries in Lahore? 
MISHA: Nom Nom is a unique culinary concept in Pakistan. Where permanent restaurants serve a set menu everyday in the same place, which probably does enable easier maintenance of standards due to the ease of working in a set establishment with a consistence staff, Nom Nom aims to challenge culinary styles and eating rituals of a food loving culture. Being a pop-up, Nom Nom will move around spatially, by appearing in different locations, and will change form, from fine dining and elaborate menus accompanied with jazz music in existing restaurants to outdoor make-shift spaces whipping up quick and hearty food in a relaxed environment. Nom Nom is about the ‘whole’ experience, which is greater than the sum of its parts.

If you could prepare a specific dish for any celebrity, who would they be and what would you make for them?
IMTISAL: Gordon Ramsay – Pan-seared Teriyaki Glazed Undercut Beef Rolls stuffed with Boursin Cheese and topped with Caramelized Onions
MISHA: There are a few that come to mind! HSY and I spent a brilliant time in London this summer and since he couldn’t make it for Nom Nom’s first pop-up, I would love to make him a Beef Wellington with Rosemary gravy and a Creamy mash of potatoes. Also, Ronda Rousey is of my favorite sportswomen, so I would love to see her devour my cheesecake!

How does this partnership work? What are your individual roles and responsibilities?
IMTISAL: I suppose the good thing about this partnership is that we are best friends, and so pre-empting how the other person is thinking is easy. It is too early in the business to demarcate roles, I suppose but in the past I’ve mostly handled the sponsors, setup and the media coordination (thanks to my other line of work) while Misha handles a lot of the staff and stock management. We develop the recipes and the menu together

How do you balance work demands with your personal life?
IMTISAL: Well, for at least a month before the first Nom Nom, we haven’t had apersonal life! But I suppose after the first experience it will become easier and we are learning to juggle work life with our personal lives. It is a tough one indeed because both of us have other full-time jobs, so many days we were so stretch with time that we both wished for more hours in a day!
MISHA: Imtisal and I are always on the go. I think we both don’t know how to take long breaks in our day. Little sleep means more time in the day, although it gets exhausting after a while, so I try to maintain a healthy diet and a gym routine which enables me to work and spend time with friends and family. Although my family would love to see more of me, they are very supportive of my projects. It sometimes is a challenge, but with all the inspiration around me, I want to be guided by my passions in order to grow through my experiences and enjoy every bit of it.

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