March issue 2009
Grilled lobster with garlic and lemon, stuffed with fresh asparagus and fresh mushrooms, Thai fish tucked in herbs and chilly sauce, seafood ravioli with chilly crab sauce, Mediterranean chicken with olives, feta cheese and basil and Arabian salad platters. These are just some of the offerings available at the popular Tiramisu restaurant. The owner, Shahida Salman, walks in, her cell phone stuck to her ear, as I wait outside Tiramisu. “I can’t deal with people who don’t know how to blend a menu. I try to guide them but they are not ready to listen,” says Shahida.
Simple food, glamorous titles, enhanced in taste, gorgeous in presentation. How can one be good at so many things at the same time? “Cooking is a passion. I dream of coming up with new items. If you have a feel for food and a passion for what you do, you can be good at everything,” replies Shahida, casual in appearance as well as conversation, but sometimes amusingly blunt.
Occupying a corner at the end of Jinnah Avenue, the restaurant can seat some 45 people, both inside and outdoors. Although Tiramisu opened its door to Islooites just four years ago, Shahida’s has been an established name in the capital’s catering industry for over 15 years.
As a newly-married girl, Shahida spent hours in the kitchen baking and cooking for hubby dear’s welcome-home after work. While she spoilt him trying out exotic food, she gained a reputation for her gourmet cooking amongst friends. “I kept experimenting in the kitchen because I just got bored with old items.” Bombarded with requests from friends and acquaintances, she started catering desserts and salads.
Shahida introduced Arabian and Mexican salad platters at a time when naive Islooites only knew a Russian salad and coleslaw. Shahida’s food added a unique magnetism to the otherwise dull and deserted sweet and salad counters at dinner parties. Operating by word of mouth, her popularity quickly spread. Slowly the menu expanded to jumbo prawns served in a noodle basket and hara masala fish served with green chutney … and it kept growing.
“It was new, it was different and it was delicious, which is why it gave me the market. Even though I am known to be very expensive, the reason I have always managed to survive is because I have always done what nobody else in Islamabad has been able to do. If you do something different and you do it well, you can’t go wrong,” explains Shahida.
The proof of her quality is in the eating, as I dig my fork in the slice of caramel crunch, Isloo’s hottest selling cake for the past 16 years. “Presentation of food has always been very important for me,” she says, “Even if it’s for myself.”
Her catering success has been in a city that was totally alien to her. “I didn’t know a soul in Islamabad when I moved here from Karachi. But my in-laws had a big social circle, which was a big help.”
Two years ago, when business in Islamabad picked up, Shahida captured the Lahore market after setting up a restaurant on main Gulberg. Initially that required a lot of shuttling between the two cities. But now, she feels, Lahore Tiramisu (a much bigger restaurant with seating for 100), is settled.
She works from a room built in the restaurant and conveniently spends her time in the restaurant quenching her appetite for experimenting with new recipes, while teaching the chefs.
Don’t her chefs run away with the million-dollar information? “There’s no guarantee of loyalty, people come and people go, but my turnover is not very high. If you are strong yourself, you survive,” she says matter-of-factly. “None of the recipes are from any book, I keep telling my bakers, ‘What I am teaching, you will not find in five million books because these are recipes that I have made with my hard work over the last two decades.’”
She adds, “I still do all the purchasing myself. As things are becoming more expensive every day, I am trying to reduce and cut back on my food consignment from Dubai. People appreciate the taste of imported items but don’t understand why the price is so high.”
Introducing catering in Lahore, starting cookery classes for corporate clients, supplying chillers for Tiramisu desserts to stores in various sectors, expanding the Islamabad Tiramisu, Shahida’s never-say-die attitude keeps her afloat.