Find out why the food cooked by Janesh Kumar Kharbanda and his partner Bhawna have people travelling for two hours to get to their dhaba.
(February 4, 2024) Sometimes, a hero’s journey takes roads that make all the difference. Just as it was for Janesh Kumar Kharbanda, or Jay as he is popularly known. And his story of how he ended up in Hamilton, a city in New Zealand, is intriguing.
In an exclusive interview with Global Indian, he recalls, “I came to New Zealand in 2006 for my post-graduation in business management. After completing my studies, I got a job at a well-known Indian restaurant as an assistant manager. From 2007 till 2016 I worked with brands in the hospitality business from the Taj Group of Hotels to chains like Nando’s, Denny’s, and La Porchetta; most of which are world famous.”
I Did It My Way
With an entrepreneurial spirit lurking within, in 2014, Jay also started his own company called Life Corporation Ltd. He manufactured hygiene products like alcohol-free hand sanitisers, toilet seat wipes, clean and wipe tissues, etc. Due to back surgery, he shut down the business for a while but plans to restart it soon. He says, “Due to my work, I used to travel to various cities across the country. I realised something was missing and people were getting bored of eating the same type of food which was less authentic and mild. During that time, I also launched and produced the Senior Best Chef Show in 2015 on local TV channels, which was inspired by Masterchef. The beauty of my show was that contestants had to be over 55 years of age; this was to encourage senior citizens to come forward with their hidden recipes so that the younger generation could know more about their grandparents’ secret recipes.”
Between the insights gained from his travel and the show, he decided “to open an authentic Indian boutique restaurant, especially for Indian kids growing up in New Zealand, so they could see how we used to eat and our experiences when we were children.” And instead of Auckland, Christchurch, or Wellington, more popular cities of this tiny island nation, he and his partner Bhawna decided on Hamilton, a city in the North Island, with a population of less than two lakh people, because it is a gateway to all other major cities and a tourist attraction as well as a stopover point while travelling.
Highway on My Plate
It is mostly a self-managed operation, and Jay and Bhawna have even designed and executed the décor of the place including the painting and furniture. However, they had to face several challenges when they launched. Bhawna reveals, “Initially, it was on the highway where there was no local grocery shop, bus stop, and no local community. We had to travel every day to buy fresh groceries, and pick up and drop staff. Our restaurant is secluded from the main locations, so it was not in a safe area.”
They aptly named it Dhaba on Highway and gave it a dhaba-like feel – the kind we see dotting Indian highways. Even the décor is similar. About the menu, Jay says, “We decided to make those dishes which are always in demand, but the real taste is missing, like Delhi style chhole bhature, Mumbai vada pav, misal pav, and pav bhaji, Punjabi paratha, and the all-India favourite, kadak chai, etc. Being in this industry for the last 26 years coupled with my interest in cooking since childhood with my grandmother, we created all these recipes which are authentic and inspired by her. We freshly grind our spices, add no colours or preservatives, and we don’t freeze any cooked food. Luckily, Bhawna had similar interests. We buy locally every day, and though it is extra hard work, it retains the freshness and taste of the food. Finding the right staff with the required skills is a real challenge, as most of them have no experience in this industry. It took a lot of pain and time to train and educate them.”
The restaurant was launched in 2016, and from Members of Parliament to famous YouTubers like Karl Rock and famous chefs and their families have dined here. The most popular dishes here are the parathas, served with a massive dollop of white butter, Chhole Bhature with lassi and samosas. Lots of desi ghee is also used in the food. Bhawna manages the entire kitchen operation and does the cooking too.
Staying Ahead of the Game
Bhawna reveals why she thinks her food is so popular, even with the locals. “We make everything fresh from scratch, so it is very easy for us to cater to their bland palate, apart from a few dishes that need prep beforehand. We make our own white butter, and we use desi ghee to cook the main dishes. All our dishes were first served to our family, kids, and friends for a while and once everyone approved, we put these dishes on our main menu. Our food doesn’t make you feel heavy after eating it, and people travel 200 km to 300 km especially just to dine at our restaurant.”
With Dhaba on Highway becoming successful, Jay and Bhawna have recently launched another outlet inspired by “the Vaishnav dhabas on Indian motorways.” Named Beeji Dhaba after Jay’s grandmother, the food here is sattvik without onion and garlic. Jay adds, “We have several vegan dishes that cater to a large vegan audience that is increasing rapidly day by day. It’s ten minutes away from the first restaurant and has a more dhaba look and feel, where people can experience roadside dhabas like the ones back in India. With an increasing number of Jain, Swaminarayan and other religious belief customers who don’t like to eat onion and garlic, serving all dishes without them was a bit challenging in the busy rush. So, we decided to make this outlet completely Vaishnav or sattvik.”
Next on the anvil for Jay and Bhawna is the launch of their new dessert brand, which is his grandmother’s recipes made from jaggery, natural ingredients and healthy; free from preservatives. They chose desserts since their handmade kulfis are already popular.
Jay believes in serving fresh and natural food and according to him, global food trends too are moving in that direction. “People want more plant-based, healthy, and natural food, as after COVID, people start realising that health is more important than anything else.”
With their sattvik and vegetarian dishes popular with people from varied cultures, can a cookbook be far behind? Apparently not as it is one of Jay and Bhawna’s cherished goals. And, seeing how much they have accomplished in less than a decade, a cookbook doesn’t seem out of reach either.
When they travel, Jay and Bhawna like to eat at:
- Kashkan by Ranveer Brar, Dubai: Dal, Shikanji, Dum Aloo
- Indian Accent, New Delhi: Six-course vegetarian meal
- Kle, Zürich, Switzerland: Six course meal
- Gaa, Bangkok, Thailand: Baby corn and jackfruit dishes
- Yellow, Sydney, Australia: Pumpkin and Papaya with Wattleseed and Mulberry and Honeydew Sorbet
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