I mindfully tap away on my laptop with a sense of inner calm and clarity. That my environment is highly coducive for my elevated state of consciousness is a given. From one window I can see the entire Stok range while the other looks into the vegetable garden and fields of Chalung House and the vast cirque of high mountains that surround Leh. While the scenery is calming, it is the whiffs from the kitchen that are distracting me. Little did I know when I checked into Chalung House, a Stok-view farmstay, that besides the peace and quiet I had also bought into one helluva gastronomic experience. For Shivender Sharma, the host, the rooms are incidental. The experience here is all about slow food, immersive dining and conversations.
With a background in micro finance, Shivender has travelled to remote parts of India and also around the world due to his stint with World Bank. He’s absorbed the culinary traditions of whichever location he’s visited. When he realised he couldn’t make much of a difference to peoples lives in the jobs he held, he gave it all up to follow his passion. But first he went through a few years of obsessive climbing. He’s climbed six 6,000 metre peaks in 16 days in Ladakh’s Changthang region. Post that he decided to follow his culinary leanings and came up with pop ups where he would curate an exclusive dining experience for small groups in Gurugram. Three years ago he took the concept to Ladakh and opened Café TBQ at Chalung House—a local residence leased to him.
Following my nose, I step out into the apricot garden to see Shivender in the process of smoking meats with a regular barbecue grill set. Marinated with his own special spice mix, without the use of preservatives or harmful salts, his smoked meats, especially the pork, fish and mutton, are outstanding. There are no pigs in Ladakh and this is probably the only place you will find good pork in Leh.
So how does a guy from the finance world carve a niche for himself in the slow food arena? And that too in a tough place like Ladakh where sourcing itself can put you in a bind. Calling himself ‘the brahmin butcher’ Shivender’s story stems from the childhood trauma of spending six young years of his life doing temple duties starting at 5 am. He would only get breakfast on return three hours later. The hunger pangs and the arduous task must have sowed a seed of discontent which was to later trigger the Brahmin boy into becoming a butcher! With meats galore, from smoked to steaks to blood sausages, Café TBQ could be easily touted as a meat lovers paradise. Yet there is enough solace for the vegetarian. “As long as they allow me to cook the vegtables in pork fat I am happy,” he quips jokingly.
The open kitchen and dining that make up Café TBQ is a warm inviting place and the magnet towards which everyone veers. You can also occupy one of the tables in the apricot and apple garden outside. With great food and good music forever playing in the background, good conversations are a given. Next door, within the premises, live four generations of a matriarchal family. From the lovely octogenarian grandmother to the young and fiesty little sisters Namsal and Neydon, aged five and four, respectively, and their brother Kangkhar, the place abuzz with the playfulness of children as they go about their inventive games. Often enough the aromas from the kitchen draw them in with the chef forever ready to oblige them with treats.
Shivender’s passion for artisanal cuisine goes beyond just great food. He sources his ingredients with utmost care, has the best of gourmet cheeses and even makes his own delicious varieties. The vegetable farm run by the Ladakhi family has been pesticide free for over a decade. Shiv has added zucchinis, beets and salad leaves amid a host of other produce to the farm. All of which make their way to his kitchen table. Above all, the food not only tastes good but a lot of thought goes into curating a healthy menu. Millet pancakes with bell pepper preserves, proso millet pulao tossed with a variety of mushrooms, delicately flavoured fish steamed in haq saag infused with home made mustard sauce, Yak cheese and mushroom crostini, pok choy tossed in a sesame dressing, salads galore are just a few things I sampled during my stay. On the meatier side were mutton wraps in Haq leaves, pork belly with crispy skin served with a seasonal apricot reduction, seared fish in Parmesan cream, smoked chicken and grilled bell pepper salad to name a few. What really steals the show is how he can curate a meal around individual tastes and preferences. Beyond that it is best to leave the menu to the master chef and be pleasantly surprised by what comes to the table. Infact he strongly feels that restaurant culture and playing to the whims of people robs originality from the recipes. First and foremost comes his own love for food and that he is unwilling to dilute at any cost.
I was impressed with Shivender’s sourcing ways. While he blessed Amazon’s recent entry into Ladakh, one trip a month to Delhi was de rigueur for getting his supply of exotic mushrooms, pork etc. Even the best of Leh restaurants fall short on quality primarily because of the unavailability of many ingredients. Lunches were simple affairs—dosas, chutneys, delicious sambhar or just a vegetarian meal. The desserts were inventive and sinful—crème brûlée, lentil burfi, beetroot and coconut pudding, ice cream and cake among others. A jar of home-made cookies was always on hand for tea or coffee urges.
I carried home vacuum-sealed packets of Shivender’s smoked meats and cheeses. I also had lots of inventive recipes in my bag and a host of good music on my pendrive from his fantastic collection. All to rustle up an incredible evening with friends and relive an unforgettable gourmet experience.
I think I forgot to mention what Café TBQ stands for earlier—tasalli baqsh.
LOCATION - Café TBQ at Chalung house is just off Fort road in Shenam, Leh. Café TBQ is open from May to end September. Shivender Sharma advertises his Gurugram pop ups on fb.com/tasallibaQsh.
ACCOMMODATION & TARIFF - 3 rooms with ensuite facilities (`3,500 with breakfast per day). Regular meals `400 per person. Eight course meals on prior reservation at `1200 per person. There is also an open menu for walk ins with smoked pork and chicken sandwiches, pizza, burgers and the like.
CONTACT - Shivender Sharma at +91-9910499207 or firstname.lastname@example.org