Inside track: The joy of service

15 October 2019 by
Inside track: The joy of service

Shamil Thakrar pays tribute to the man behind a Mumbai institution, famed for a lifetime of selfless hospitality

I write this column with some sadness. Just a few weeks ago, a certain Mr Boman Kohinoor passed away at the grand old age of 97. He was the owner of Mumbai's iconic Britannia & Co and a man of legendary kindness. His life was one of loving and selfless hospitality, and one that I have often thought about.

Some of you will know Britannia & Co. It is a wonderful piece of vintage Bombay and occupies the ground floor of an elegant 1920s neo-classical building in the Ballard Estate.

The estate was once home to the most successful shipping and commercial firms on the sub-continent, but now it has aged charmingly into a leafy and sleepy backwater.

The elegantly dilapidated Britannia is one of the loveliest of the surviving Irani cafés. Every day, all manner of different people take refuge from the lunchtime heat of the city and take a delicious meal together.

Until recently Mr Kohinoor would look after every single table himself. Even in his very twilight, his joy in serving was delightfully apparent. A conversation with the great man might have gone something like this: "How old do you think I am?" he would have asked, peering at you through his milk-bottle-bottom thick glasses. You would have studied him, perhaps thinking to yourself that he was surely very old indeed.

"I'm as old as this place," he would have said, a smile breaking like warm sunshine across his wizened and kindly face. "I was born in 1923. The same year that Britannia opened."

He might also have told you how his family came from the Yazd region in Iran in the early 1920s, fleeing persecution, or how the British army requisitioned his restaurant in the Second World War, or how he went back to Iran in 1969 before returning to Bombay in 1977. It was hard to separate Britannia, the restaurant, from Mr Kohinoor, the man. They are the same thing, both dedicated through the decades to serving.

Britannia is famed for its fragrant chicken berry pulao – a recipe conjured up by the late Mrs Kohinoor (and one that Mr Kohinoor never revealed to us, in spite of our repeated pleas). The excellent Parsi speciality, sali boti, is another favourite.

Mr Kohinoor used to love taking plates full of food from the hands of the restaurant's moustachioed and bow-tied waiters and placing them on the tables himself. "Enjoy your food," he would say. Pausing, once again peering intently, he would wait. Only once you had taken a bite and smiled your approval would he breathe easy. Each and every customer was important to him.

Every visit to Britannia was an unforgettable experience. Of course, the food is delicious, but it was Mr Kohinoor's tangible, big-hearted delight in serving that made the difference. I think about his life in Bombay, spanning the 20th century and its history.

While momentous events came and went over the decades, he touched so many lives with his constant and consistent hospitality, each guest a special one.

I know that he looked back over his life of loving service with joy and pride.

What we do in the restaurant trade can feel very complex, and Brexit will no doubt eventually come and go, but in the end, it really is only about serving. Mr Kohinoor taught us that the point of being in hospitality is to throw your entire self, joyfully, into serving. The rest, important as it surely is, is secondary.

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