In Focus

A hostel canteen delivering ‘home food’ all lockdown

By Ruchi Verma

When all of Mumbai’s restaurants were shut following the lockdown last year, the ones hit the worst were those who ate out as a rule, completely out of compulsion and not choice, like most others. These included hostel students, those studying away from homes at rental premises, licensee students and others habituated to simply grabbing a quick breakfast at the nearest restaurant after studying all night.

“If it weren’t for the University Hostel Canteen at ‘B’ Road near Churchgate Railway Station, I would have starved,” says 23-year-old law student Farookh Dalal. By the University Hostel Canteen, he meant the J.S. Hall University Hostel Canteen that provided ‘parcel’ service to students who’d arrive from far and beyond at a time when all was shut.

Manager Ramkrishna Bhat who has been in Mumbai since 1998 feels strongly about maintaining the quality of food he serves patrons. “Aadmi kam ho toh chalega...lekin khaana waise ka waise hi rehna chahiye,” he says.

MULTI-TASKER: Manager-cum-cook Ramkrishna Bhat ensures students get 'fresh food'
This time around, for the second wave, Ramkrishna has been running the hostel canteen continuously since 14 January 2021. Missing his wife and four-year-old son Chirag has become a way of life for Ramkrishna. “Ek time pe mein bhi toh student tha...inki musibat samajh sakta hoon,” he says when asked the reason for keeping the hostel canteen open despite catering to barely 12 inmates.

So Ramkrishna, now short of two cooks, is up himself by 4 am to pitch in with whatever he can. As a rule, the food cooked and served at the hostel is “fresh always.” The hostel restaurant is short of help because, “a good cook commands a salary of Rs 20,000 at least,” a luxury for Ramkrishna, in these COVID-hit times.

OPEN TO ALL: The hostel canteen has been a boon for most stuck during the lockdown
From a staff of 11 that included one specialist Chinese food cook, one South Indian specialities cook, two waiters, two cleaners and the rest, the hostel canteen is down to a basic four that include himself doubling up as a cook, a cleaner, a waiter and a substitute cook to pitch in with cooking when he is busy ‘managing’ the canteen. So now, the hostel canteen stays open from morning till 9.30 pm though most students arrive for lunch and the crowd usually trickles to a naught by 4 pm. Any food that’s not sold and consumed is thrown away at night. 

The one thing that strikes any visitor to the hostel canteen is that unlike most other eateries, this one is spick ‘n’ span. “We clean the place regularly. After all, there are inspections by the university authority too,” says Ramkrishna. So, every day, the staff embarks on a deep cleaning activity that runs from 9.30 pm to 11.30 pm.

Riyaz Ahmed from Lucknow who joined the canteen just a week back and Akash Goud, who joined the canteen two months back after leaving an earlier job at Matunga are the newer staff at the hostel canteen.

HELPING HAND: Akash Goud takes on whatever task is delegated to him

What's most endearing about this unique hostel canteen tucked away at the end of ‘B’ Road next to Churchgate Railway Station is the humane treatment of all customers. Each regular here, apart from the 12 hostel residents, has a connect with the place and its people. 

And, why not? After all, in each customer Ramkrishna sees a bit of himself...a student away from home, as he was at some point of time at the mercy of a hostel canteen and its staff. Just for that, he ensures the hostel’s food is much like he’d get at one's own home.

NEWBIE: Riyaz Ahmed is happy to work at the canteen 

(Note: Some subjects may have removed their masks only to be identified in photographs to be used with this news report. COVID-19 appropriate behaviour has been maintained at all times)