Nicholas Fernandes. Pics/Datta Kumbhar, Bipin Kokate, Sameer Markande
If you are a member at one of Mumbai’s clubs and gymkhanas, there is sure to be a drink that you like fixed a certain way, or a seat with a view reserved for you, or a starter that you come for week after week. “It is a family away from home, where people come to make new friends and mingle with old ones,” says Xerxes Dastur, chairperson, Ripon Club in Kala Ghoda, an establishment that dates back to 1884.
If the club is an extension of your home, then making it more comfortable is the staff. Members and staff are known to share a camaraderie that goes well beyond merely placing orders and waiting on tables.
Mahabal Govind Poojari
A few months ago, Ripon lost one of its beloved staff members, Felix Vaz, a senior waiter from Chira Bazaar who had served there for more than three decades. Vaz was missed, for the bonhomie he shared with the members as well as his childlike love for chocolates.
While the city’s club culture has changed vastly – the once-predominantly Goan staff giving way to a more cosmopolitan make-up – there is still a lingering connection that exists between the old-timers. We spoke to a veteran staff member each from three clubs and one gymkhana in the city about their love affair with their establishments.
Poojari brings in a lot of patience to his service, especially while attending to the elderly. Pic/Bipin Kokate
The Poojari Special
Radio Club, waiter
Employed here since: 1988
The view is just great,” says Mahabal Govind Poojari. Referring to the sunlit sea right outside Radio Club in Colaba, Poojari laughs that this was just one of the many reasons why he has been serving as waiter here since 1988.
For Poojari, his links with his hometown in Udipi go a long way. With previous experience at a Udipi restaurant in Byculla and at Nitin Vihar in Colaba, Poojari was identified as a resourceful worker and brought into Radio Club. “I was known for taking orders and serving quickly,” says Poojari. At Radio Club, the tips from his Udipi hotel days have lingered. “We were asked never to stand around and stare at tables in the restaurants,” he says.
It’s true. Poojari scurries around and makes himself scarce when not required. In fact, during the course of our conversation, we couldn’t let Poojari get out of sight. His dependable service also fetched him an award in the 1990s from the Radio Club.
At 52, Poojari has attended to various sections of the club, such as the restaurant area and the pool, and now attends to members at the first floor Presidency Bar, which offers a delightful view of the Arabian Sea. He has seen members age and their children grow as well as expansions of the dining areas at the Club. “When I began, the Presidency Bar was only half its present size,” he says.
In his repertoire is his talent for attending on the club’s elderly members. “Earlier, my job was to look after the janta table and make sure that the senior members were attended to,” he says, referring to a table by the pool where it was tradition for members to share their small plates of Melba toast or bhajiya with each other. He adds that he owes his love for the job to committee members Manu Bhavnani and Prakash Mirchandani.
These days, he is well known for a chakna he makes for members to go with their drinks in the permit room. It’s not on the menu but you can ask for The Poojari Special – a bhel made of crisp papad. He quickly fixes us a tangy plate of his recipe and says, “I was once offered the post of head steward. I refused. I love to do this – take orders and serve.”
Pascoal the Rascal
Breach Candy Club, bar supervisor
Employed here since: 1981
Actor Randhir Kapoor sits at his usual table and likes his vodka at noon. His wife Babita asks for her Pinot Noir every time she is here. A certain Sindhi gentleman takes the corner view of the first floor bar and has his usual – a round of two beers followed by vodka. Then there is the member who, when he waves his hand to the waiters, is waiting for his order of vodka, fresh lime and salt. If you are an old member, bar supervisor Pascoal Goes knows your poison.
“I started as a waiter at Breach Candy Club in 1981, learning from Mathew Fernandes and Peter Pereira – who could handle several tables and do the work of three – at the bar. I was also catering and bartending at some of the parties that members hosted at their homes,” says Goes, a 56-year-old native of Margao, Goa.
Today, members, both the desi ones and the firangs that the club boasts of, flock to Goes for the Bloody Marys that he makes. “The secret is in the tomato juice and a local Worcestershire sauce I use,” he laughs, asking us not to give away his secret. And, you can trust Goes to fix you a drink that doesn’t find mention in the menu. If you are vegan and you want your cold coffee with coconut milk, you can leave it to Goes to experiment. Goes is also known for his daiquiris, hot toddies and mojitos.
Pascoal Goes manning Breach Candy Club’s bar, circa 1990s, before it was refurbished
Goes, thanks to his service and courteousness, is a proud Goan who also shimmies well with the old-timers at the club, infusing their friendship with humour and charm. “There used to be a time when this was a bikini bar and members would come from the pool to grab a drink,” he says, as he reminds a member of how she would, back in her 20s, return from her swim and ask him for chips.
One of his earliest memories of the Club is the Christmas tradition of floats in the pool, on which a designated member would transform into Father Christmas and a young one would be assigned the role of a fairy. They would be paraded around in the pool, propelled by swimmers. “One time, the float’s design was such that it toppled. Santa fell in the water,” he says gleefully.
One ambition Goes had harboured in his younger days was to go abroad and be a fancy bartender at a luxury hotel. “However, I was discouraged from doing that because of how short I am. I told myself that this club is my place in life,” he says. We are sure the connoisseurs of his Bloody Marys would testify otherwise.
Gurav’s summer soda
Bombay Gymkhana, steward
Employed here since: 1997
On a hot Wednesday afternoon, steward Harish Gurav fixes us a thirst-quenching fresh lime soda. He has come in the tradition of employees there, knowing exactly what proportions of lime concentrate and soda make the concoction that the Gymkhana is famous for. “This place is like second home to me and catering is my life,” says Gurav.
From Ratnagiri, Gurav joined the Bombay Gym-khana as waiter in 1997 after he spotted a vacancy in mid-day (this elicits a smug smile from us). In the course of the last 20 years, Gurav has been known for his politeness and for catering to the personal tastes of the members. He knows how to fix your tea – the President of the club likes his mint tea with light milk and without sugar – or your shandy – with quantities of beer and soda. The tricks of the trade, he says, came from observing stalwarts such as Theophilo Fernandes, a chef well-known for spectacular flambes.
The greatest challenge in his career here, he says, has been remembering orders from big tables and the repeats. “You have to know members by their names as well as what drink they ordered,” he says. “Duty is duty.”
Kem chhe, Nicholas
Ripon Club, head waiter
Employed here since: 1987
Surrounded by teakwood mirrors, Nicholas Fernandes evokes the time when chef C. Fernandes used to make his famous roast chicken and potato mash and when silver cutlery, embossed with the institution’s insignia, was the order of the day at Ripon Club. In his 30th year of service, Nicholas is head waiter at the club, where he oversees the packed buffets on Wednesdays when mutton or chicken dhansak is served. We notice his crisp white shirt embroidered with his name. “As headwaiter, I used to wear a red tie too, but, I haven’t done so for the last two years,” he laughs.
Nicholas, 58, originally from Salsette, Goa, came to Mumbai in the 1980s, where he worked at a little restaurant near Metro Cinema before joining Ripon Club. “I was part of the many Goan waiters who worked at Ripon and I learned a lot from Vitha Braganza and Marcelene Dias who were previously employed here,” he says.
His fluent Konkani and a Goan-flavoured Hindi is no surprise. But, over the years, he has also picked up fluent Gujarati to interact with the exclusively Parsi membership of the club. It is common to see members saunter in with “Kem chhe, Nicholas!” ringing from them.
What does he miss the most? “Ice-creams that were once served during the summers here. A caterer named Dharma made them and we had them in four flavours,” he reminisces. Well, that and Felix, the much-loved Chira Bazaar waiter. “Felix was my very good friend. I feel I am alone, now that he has gone,” he says.