Different Strokes Magazine

Sign to dine

Apprehension is writ all over his face as he reluctantly raises the index finger of his extended right hand and beckons a server, who is neatly togged out in his black uniform, colourful sneakers and accessorised with a beaming smile.

In another, more ‘kosher’ setting, Ashish Mehrishi might have been guilty of displaying one of dining-out etiquette’s most unpardonable faux pas, especially when a simple “excuse me” would have sealed the deal! But at Mumbai’s newly opened fine dining Indian cuisine restaurant Mirchi & Mime (or M&M for short), such gestures and many more non-verbal aids of communication are not just encouraged — they are de rigueur and thus perfectly acceptable.

For those who haven’t sussed it out already, M&M, nestled in suburban Mumbai’s Powai neck of the woods, is a restaurant with a big difference. This 80-seater bar and grill claims to be the first restaurant in India to have the entire 27 member-strong service team comprising hearing and speech-impaired individuals. Joining a handful of other similar all-inclusive restaurants and cafés around India that are slowly and altruistically changing the culinary landscape of the country, M&M confidently trudges down the alternative path.

The concept here is pretty simple. Diners are greeted at the entrance by a hostess who points to the reservations of the day book. Reserved diners scan the book for their names and point, while walk-ins can simply shake their heads and, well, walk in! Once seated at their tables — with illustrated menus in their hands — diners can, once again, simply point and indicate the number of portions. An easy-to-follow gesture glossary is also appended to the menu for diners to indicate other eating accoutrements like cutlery, crockery, salt, pepper, spices etc.

After a 15-20 minute wait, dishes start making an appearance on the table, accompanied by tiny signboards indicating what each dish is, and the rest is as simple as sitting down to a meal at any other ‘regular’ restaurant. And once you’re done, a simple chin tap with your right hand conveys your appreciation.

“I must admit that the concept of M&M is an inspired one,” confesses the eatery’s co-owner Prashant Issar. “The seed for the idea was sown while I was dining at Signs, a restaurant in Toronto, Canada, which is also wait-staffed by hearing-impaired servers. I’ve always believed that it is important to generate wealth for society at large and what better way than to start with, by employing those differently-abled. We hope to take this concept further with a total of 21 mime concept restaurants. With the next two also in Mumbai, the fourth in Bengaluru and one each in Dubai, Singapore and London, along with other Indian cities by 2018.”

Issar, with his over 20 years experience in the hospitality industry — heading London-based fine dining Indian restaurants like the hallowed Chutney Mary and Amaya as GM — was joined by Anuj Shah in this latest project that they insist is not about disability, but about celebrating the immense talent that came their way via their wait staff. “The eagerness to learn a new skill and work to the best of their ability is something we see in our staff every day,” says Shah, who handpicked M&M’s wait staff from Mumbai’s Rochiram T. Thadani High School for Hearing Handicapped and from the National Society for Equal Opportunities for the Handicapped’s (NASEOH) Mumbai division. “Along with Dr. Reddy’s Foundation and our in-house head of training Clyde Castellino, we then went on to train them for 14 weeks in the nuances of F&B and hospitality as many of them came from different fields.”

For 25-year-old wait staff member Rohitkumar Patil with a background in software programming, this new innings is so exciting that he can’t help fashion a ‘C’ with his right hand’s thumb and forefinger and touch it to his heart, when asked (via Castellino) what’s the best thing about his new job. “He says the confidence that it has instilled in him,” translates Castellino, who like the other members of the M&M family has a sign ascribed to him by the wait staff. “While I’m identified by my earring, Pooja, one of our five female wait staff members, is mimed by the act of throwing flowers!”

And although first-time diners like Mehrishi have no qualms in admitting that it was the novel concept of M&M that brought him here for a weekend lunch with a friend, it was the overall experience, and more so the food, that has gotten him hooked. “The fear with such concept restaurants is that they often get caught up in the gimmicky bits, much to the detriment of the quality of food. But I was pleasantly surprised with the outstanding food on offer here,” says Mehrishi, who immediately touches his throat and holds out five fingers. Meaning: he’d like the fifth item in the desserts section — the toasted coconut pannacotta.

Collaborating for the first time on a concept restaurant as Culinary Director, London-based Chef Manoj Vasaikar says that he and his kitchen staff (who are all speech-abled) had to pick up the basics of Indian sign language to communicate with the wait staff. “I realised along the way as the project was taking shape, that our service team is our true strength and one that perfectly complements our food,” says Vasaikar.

As if on cue, another server Israr quickly turns a full 360 degrees on his heel and points to a poignant and heavily-loaded question embroidered in red on the back of his shirt. It asks — albeit rhetorically —“ I know sign language. What’s your superpower? ” Touché!  

Dining with a Difference!

● Kalakkal Café, Chennai: Positioned as India’s first ever ‘inclusive’ cafe, it not only has Braille menus, but it also has pictorial menus, tactile walls and even uses apps like All Access where visually-impaired users can scan logos and QR codes to access menus. ● Sheroes Hangout, Agra: A café and resource centre run and managed by acid attack survivors. An all-vegetarian, impairment- friendly restaurant that has both Braille and audio menus. ● Dialogue in the Dark, Hyderabad: A dine-in-the-dark concept restaurant that has visuallyimpaired wait staff taking care of blindfolded diners through their meal.

Photos: N. Ghia

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Printable version | Jun 29, 2022 3:40:05 am | https://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/different-strokes-mirchi-and-mime-restaurant-in-mumbai-is-a-novel-social-experiment/article7286175.ece