In 1981, three years after she set up Prithvi Theatre, in Juhu, Mumbai, Jennifer Kapoor, wife of the handsome Bollywood actor Shashi, decided to set up a café that would complement the theatre. The only food available at the time at the theatre was chai and samosas. The search for a person knowledgeable and capable enough led the Kapoors to ad man Prahlad Kakkar, who wanted to design the café as the Indian equivalent of the famed Joe Allen chain of theatre restaurants in Broadway and London. Kakkar was also keen on one person to oversee the kitchen: his close friend Meena Pinto. Pinto was a young home chef from Bandra whose jams, cakes and chutneys had gained a formidable reputation.
“I ran the café with my team of helpers. After my son finished his graduation, he would help me run it. I did the shopping and cooking. I ran the kitchen like it was for my home. Prahlad was my business partner and good cook himself. I was the working partner, while he used to come in on weekends to cook his special dishes,” says Pinto.
Pinto is now 76 and has shifted base to Pune, but her passion for cooking still burns bright. She continues to sell her jams and chutneys and hold the occasional cooking class. It’s been a couple of years since she visited the Prithvi Cafe, but is curious to know about what has become of her pet project. “Do they still serve the Irish coffee? How much does it cost now?” she enquires. She’s pleased to know the Irish coffee is still a favourite on the Prithvi menu, but gasps at the price (Rs 120).
“I had started serving Irish coffee, and it became very popular. By the end of it, the demand for it was so high that I had to buy 10 kilos of cream every day. It was only Rs 5 back then. Some people would ask me to put a little brandy in it, and that would cost Rs 6,” says Pinto.
What made Pinto’s menu stand out was its emphasis on Goan seafood, which wasn’t as freely available in Mumbai as it is today.
“I used to buy the fish myself everyday and cook it. We didn’t have a fixed menu. Instead, we had a blackboard where we would announce the dishes available on a particular day. We had prawn curry rice and stuffed pomfret with prawns almost daily. But other things like oysters, fish curry and crabs were dependent on availability. We had two chicken and mutton dishes too, but mainly it was seafood,” she says. Her seafood delicacies are still a favourite with the Kapoor family.
“After Jennifer passed away (in 1984), Shashi Kapoor dedicated his time to cancer patients. Whenever he came to Pune, he would call and say, ‘Mrs Pinto, I’d love to have your prawn and crab curry’. He would always drop in,” recalls Pinto.
With age catching on, Pinto doesn’t recall the names of all the young actors she interacted with during her time at the café — she ran it until 1986 — but says she does recognise a few each time they appear on television, or in the movies.“They called themselves strugglers. Some of them didn’t want to be obligated to me, so they would work as waiters and I’d give them dinner at night for free. That’s what Jennifer encouraged. She was a lovely person to work with. We had the same ways of thinking. She always wanted me to give strugglers a chance to come up in life,” she says.
However, there was an incident involving actor Amjad Khan that she remembers quite distinctly. Khan, who had attained much fame after his iconic portrayal of Gabbar Singh in Sholay, would come to Prithvi late at night to rehearse for his plays. One night, just as she was packing up for the day, his crew members approached Pinto and requested her to provide tea at regular intervals to the actor to help him stay awake. “I said, ‘Where am I going to get milk at this hour?’ But one of my boys said he would go out and look for milk and serve them. I told him, just in jest, ’If you can’t find milk, then bring a cow and come,” she recalls. The next day, when Pinto came to work, she found two buffalos right outside the theatre. Khan had got them so that he could be served tea all night.
“It even came in some evening paper. I found that petty but people found it amusing. But, on the whole I was very happy at Prithvi,” she says.
Pinto moved on a few years after Jennifer Kapoor passed away. “I missed her too much,” she says. The last time she visited the café was a couple of years ago to attend a music festival to commemorate Jennifer Kapoor’s birth anniversary. “I used to be there till 2.30am every day. After the plays got over, people would come for coffee. There was a kind of warmth and character. Now, I heard they have given out the food to caterers. I find there is no personal touch — it has become commercial.”