This Barista, DJ, And Photographer Runs A Cafe In Kolkata

Daughter of Arjuna awardee Akhtar Ali, Zareen Desai is one of the few women in the café space. She also runs a farm-to-table which works with local communities
Zareen Desai is one of the few women running a café in Kolkata
Zareen Desai is one of the few women running a café in KolkataZees Coffeeshop

Visit the speciality cafes in India's urban neighbourhoods, and you will notice a distinct absence of women making the coffee. In the competitive coffee world, women are barely visible and remain outnumbered by men behind the coffee machines.

In Kolkata, a city considered more liberal towards women than its other urban counterparts, you will find several that are helmed by women. One that stands out is Zees Coffeeshop. Located in the tiny neighbourhood of Mayfair Road near Ballygunge in South Kolkata, this cosy café has some of the best coffee in town. It is also known for the city's only weekly vinyl session.

Zees Coffeeshop is helmed by Zareen Desai, known to all as "Zee". She is a Le Cordon Bleu barista and a mother of two who started Zee's Coffeeshop in 2017 and Bagan Farm in 2020. Her passion for coffee, desserts and music has been brought together under one roof at her café. A food and travel enthusiast, Zee is constantly re-inventing her menu and introducing new flavours to the city while advocating the farm-to-table approach by growing many vegetables at their farm and supporting local farmers.

"I’ve always loved everything to do with food. I started cooking at a very young age and was encouraged by my father, who loved to try new things to eat," says Desai. "After I got married, my husband and I would host our friends at our place, and I’d cook for everyone. Soon after that, I started catering for small parties while working in the accounts department of our family business. The job was great, but I felt that something was missing. My husband Varun noticed this about me, too, and pushed me to get out of my comfort zone and do what I’d always wanted. We had the place, but it was small and didn’t have space for a kitchen, so we decided to open a coffee shop where I could serve homemade food and some great coffee."

The cosy space is known for a wide variety of quality coffee
The cosy space is known for a wide variety of quality coffeeZees Coffeeshop

The Coffee Journey

Since its opening, Zee's Coffeeshop has become a café that serves a diverse range of coffee and champions socially responsible practices. Talking about her journey, Desai says, "One of those things my father would say to me was that you can lose everything in life, but no one can take your education away from you. So when we decided that I’d open a coffee shop, where I’d be running things myself, I just had to go and learn how to make coffee, operate a semi automatic coffee machine and be able to serve a professionally made cup of coffee." She applied to Le Cordon Bleu thrice and only got in on her third try, "because the class only has 12 students and would get full as soon as they'd open registrations."

"So I went, trained, came back, bought a machine and practiced making coffee and everything else I was going to have on the menu for the next six months before I opened Zee’s Coffeeshop."

Has she faced an obstacles as woman running a cafe? "When I opened the café, I had a few people coming and telling me that the way I was making some of the coffees was wrong, but that’s how I had been taught, it was times like those when having a certificate helped."

Zareen is not just a coffee maestro, she is also a photographer, DJ and artist who has, in the past, put together string-art ultra violet décor for large-scale events singlehandedly. As a photographer, she moved from fashion photography to working with underprivileged children. Her 2007 photography exhibition focusing on child labour was inaugurated and much appreciated by the then Governor of West Bengal, H.E. Shri Gopal Krishna Gandhi. Daughter of Arjuna Awardee Akhtar Ali and sister of Junior Wimbledon finalist Zeeshan Ali, Zareen has helped her father organise and run National-level junior tennis tournaments for over a decade. She has emceed, participated in pageants and also holds a diploma in taxation from the Institute of Chartered Accountants.

The Vinyl Sessions

Apart from the coffee, Zees Coffeeshop is also known for its weekly vinyl sessions. "The Sunday Vinyl Session is actually all Varun," says Desai. "It’s his love for music and records that made this possible. We did the first one in 2018 for World Record Store Day, Varun set up a live streaming option for that day and people loved it. We invited our friends who we know love music and discussions happened over many cups of coffee. We did the next one the following Sunday and have never looked back."

Now they have people coming in with their records; and the couple clean and play the records for them. Sometimes these haven’t been played for decades. "Another friend of ours Saptarshi Bhattacharya (Sammy) has played a huge role in keeping the Vinyl Sessions going. He brings a whole lot of his records over every week and keeps the sessions alive even if Varun and I have to be at the farm during the farm-to-table season."

The vinyl sessions are held over the weekend
The vinyl sessions are held over the weekendZees Coffeeshop

From Farm To Table

Desai also runs a farm-to-table initiative called Bagan Farm. It all began during the lockdown. "On March, 20, 2020, we went to the farm for the week and got locked down there. We explored the local markets, found a khatal (for fresh milk), started farming and got comfortable with living at the farm. We’d talk to our families and hear about what things were like back in the city, but had no idea what it really felt like being back here." Then Amphan hit, and they spent one of the scariest nights of their lives at the farm. The next morning when they got out, they were devastated by what they saw. "We’d lost 22 trees, electrical wires had been pulled out from underground. There was no power and we decided to come back to the city for the first time since we’d gone to the farm before the National lock down. Coming back to the apartment was an eye opener for Varun and me. We’d been living in our little bubble which had suddenly burst. After three weeks in the city, we went back and started cleaning up the farm. That’s when we decided that we wanted to share our little piece of heaven with others."

At Bagan Farm
At Bagan FarmZareen Desai
Sorting out fresh produce at Bagan Farm
Sorting out fresh produce at Bagan FarmZareen Desai

Zareen put together a menu, planted vegetables according to it and hoped that Covid would be gone by the end of 2020. The vegetables were ready to harvest, but Covid was still raging. So she started sending out vegetables to friends and family, which she is still doing once a week. It took them another year to finally start Bagan Farm. "We’re getting ready to host the third season in October and are super excited about it. We don’t offer stays right now, it’s just an all day picnic format, where people come to Bagan by noon and spend the day in the outdoors with their friends and family, are served a five-course meal and head back to the city by 6 pm. Meanwhile I am doing monthly food pop-ups under the name Homemade by Zee."

Zareen's Favourite Coffee Varieties

I personally prefer a medium dark roast, and a blend of 30% Robusta and 70 per cent Arabica beans. I find this mix gives a great balance to the coffee. Arabica is known for its delicate and nuanced flavour profile and Robusta brings that extra kick. When it comes to variety, there are so many, but I like to try coffee from different plantations. My latest favourite is the Monsoon Malabar AA beans, medium dark roast, from Third Wave Coffee. It makes a great Americano. I also like iTierra India from Lavazza,  Kalledevarapura Estate - Pulp Sun Dried and Attikan Estate from Blue Tokai, Marvahulla from Koinonia, Deep Bliss from Flying Squirrel and Otter by Black Baza.

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