Ghar wapsi for Indigo
A man of few words but remarkable skill, chef Nitin Kulkarni, once Rahul Akerkar's right hand, returns to head the chain of European food delis with a plan to help reclaim their former glory
It has been three years since we met chef Nitin Kulkarni, whose attention is usually focussed in the kitchen. Rarely seen at social gatherings or culinary shindigs that are now commonplace, Kulkarni, 58, prefers to man the backrooms to ensure every dish that leaves is competent.
He joined celebrated chef-restaurateur Rahul Akerkar in 1999 as sous chef on a team that successfully created the city's first standalone European cuisine outpost, Indigo, on Colaba's Mandlik Road.
In 2014, when Akerkar quit the mother brand that owned Indigo, deGustibus, Kulkarni hung his apron in 2016. Almost immediately, he returned to join another old deGustibus hand, its former director Rishad Nathani, who was launching his restaurant The Clearing House (TCH) at Ballard Estate. After three-and-a-half years of putting out a menu that was more ingredient-driven than cuisine centric, he is back to Indigo, as executive chef to head the six outlets of Indigo Deli. "Age was catching up; I was getting sluggish. I felt it was time to do something different," Kulkarni says. When the offer came to him last December, he says, he knew "it was time to come home".
At TCH, he led indoor and outdoor catering, banquets and the restaurant kitchen. "I knew Rishad and his wife from before, and they are wonderful. But I was feeling as if things weren't moving at the pace I wanted."
Kulkarni's career graph has been consistent. He started at the Ambassador flight kitchen right after a course at Dadar's famed Institute of Hotel Management, Catering Technology and Applied Nutrition. "We cooked 30,000 meals a day. It gave me the skill to work with volumes. Eight months on, I joined Oberoi Towers, where I was assigned the opening shifts because I lived close by at Grant Road," says Kulkarni. He'd be in the kitchen by 5.30 am and begin prep for the French section of Cafe Royale's breakfast service. "The kitchen range would be fired for scrambled eggs, oatmeal, omelette along with all the misen place of chopped tomatoes and sautéed mushrooms. The section's head chef came from Dombivli at 7 am, and between 7 am and 7.45 am, we'd get at least 50 orders," he remembers.
He went on to work on an American cruise liner for nine years, quitting overnight and returning home one day. When he landed, his wife suggested he speak with Akerkar, who was opening Indigo. He met him that very day, taking a walk through the under-renovation colonial mansion that would house one of the city's most celebrated restaurants. "I got a feel of the place, and picturised what the kitchen would be like. The idea was to do honest, good food," he smiles. The rest is history. He went on to later work with Akerkar on Tote on the Turf at the Racecourse, and his catering arm Moveable Feast.
Kulkarni describes his days with Akerkar as a pleasure. "Rahul understood you, never pressured you. We had a lot to learn from him about flavours. He trusted you, which made you want to work better," say Kulkarni, who traversed the journey of sous chef to executive chef over 18 years.
Indigo's early menu had 14 items, including the bestselling lobster bisque, pepper crusted tuna and roast lemon pepper chicken. "Rahul spoke about the lobster bisque during my interview. 'How many gallons would you want me to make?'" I had joked, since I was used to making it in bulk during my stint on the cruise liner. We wanted the food to speak for itself minus fancy plating. If we ran out of red snapper, we offered to do the dish in rawas, but we always informed our guests."
Indigo, Mumbai's first standout European restaurant outside of a five-star, stood a stone's throw away from Taj Mahal Palace & Towers. It gave Taj's Zodiac Grill a run for its money. "We were doing similar food in a simplified, casual way. The long bar was a great attraction. I would leave early on Friday and Saturday nights, when people wanted to hang at the bar rather than have a full meal. I would quietly sneak out of the backdoor."
An experience of over 35 years makes Kulkarni a chronicler of the changing Indian palate. "From spicy, chatakedar khana, people now prefer non-spicy but flavourful food. They have eaten well on their travels."
Over the years, the food and beverage market has turned volatile, with no customer loyalty to rely on. "Lower Parel itself has over 200 restaurants.
The priority was to improve quality, fine tune processes and train staff, but that has changed over the years." Against the background of a detailed plan to change the Indigo Deli menu, give it a touch of the sophisticated, is the assurance that the popular wafer-thin pizzas are going nowhere. "But the lobster bisque will be back."
At a time when chefs are more celebrities, less culinary experts, Kulkarni comes from the old stock, a little out of place at ritzy gatherings. "I don't talk that much. If someone calls me to the table, I will of course, interact. To tell you the truth, half the time I don't remember their names."
Catch up on all the latest Mumbai news, crime news, current affairs, and also a complete guide on Mumbai from food to things to do and events across the city here. Also download the new mid-day Android and iOS apps to get latest updates
Sign up for all the latest news, top galleries and trending videos from Mid-day.comSubscribe