Lunchbox: Mentor Rahul Akerkar and Irfan Pabaney bond over old times
Irfan Pabaney and Rahul Akerkar have a lot in common. While one recently stepped down after helming a restaurant he set up from scratch, the other has been on a three-year sabbatical. Expectedly, it's like a house on fire when they meet
Chef-restaurateurs Irfan Pabaney and Rahul Akerkar
"I am not eating today. I will have only water, or maybe a glass of wine," Rahul Akerkar announces as he slips into a high chair at a Lower Parel restaurant, after hugging Irfan Pabaney. When we coax Akerkar to eat a little, he turns to Pabaney, "I'm a cheap date, you see." Laughter fills the space as the two pick up from where they began, 15 years ago.
Phorum: How did you meet?
Irfan: Let me tell you my version of how we met.
Rahul: It was a dark night, and I was hitchhiking… (laughter ensues).
Irfan: In 1991, I was on service duty for an event when he was running Moveable Feast, a catering service. He connected with my college [Sophia], for servers. After the event, he handed me his card, saying that he was opening a restaurant. I graduated in 1992, forgot about the card and joined Sea Rock, but their chef programme was full and I landed up at the reception! I dug out his card and contacted him. We met. The first thing he said was, "You are hired. I will be in Goa for three days; when can you join?" I joined him three days later in September 1992.
Rahul: Under the Over shut five years later, and he joined me to run Protima Bedi's 10-room Kuteeram Retreat in Bangalore in 1995. We also ran a café in a bookshop called The Bookery owned by Tariq Ansari.
Chef-restaurateurs Irfan Pabaney and Rahul Akerkar bond over the past, present and future at The Wine Rack in High Street Phoenix. Pics/Atul Kamble
Phorum: Any early memories from the kitchen?
Rahul: He was diligent and hardworking; would turn up to work even with a broken leg.
Irfan: Much of what I am as a chef, 25 years on, is thanks to the perspective I gained working with Rahul. Today, I try to pass on my own perspective to my team. It's all about giving back to the people who have worked under me.
Goat-cheese churros, sundried tomato kulcha, red wine duck kulcha and tom yum gin arrive Irfan: This tom yum cocktail is delicious.
Rahul: It's a nice idea with the chillies.
Irfan: Did you try the cheese churros?
Rahul: This bar has a great vibe.
What's your take on the industry today?
Rahul: The past two to three years have seen a strange growth period. There are many concepts, and except for a few independent restaurants, it is all about venture capital-funded, cheap-and-cheerful chain kind of restaurants, as we've seen with the rise of SodaBottleOpenerWala and Social. These are great, but they are more experience driven than food driven. I feel people are kind of saturated. There are several chefs who are keen to break free of this and start elevating things by focusing more on the cuisine.
Irfan: We have few chef-driven places. The minute you are labelled as a celebrity chef, it is assumed your brand will help sell the food. I have been asked in the past, "Do you think it's important that we bring in X or Y?" For what? All one needs to focus on is what you are putting on that table. One thing Rahul taught me is, don't ever sell your soul.
Chef-restaurateurs Irfan Pabaney and Rahul Akerkar
Phorum: What did you do during the sabbatical?
Rahul: The great thing about rebooting is that you bring all this experience to bear, and ironically, one of the sucky things about it is also that you bring all the experience to bear. In order to do something fresh, you need to think out of the box and think younger. The experience doesn't allow you to get foolish. If I look today at the business plan I wrote for Indigo, I'd bin it. My older daughter is working with me and I value her inputs. I have an idea about what I want, but at times, I question whether people have outgrown that. A majority of people eating out these days are younger. Are the things that I hold sacred relevant to them at all?
Phorum:...This phase came at 59.
Rahul: Just when everybody is starting to put up their feet, I am getting started.
Phorum: For you, Irfan, the phase is starting at 51…
Irfan: I am interested in exploring the YouTube space. I want to do some TV with relevant content. Many have made offers, for which I am grateful. I am 51, and it's important to do what I want to do.
Phorum: What was going through your mind after your last day at Sassy Spoon?
Irfan: After Indigo, this was the toughest, most heart-breaking decision. In 2010, I spoke to Rahul about my reason to quit, and when I quit Sassy, he is here for me. He's my go-to guy, though he is never free and I have to pin him down (laughs).
Phorum: What's next for you, Rahul? Irfan, are you joining him?
Rahul: I will open a restaurant in a few months. Trials are on.
Irfan: No! Since I quit Sassy Spoon in December, I have been bombarded with that question. At some point, I would love to work with Rahul again, though.
A chef I'd like to work with:
Irfan: Any housewife or grandma who can share her secret recipes or quirky cooking techniques.
Rahul: My father's mother. Growing up, I recall watching her cook in her kitchen in Nashik. She was a genius. My big regret is that I never got to learn Maharashtrian cooking from her as an adult, after I realised I wanted to cook.
If not a chef, what would I be?
Irfan: I cannot think of anything else. A stand-up comedian, maybe?
Rahul: Probably a diver, beach bum.
Favourite comfort food:
Irfan: Mutton sukka and mom's kadhi chawal with split moong khichdi and a dollop of butter.
Rahul: Chaat, hands down!
Trend that should be off menus:
Irfan: Dry ice, deconstruction.
Rahul: Menus that cater to all-and-every dietary restriction with countless options to address these. Vegan, lacto-ovo, gluten-free, no GMO, etc. I say, “If you have so many eating issues, why go out to eat? Eat at home and then come out for a drink!”
I'm petrified cooking for...?
Irfan: Mi familia! I hardly cook at home. When I do, everyone makes fun of me!
Rahul: My daughters. One's a gourmand, the other a gourmet. Both are my toughest critics.
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