Now Serving: Kishore DF
The most camera-shy face of city's restaurant industry, is also one of its most successful. His secret formula? Good 'ol hospitality and staying away from profit-cutting apps
UP a flight of wooden stairs that once led to Cyprus at King's Hotel, Juhu, the landing opens to a verandah with potted plants. Glass pane windows give a glimpse of a new restaurant, designed like a yesteryear colonial house, with clean corners decorated with old gramophones, telephones and photographs.
There's a storm brewing outside, but Kishore DF is seated calmly on a golden yellow sofa couch, even as a few young staffers surround him and seem to be pulling his leg about finally giving an interview. In fact, our nickname for him is Casper. Kishore is after all, the friendly ghost, a giant in the hospitality industry, who is rarely seen at events. Admittedly, he prefers the anonymity of the backstage guy.
Kishore—with names such as Pot Pourri, Seijo and The Soul Dish, The Big Nasty, WTF! and Tanjore Tiffin—offered the city The Butler And The Bayleaf this month. And, like at every other venue, the storm will steer clear of this venture, simply because he has never allowed his restaurants to be part of food aggregator apps.
He grew up a voracious reader in a TamBram family in Madras. He was expected to become a doctor or an engineer. Certainly not an entrepreneur. Especially not a restaurateur who would become the driving force behind Bombay's first European café and later make it to the TIME Magazine.
"Being a chef was not considered a worthy profession," says the 55-year-old, who grew up aspiring to work at Taj Coromandel across his house in Chennai. "At 15, I applied for a job but was turned down since I wasn't old enough." At 18, he signed up for a Pune culinary school, following it up with internship stints at Taj Coromandel and Taj Aguada, later setting up a sandwich/roll supply chain in Pune. He took up a job at a European set-up in Hong Kong's party district, Lan Kwai Fong, as a duty manager but returned to India two years later, after losing his passport.
When he arrived in Bombay in 1994, the city's topography was divided largely into South Bombay and the Catholic-dominated neighbourhood of Bandra. On Turner Road, the local khau galli, restaurants placed their tables on the road, making space for drive-ins too with customers eating in their cars.
Even so, the Bandra restaurant scene was at a nascent stage. While SoBo boasted of Trattoria and Gaylords, Rahul Akerkar's Under the Over and AD Singh's Olive had still not taken off in the suburb. The suburb's two Indian restaurants—Tawa and Zaika—and Toto's were all that drew in the crowds. Which is when Kishore, along with Chef Nitin Tandon and his wife Lina, conceptualised a continental curb-side café with an al fresco at the junction which, till today, many refer to as the Pot Pourri junction. From the first ice tea to chocolate mousse, and pasta in a soupy sauce, the place was an overnight success. Regulars included aspiring models and Bollywood actresses such as Lisa Ray, to Priety Zinta, Bipasha Basu and Lara Dutta. "Once a month, we ran specials cooked by customers." When Pot Pourri downed its shutters in Bandra, Lemongrass—which opened in 2002 in a smaller set up—replaced the spot in 2011.
In 2004, Indigo and Olive burst on the restaurant scene. Vie Lounge and Aurus opened in Juhu. The Pot Pourri trio, along with new investors, experimented with Seijo and The Soul Dish on Waterfield Road—a high-end Asian and Japanese diner with an impressive décor including a collapsible roof that made to the TIME magazine and other French and Japanese publications for the design. But, in five years, the shutters downed. With Farhan Azmi's Basilico, L Morea's Crepe Station and Papa Pancho, "the pie started to get cut".
While the city was eating out more than ever before, drinking options were limited to either the five-stars or the cheap dives. "There was nothing in between. I had studied the market closely and recognised potential in this gap," says Kishore, who in 2010, parted ways with his previous projects. Moving out of Bandra, he settled for an affordable space in Khar West, in place of Simply Goa. "It took me three years to build what became WTF!," he says of the nightlife hotspot that became an instant hit. The same year, he opened another WTF!, this time in Versova.
On the name, he says, "For all my projects, I passed all my concepts by the late TV Narayan, branding and design guru. When I showed him the idea, he said the name should be like a slap in the face to match with concept. I went back, and threw the papers on the desk and said: What the F@#$, out of frustration. One of the creative guys looked me in the eye and said, 'WTF. We got our name'."
He followed WTF! up with The Big Nasty and later Foo with the Tham brothers—Ryan and Keenan. And, in 2017, he brought to the city, homefood, for the first time in his 26-year career, Tanjore Tiffin—expected to soon open in Bandra—minus any publicity. "I went backwards and didn't do any press or marketing around it. People would come," he believed and they did.
With this brand, he wanted to prove that you didn't need to pander to the West or Asian world to maintain a hipster vibe. "Be it Copenhagen or London, you could be anywhere in the world, eating Tamilian food with your hands and sipping on drinks," says Kishore. On the menu at the latest Juhu venue is The Butler Bhel. "A roadside bhel has 27 ingredients for a Rs 50 dish. It has the complexity of a chemical imbalance! Can you believe our ancestors thought of taking coriander and took the time to soak it, grind it and make a chutney out of it. All this with so much love. I want to celebrate this! Why run after a Michelin star that is obsessed with French and Japanese cuisine?"
But the hospitality sector has many battles to fight. Especially in the last five years with the highway ban and high rents. "On top of that you want to give off your money to aggregators?" he asks. "Singapore, London are all witnessing a similar turmoil. Parallel businesses in the hospitality industry such as food aggregators, are part of the evolution all around the world."
"According to old industry norms, one paid 10 per cent on realty, 12-15 per cent on salary, 25-30 per cent on food cost and 20-25 per cent of overheads, leaving a 25 per cent profit share. Today, the numbers are an addition of 10 per cent each. Where is the possibility of giving commission to a third party? Today the best guys don't make 15-20 per cent."
Since the blast of apps, Kishore has seen diners walk in to unlock an offer on their phone. "When they find out we don't offer these at our restaurants, they walk out. It is important to condition a customer to come back for the taste of a curry or craving of a cocktail we do well, instead of a deep discount that will make them settle for average food. My staff is always throwing in tasting samplers to make a customer feel well cared for."
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