Restaurateur Rahul Akerkar's culinary journey

Jan 11, 2015, 07:00 IST | Phorum Dalal

From overcoming his speech impediment to being promoted from a dishwasher to a chef, restaurateur and avid diver, Rahul Akerkar spills the beans on living life on his own terms

Rahul Akerkar, Founder & Director, deGustibus Hospitality

Many years ago, a few boys walked into their dormitory at Doon School, Dehradun, taking stealthy steps. They
lifted the charpoy and carried it to the cricket field in the middle of the night. Next morning, when they reported for physical education class at the cricket field, the charpoy was still there and so was the student who slept through the entire episode. Rahul Akerkar was one of the boys who had played this prank on his classmate. “My time at boarding school was filled with such practical jokes. The punishments were harsh but it was worth it,” narrates the founder and director of deGustibus Hospitality, which runs Indigo at Colaba and Indigo Deli, along with Tote on the Turf at Mahalaxmi Racecourse.

Born to an American mother and an Indian father, Akerkar had a non-conventional upbringing. “I am a Bambaiya at
heart. I went to Bombay International School, grew up at Breach Candy and later at Altamount Road. My parents
encouraged me and my sister to take our own decisions. This instilled in me a desire to explore new things,” says the
55-year-old. Dressed in blue denims, a khaki-coloured linen shirt and John Lennon-style glasses, Akerkar cuts a
striking figure when we meet him at Indigo, Colaba, on a cold, December morning.

Sipping on ginger fizz, the restaurateur seems to be in a good mood. The reason: he has just returned from a trip to
Australia where he “hung out” with television personality Matt Preston on the sets of MasterChef Australia, “pigged out” at celebrity chef George Calombaris’ restaurant, The Press Club, in Sydney and spent three days on a boat off the Gold Coast doing what he loves best — deep-sea diving. It’s difficult to believe, then, that this articulate, confident chef violently stuttered as a child. “I was more of an observer than a partaker because of my speech impediment. My friends supported me but once I joined boarding school, it was tough,” he narrates on a somber note. But then adds, “Living with a bunch of guys, all going through puberty, is not a rosy picture,” he laughs, recalling another incident when they herded a cow into their Hindi professor’s room when he was out for lunch. “We threw stones on the tin roof, and the animal went berserk inside,” says the Mumbaikar, who later got admission
in St Xavier’s College in the science stream. In 1977, he flew to Columbia University, USA, where he studied pre-med.

Rahul Akerkar at Indigo at Colaba, which he opened in 1999. Pics/Shadab Khan

Turning point
In his third year, Akerkar attended a survey course in bioengineering at Washington University, St Louis. “I was
exposed to subjects such as biochemical and bioelectrical engineering. I was sold — the course was new and cutting edge,” says the experimental chef whose craving for Indian food first led him to the kitchen. He would ask his parents to send him recipes through post. “I poisoned everyone,” he jokes, adding on a more serious note, “I made really good aloo bhaji, shrikhand and prawn curry. I also took up a job at a French restaurant as a dishwasher
because I was broke. They had fired their chef, and the consulting chef, Paul Pontallie who came from a family of traditional cooks from Nice, France, took me under his wing. We broke all Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
rules — he would slaughter his own geese in the basement, make blood jellies, and many other provincial cooking techniques. This was my foundation,” says the avid foodie, who went on to graduate in Biology and Philosophy from Franklin & Marshall College, New York.

Akerkar packed his bags in 1989 and came back to Mumbai to be his own boss. “I started a catering service from home called The Moveable Feast, which offered Western cuisines, ranging from Tex-Mex to French and European cuisines,” says the entrepreneur.

He then tied up with restauranteur AD Singh to set up Just Desserts, a standalone dessert outlet at Churchgate.
While Singh came up with the concept, Akerkar handled the food and operations. It was here that he met his wife, Malini. “We were part of the same social group and she often visited the eatery with her boyfriend. When I threw a get-together at home, she ate my food and fell for me,” jokes the chef, who opened his first restaurant, Under the Over, at Kemps Corner in April, 1992.

“We served Italian, Japanese and French fare. In 1996, the landlord started creating problems, as he wanted to come
in as a business partner and raise the rent. I decided to shut the restaurant and he bought the business,” says Akerkar. His next stint was at Protima Bedi’s 10-room Kuteeram Retreat in Bangalore in 1995. “Our daughter, Shaan, was born and the offer was risk-free as we were being compensated for the move. Two years on, we wanted to open our own restaurant, but Bangalore was not a good market. Customers would sit with a pitcher of beer and kebabs all night,” he says.

How he set up Indigo, which serves Euro-Asian cuisine, in 1999 is an interesting story. He says, “It started off over a casual conversation with a friend in 1997. We were discussing that the per square feet rent was R150 in Mumbai. It would come up to R10,000 a day or Rs 3 lakh a month for a 3,000-square-feet place. We calculated that if we could make Rs 5,000 during lunch hours and R5,000 during dinner in a 100-seater restaurant, we would break even. This was roughly the price of a soft drink per customer. So the question was could we pull this off? The answer was yes, and we decided to take the plunge,” says the entrepreneur.

Finding the place took longer than expected. He says, “I gave myself a deadline of March 31, 1997 and took up a job at Union Square Café in New York. Malini chanced upon this space at Colaba. The MOU was signed over a cup of coffee. She called me and said, ‘Come home.’”

Food sensibilities
Akerkar’s culinary experience and training has been diverse. As a child, he spent his summer vacations at his grandparents’ house in Nasik. “My aji fed me with love. She cooked her food on the bhatti using coal and cow dung, without any gas. I relished her chivda, chakli and khatta- meetha Konkani food,” he reminisces. When he was working abroad, he picked up techniques of cooking Mexican, French, Italian and modern American. But the restaurateur confesses, “I am a jack of all cuisines, and master of none. My own international, multi-cultural taste buds brought it all together. I like to roll up my sleeves and eat. Hailing from a Konkan family, I like strong flavours and
vibrant textures,” says the single malt and wine connoisseur, who has finished working on a new menu for Indigo.

Revered customers
Akerkar has served the who’s-who of Indian and international celebrities. From Angelina Jolie to Hillary Clinton, many politicians and actors have dined at Indigo. However, Britain Prime’s Minister David Cameron’s visit in 2013
remains most memorable for him. “He was put up at the Taj Mahal Hotel and walked down with just three MI6 security
personnel. On a Friday night, my restaurant was buzzing and he sat on the open-air terrace. His security personnel
came into the kitchen and demanded to be served first. They knew they would have to leave the moment Cameron finished his meal. Cameron’s main course got delayed in the bargain, but he took it in his stride. He lauded us for our service,” he laughs.

Doting father
The word ‘routine’ doesn’t sound in his dictionary. “I have no fixed schedules. I work according to my mood. I don’t work out, though I love swimming. I love travelling to any destination as long as there’s the promise of good food and an ocean to dive in,” says the certified diving trainer. Sunday means spending time with his daughters — Shaan, 21, and Amalya, 14. At this moment, his phone beeps. “It’s Shaan, who is studying at the same university as I did in
New York. ‘Wake me up in four hours.’ I love this, I never feel like she is away,” he smiles.

Living life on his own terms, Akerkar is a happy person. “I don’t take myself seriously. But I take my work seriously. Other than that, give me sushi or pani puri, anytime of the day and I’m your pal for life,” signs off the

My Favourites
Movie: Chef and Eat Drink Man Woman
Destination: Anywhere where there’s an ocean
Music: Indian classical, Opera, Reggae, Jazz, Blues

Inside Track
Born: April 6, 1959
Education: Master’s in Biochemical Engineering at Columbia University, USA
Mantra: I don’t take myself seriously, but I take what I do seriously 
Best advice: My parents told me, “Whatever you do, pour your heart into it.”

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