Riyaaz Amlani and Rahul Akerkar, the big daddies of hospitality in India, complete 20 years in the business. It's an occasion to celebrate, reflect and take straight questions.
Rahul Akerkar and Riyaaz Amlani meet at Akerkar's restaurant Qualia in Lower Parel. Pic/ Bipin Kokate
We realise we are going to have to breach the Sunday mid-day questionnaire template because Rahul Akerkar and Riyaaz Amlani share their initials. But the similarity ends there. One is a purist; the other, a self-anointed rebel. Amlani is the glib conversationalist; Akerkar is always rationing his words.
But when they come together on a Tuesday afternoon to share a table with us at Akerkar's Lower Parel fine-dine Qualia, it's because they have quietly admired each other's work.
In 1999, Akerkar launched Indigo, the city's first stand-alone European fine dining restaurant. And with this Colaba establishment, he launched himself to nation-wide fame. Two years later, Amlani gave Mumbai its first indigenous café. Mocha opened in Churchgate and changed the way we killed time.
A lot has changed since then. Mocha has moved out of the metros to make a place in tier 2 towns, and Indigo has turned into a deli chain and changed partnership. Amlani now helms Impresario Entertainment and Hospitality which has under it the successful chain of Socials. Akerkar has made a comeback after four years with a dazzling 100-seater restaurant in Lower Parel.
What hasn't changed is their rigour and passion to be relevant.
Edited excerpts from the interview.
Indigo and Café Mocha launched around the turn of the last millennium. What was the hospitality scene like, and how much did you know of each other?
Riyaaz Almani: We would speak of Rahul's Under The Over [Kemps Corner restaurant] and Indigo in hushed tones. Being an outlier, I did not know whether I belonged to a place like that. I did not have F&B training. I was the flippant guy from the entertainment space whose experience was go-carting and bowling. A European restaurant of that calibre [Indigo at Colaba] was a major upgrade. But to answer your question, I think it was at Indigo that we met for the first time.
Rahul Akerkar: Although there were plenty of standalone restaurants, none were in the grade one category when it came to European food. I think we brought a genuine approach to the food. I don't like to use the word authentic because it doesn't mean anything. We were true to flavour, substance and content.
Having said that, my culinary journey started before that when I was catering for consulates and industrialists out of my Altamount Road home. I remember the time the French Consul General requested me to create "something different" for a dignitary from Delhi he was hosting. He said he hadn't eaten rabbit in a long time. I checked with my supplier, who said, 'Haan, khargosh milega, bilkul mileha'. The meal happened and everybody loved it. So I thought to myself, if I'm able to get rabbit, I should start offering it to people. I asked him where he sourced it from. He said, 'Crawford Market ke pet shop se'. That was it! It was the last time I served rabbit.
Have you been inspired by each other?
Riyaaz: I shamelessly copied his style of the menu and its staccato format. I remember restaurant menus at the time were characterised by flowery language; they'd say, ''delicately laced' and 'gently simmered'. But his menu listed the top two ingredients followed by other elements in commas or pluses. I have retained that style.
The perfection was not limited to food alone. It was down to the shade of colour on the walls, ensuring perfectly balanced tables, and impeccably dressed staff who had knowledge about food so that nothing was lost in translation between the table and the kitchen. During breaks, they would practice carrying trays. At that time, it seemed unnecessary [to do], superfluous even.
It all stemmed from this obsessive...
Rahul: compulsive behaviour (laughs). What has made Riyaaz so relevant is that he did not come [into the industry] with preconceived ideas. He looked at the F&B operations from a utilitarian point of view, and has managed to corner that segment really well. The relevance of his projects is unquestionable. I'm 60 and I only know how to lure people my age. Would I like to attract millennials? Of course! But I don't know-how. It's something I can learn from Riyaaz.
Riyaaz: I learnt what Gen X wants by spending time with my brother, who is 12 years younger. I was like an old uncle tagging along with him. When I was in the bowling business, I noticed that people would come to the alley but not bowl. They just wanted a place to hang out. Starbucks had taken off in a big way in the US. We were very clear that we wanted to have a place like that where people could chill.
Rahul: For me, on the other hand, it was always about food.
Riyaaz: And that's where we differ.
Rahul: I was driven by the basic philosophy of doing things correctly. I had worked for 10 years in America and what I learnt was that people fundamentally go to restaurants to eat. But I'm finally coming around to Riyaaz's way of thinking.
You hail from families with multi-ethnic roots. Did that influence what you do?
Rahul: My mother's family were German Jews who fled the war and went to the US. And, dad is Maharashtrian. So, we had both cuisines on the table at home. Which is why I'm so comfortable doing western food.
Riyaaz: I remember how you'd list the Indian ingredient in quotation marks on the menu.
Rahul: I used my grandmother's recipe of Kairi (raw mango) curry as a fish sauce. I have also used rasam and sol kadi in European dishes. But I was very careful about what worked and what didn't.
Riyaaz: My Parsi mother is a fantastic cook. Our standard meal used to be rice, mori dal, lagan nu achar and prawn patio. On Eid [his father is Khoja Muslim], she would make sevaiyan and biryani. I grew up with very little exposure to western cooking. I think the first time I might have eaten a burger and fries would have been when I went to the McDonald's in Singapore as an adult.
The ease of doing business. Is it better now?
Riyaaz: It wasn't this complicated. With every subsequent development or tragedy, things have just become onerous and unnecessary. A restaurateur invests anywhere between three to four crores in a venture and, in some cases, more. Often, this could be your life's saving or a loan borrowed from friends and family because nobody else will lend to a restaurateur. Nobody would want to jeopardise or cut corners, so it's sad that they make it so difficult for us. Getting a license takes nothing less than 10 months.
Rahul: The frustrating part is that those who are responsible for evaluating your compliances just don't get it. They are untrained and, sometimes, it's enough to break your spirit.
Have you ever felt a sense of defeat?
Riyaaz: All the time. I think that's one of the reasons why I gravitated towards the restaurant body [he was president of the National Restaurant Association of India] because I felt wronged at so many different levels. We saw that sops were being dished out to 5-stars when they didn't need it. They had the import duty concession and the chance to be open 24 hours with no dry days, and run their bars for longer. While restaurants, which were contributing far more in terms of revenue, employment and volume, were suffering.
Does every restaurant have a lifecycle?
Rahul: There's only one way to look at this: ask, is the restaurant is making money? That's something I learnt a while ago. It was a question to ask whether you wanted to be a creative chef or restaurateur. The two don't necessarily go hand in hand. I'm not saying they shouldn't, but what happens is that chefs tend to lose sight of the fact that their product has to sell too. You might have the conceited notion that you're creating something extraordinary but if it's far removed from market acceptance, then you're not achieving anything.
We did phenomenal business in the first 12 years at Indigo. We didn't foresee a downturn. During the 2009 recession, we were averaging seven lakh a day in turnover. At the end of the day, restaurants are businesses too. When you stop making money is when you need to rethink.
Riyaaz: There was not a single misstep when Indigo was under your stewardship. I must say that the dynamics changed after 26/11 [terror attacks]. It took a bite out of the vibrancy of SoBo. Suddenly, everything had changed. The embassies moved, BKC and Lower Parel became new hubs, and 'town' began to lose its sheen. There wasn't anything you could have done.
What happened to my fine dining restaurant Salt Water Cafe in Churchgate was that it was beset with legal issues. I feel sad about its shuttering, but I feel sadder for the city. We deserved to have a restaurant by the ocean.
I shut down Smoke House Grill in Delhi for a different reason. People came to us because we were the new 'it' people, not because they cared about food. At the end of it, they would go to Connaught Place and eat butter chicken. I don't remember ever selling a single bottle of Sassicaia at the Mumbai outlets, but Delhi would see champagne pop at the drop of a hat. But as soon as a new place opened, the loyalty shifted. It's a fickle audience.
Rahul: During the decline of Indigo, people would tell me how they hoped that I could bring it back to its former glory. It felt like home, they said. But when something feels like home, you tend to want to go outside to party.
Riyaaz: I shut down Mocha in Mumbai not because we weren't making money. The product did not justify the real estate rent. But Mocha is alive and well in smaller towns. We have 24 outlets.
Colaba Social opened its doors to CAA protestors last week at the Gateway of India. Can a restaurateur have a political stance?
Riyaaz: There was nothing special about what we did. No restaurant will refuse people from using its facilities. When we heard that people needed a place, we just let them know they could come by and refresh themselves at your friendly neighbourhood SOCIAL. That’s hardly activism. Politically, it’s nice to know that in our country democracy is still vibrant and the energy and love coming from the peaceful protests at Gateway of India are infectious.
Rahul: [The protests] It's a wake-up call for the establishment. They must know that we are citizens with a voice, and if we are pushed beyond a point, we'll revolt.
Mumbai in one word
City that never sleeps. That's more than one word.
What do you like most about your job?
I get to indulge myself.
One thing you'd change about your past
I wouldn't open Smoke House Room in Delhi.
First food memory
Eating bread and masoor dal.
A guilty pleasure
PlayStation 4. I spend way too much time on it.
Describe Mumbai in one word.
What do you like most about your job?
The biggest misconception surrounding chefs
That it's glamorous [to be one].
First food memory
A guilty pleasure
I overeat. Christ, I can binge on anything!
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