When Das Sreedharan painted the facade of his new restaurant shocking pink, the posh pack who regularly dine on London’s Charlotte Street raised a few disapproving eyebrows. The road has long been a site for fine dining and the milieu can be quite conservative. But Das doesn’t apologise for this contrariety — perhaps he realises that it is the very reason for his success. “Pink is my colour,” he says. “I can’t change it because other people don’t like it.” And not everyone disapproves. Benazir Bhutto stopped by at this restaurant because it was pink.

Das owns three highly acclaimed, award-winning Keralite restaurants (all pink!). While much has been made of the Brits’ love of Indian food, giving Londoners a taste of Kerala cuisine was a gamble since most find South Indian flavours alien. Give your average ‘curryholic’ tandoori or the ubiquitous chicken tikka masala and he’ll be satisfied. Give him avial, appams or arachu vecha aavoli and you’re going to have to work much harder.

But it worked out well for Das. Today, at 34, he is a respected chef, darling of the most vicious restaurant critics and well known amongst foodies in London for having won new respect for vegetarian food. Not bad for someone whose first taste of the restaurant trade was as a waiter.

It’s Thursday evening and the staff at Rasa Samudra are putting the finishing touches to neatly laid tables before the first customers arrive. Das sits at a table, supervising them. He wears khakis and a navy blue shirt. A large navratana ring glints on his finger and rudraksh beads peep out from beneath his collar. His droopy eyes and mop of poker straight hair give him an air of naiveté and belie the astute entrepreneur within.

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His voice is soft, the words spoken with studied deliberation, and a pleasant Malayali twang is detectable through the polished English. “People in this country don’t normally consider Indian food to be something special, something they would spend money on,” he says. “They go for a curry simply because after two pints of beer they fancy something spicy.”

And what next? “More restaurants,” says Das, “one in New York, another in Rome… a hundred restaurants in 10 years.” He can’t be serious? “It’s not impossible,” he says smiling mischievously, “and it’s a good dream anyway.”

 

“I wanted to change that. I wanted people to eat here on good occasions — when they had something to celebrate.” And did he succeed? “Andrew Lloyd Webber celebrated the reopening of Jesus Christ Superstar at Rasa,” he points out. “That could never have happened 10 years ago.”

Das started early in the restaurant business. He spent his childhood in a Thrikkariyoor, a small village near Cochin, where his father owned the local tea shop. “As a boy, I remember serving villagers snacks and hot dosas, and assisting my mum in the kitchen.” Running the tea shop was a hard life and ironically, Das’ father discouraged his children from joining the restaurant trade. So Das trained as an accountant in Trivandrum.

Believing better things were in store for him elsewhere, Das moved to Delhi where he worked in hotels and restaurants for four years. “In the course of my work I met several British people,” he recalls. “They truly seemed to appreciate Indian cooking and hospitality and I realised there were opportunities for me overseas.”

In 1989, Das arrived in the UK where he met his Spanish wife Alison. Together, they opened Rasa, a small vegetarian restaurant in Stoke Newington, North London. After a gloomy first three months came a lucky break in the form of a rave review in Time Out—one of London’s most influential city magazines. That’s when people started pouring in.

Four years later, with several awards and more flattering reviews to his name, Das went uptown and upmarket, setting up a second Rasa in London’s fashionable West End. And a year later came Rasa Samudra, the first Indian seafood restaurant in the city.

Like every famous restaurateur these days, Das is now looking at new ventures. His first cookbook Fresh Flavours of India has just been released and talks are afoot for a television cookery series with the BBC.

And what next? “More restaurants,” says Das, “one in New York, another in Rome… a hundred restaurants in 10 years.” He can’t be serious? “It’s not impossible,” he says smiling mischievously, “and it’s a good dream anyway.”

This articles was first published in the February 2000 issue

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