Meet The Man Who Gave Up On His Investment Banking Career To Become A Food Entrepreneur
The food of Kanu A Gupta’s childhood was likely better and more exotic than you or I would have had the fortune of experiencing at a young age. As a Punjabi NRI family — the father an avid consumer and the mother an avid cook, with an unpublished cookbook to her name — the Guptas had unwritten rules when it came to food. All their travels revolved around eating well. If they happened to return to a restaurant they liked, the family would never re-order dishes eaten on earlier occasions, no matter how delicious. Menus would be scanned to find the most exotic dishes, and everything had to be eaten, including frog legs and snails.
Born in London, the 35-year old Gupta grew up in the Middle East, before attending college and starting his investment banking career in the US. His job with Goldman Sachs took him all over the world, allowing him to explore local cuisines. He first arrived in Mumbai in 2006 as part of the team that set up the bank’s Indian operations. “I fell in love with the city,” he says. Two years later he quit his banking job to work with a start-up selling organic food, and then did a six-month stint in the kitchen of Lou Lou, a Belgian chef who owned a 4-room hotel in Goa.” The Belgian, he says, taught him an important lesson: “…whatever we do, we must do it with everything we have — the relentless pursuit of mastery. Every detail matters.”
His aspirations of doing an MBA then took him to INSEAD in France. It was while here that he first became acquainted with the then-emerging concept of ‘Secret Supper’, where people were hosting intimate gatherings of a handful of strangers at home, and cooking for them. Meeting new people was as important for these occasions as the food that had brought them together. “I started to love the denominator and humaniser that food became — it just brought everyone together,” he says.
Secret Suppers is a rapidly growing trend not just in France, but also in many other cities around the world as people seek out alternatives to regular restaurant eating. By some counts, the concept was inspired by the Cuban tradition of in-home restaurants called Paladares, where for a fee you could go and dine on a home-cooked meal in people’s houses. Unlike in a restaurant, here you shared the meal with a bunch of strangers around the dinner table in the family’s living room or kitchen. The meal would be authentic and the company eclectic. The Cuban government legalised the Paladares in the 1990s. Also known as ‘Private Restaurants’, they have gone on to become among the big attractions for visitors to that country.
While it started out in people’s homes, the modern-day Secret Suppers are more likely to be held in locations like galleries, libraries, museums, and private clubs, on account of the larger number of people who are invited to partake. There are now a quite a few individuals and companies organising Secret Suppers even in Mumbai these days, but Gupta was likely the first.
He had returned to Mumbai and Goldman Sachs after his MBA degree when he began organizing these dinners for friends and acquaintances, in the living room of his apartment in the city. He was a good cook himself, and his friends pitched in to help. The growing popularity of these early meals lead to the setting up of what he called the Secret Supper Project in 2012 with his architect friend, Aparajita Basu. The idea was to stage these Secret Suppers in a more organised way every month at different locations. “It taught me that it is possible to do what you love and create something of value to the world, “Gupta says about his early dinners, on his website,” I went from being a spectator to a participant in life’s processes, and for that, I will always be indebted.”
SSP dinners were a genuinely ‘secret’ affair in the early days. They were held in people’s homes, there was no Facebook page for publicity, and entry was strictly by invitation only. The organisers’ names were not even revealed in the publicity articles that began appearing in newspapers and websites. But as Gupta and his partners started seeing a bigger business opportunity for SSP on Mumbai’s rapidly growing food platform, things began to change.
The monthly dinners stopped being ‘secret’ anymore; while everyone on SSP’s mailing list receives regular updates about the dinners, outsiders can also seek invites by just e-mailing the organisers. The details of the dinners are now regularly posted on SSP’s Facebook page. While the emphasis in the early days was to get men and women to come solo so that they could meet new people and mingle, that policy has now been changed to allow people to come in groups of upto four if they desire. If dinners are overbooked — which is commonplace — a small exercise of asking those seeking invites a simple question thematically connected with the dinner helps decide who to leave out.
With an increased number of diners (up to around 20), the location of SSP dinners has since shifted out of homes to larger venues including furniture stores, book shops, art galleries, libraries, rooftops etc. The cuisines and themes in recent times have ranged from Arabic to Naga to Cantonese. To date, SSP has hosted 94 dinners, mostly in Mumbai, some even in foreign locales like New York, Paris and Belgrade. The success of SSP and his own growing links in the food industry convinced Gupta to leave the world of investment banking to follow his long-time passion for food. Last year he quit his banking job to immerse himself fully into the culinary world. Along with his partners, he set up a new company called Savor, to not just expand SSP’s reach, but to also offer wellheeled Mumbaikars daily gourmet meals in office, and bespoke dinner experiences.
Unlike other new-age Indian culinary entrepreneurs, Gupta, who is an investor in restaurants like The Bombay Canteen, was quite clear that he did not want Savor to enter the restaurant space. “Our core belief was that only two things matter when it comes to what we are trying to produce – quality of ingredients and the quality of people putting it together,” he says, “It’s a little antithetical to a lot of the restaurant world today, because they spend on décor, marketing and what not. Barely 20 percent of their budget is spent on the kitchen, and we’re the opposite of that, which is why we never want to open a restaurant.”
The idea of a gourmet lunch service for the working executives came from the results of a survey the Savor team conducted. “We asked people what they were doing for lunch, and invariably, many of them didn’t have a lunch hour. They’d be eating while working at their desk and it would be anything from leftovers to a greasy kathi roll from a stall down the road, or a subsidised Rs 20 meal from the office canteen. The fast food revolution only exacerbates this problem, so we thought there was an exciting opportunity there,” Gupta says.
The four to five item lunch has a different theme every day of the month, and it includes items like Char Siu Roast Pork, Aussie Lamb, Sesame Crusted Soy Burger, Mint Beet Salad, Palm Heart and Quinoa & Citrus Salad. The average cost of Rs 500 a meal is quite steep by the standards of Mumbai lunch dabbas, but despite that, the numbers are picking up. Savor currently delivers 50-100 lunches a day and hopes to raise that number to 500 by the end of the year, and to perhaps move to a bigger kitchen in 2018. Gupta is finicky about consistency and quality, so multiple kitchens will never be on the cards. A different themed meal is cooked every day, and no dishes are repeated in the same month.
Daily feedback from clients is used to rearrange the menu regularly and discontinue less popular dishes. “It is a wholesome, not healthy meal that will fill you up without feeling stuffed,” he says, “I’ve always believed that health is a by-product of eating well, so no, we aren’t a health company. We don’t count calories, but we do figure out good portion sizes depending on what your regular intake should be. My goal is for you to feel hungry again at 4.30.”
The third vertical of the business — Savor Experience — is one that Gupta wasn’t very sure about earlier, but is now learning to enjoy. This is where the company curate’s private dinners for special occasions like anniversaries, business celebrations, working dinners, and even weddings. As Gupta explains, “We call our wedding vertical The Day After. I tell our clients that we don’t want to cater at the 400 person mela that an Indian wedding is. But please give us the 20-person dinner for your closest friends that you would host the day after.”
Savor’s 15-member strong team are masters at multi-tasking. Everyone does everything. Gupta and one of his partners, the company’s COO, Tejal Choksi, are both hands-on cooks — he’s great with American and Japanese, while her growing-up years in Hong Kong have led to a mastery of Cantonese cuisine. Executive Chef Sushil Multani, another partner, is an Oberoi alumnus, while the fourth is another chef, Shashank Pujari. Some of the junior cooks are simultaneously trained to bartend at parties, curate the music (“we’ve made our own playlists, such as ‘10 years of jazz’ or ‘Top 50 blues songs’ to play at our events”), be servers at the event and clean up at the end. You could well be served by the chef himself, and indulge in a conversation about the nuances of a dish he just served you.
Savor Lite & Dessert
While the team works towards expanding the business, their small set-up in Mumbai’s Lower Parel area bustles with activity. The ground floor serves as a kitchen, while upstairs there are brand new stainless-steel tables that have Gupta very excited to host dinners. There’s new baking equipment coming in too, to help start an in-house bakery (they do their own bread now too, but on a smaller scale). A floor-to-ceiling shelf immediately becomes an object of lust for the chef in me — it’s got a plethora of ingredients segregated by cross-sections for each continent. In front of it, two chefs are hauling up mattresses and pillows to put into the storage area behind the shelf. “Some of them come from far away, and they miss the last train home when we do late-night events, so they crash here,” he says, adding, “We’re such a tight unit that it becomes familiar to think of doing these things for our employees.” Across the room, Gupta’s visiting grandfather raises his cup of tea and echoes the sentiment with a smile.