Trade Secrets

Rahul Akerkar of iconic restaurant Indigo on how to be a successful restaurateur

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IMG_1171There was no conscious decision to become a chef.
I was studying engineering in the US and working part-time in restaurants. Two years into my PhD, I fell out with my advisor and lost interest in academics. I had dabbled in a bunch of stuff, but the only constant had been cooking. So, I stuck to it. I’ve worked in every capacity in a restaurant: dishwasher, waiter, bartender, manager, and, finally, chef. From flipping burgers to creating gourmet dishes, I’ve done it all.

I had very supportive parents.
As I was nearing the end of college, they started sending me feelers and contacts for jobs I never pursued. So, one summer, when they came down to the US, I told them that, though I have all these degrees, I want to be a cook. I had prepared a huge lecture. And, once I was done, they coolly said, “Okay. Great. At least, you’ve made your mind up about something.” That was it.

I moved back to India in 1989.
I had no idea how to put a business proposition in place. Getting finances was the most difficult thing. I started catering private parties. It helped me understand the Indian palate. Finally, in 1992, I opened Under the Over, in Mumbai. The menu was a khichdi of Tex-Mex, Greek, Japanese and modern European. We offered good hearty food in American portions. It was a great experience, and we ran the restaurant for four years before the owner of the space began troubling us and I decided to shut it down. In the meantime, ProtimaBedi had started Kuteeram Retreat, near Bangalore [taken over by the Taj Group after her demise], and asked us to come aboard. So, we landed and started running it. It was hilarious. We were the electricians, plumbers, accountants and chefs. It was about 40 kilometres out of the city, and we went nuts travelling to the city and back.

The only problem with opening a restaurant in Mumbai was the rent.
After some serious calculations, we realised that we could make it happen in Mumbai. It all began with finding the right place. We knew we didn’t want a matchbox. It had to be a sprawling, lavish, serious space for a good dining experience. We spent a year with no success, and our savings depleted. I went off to the US again and started working there while my wife searched for spaces here. We set a deadline. If she didn’t find a place by then, we’d pack off to the US. Finally, she found this villa, paid for it and gave me a call. She said, “Come home. We have our place.” That’s where we started Indigo.

Post 1980, in the US, diners became more demanding
and the restaurants rose to the occasion, which, in turn, made the public more educated. In India, it has been slightly different. There’s growth here, but it isn’t evolutionary. It’s more staccato in style — flash-in-the-pan, in spurts. People who travel overseas find something interesting and bring it here, which is great. But, they catch the trend at one point of time and fail to induce growth as time passes by, while the same trend has gradually evolved overseas.

Good food cooked well — my motto is as simple as that.
It’s important to concentrate on technique, cooking practice and getting the basics right all the time. I also make sure that enough attention is paid to detail and the food sit wells in the mouth. There’s Indianness in my attitude, because food, for me, is a homely, intimate affair — not a construct or theatre.

Food is sexy today, with a lot of theatre and showbiz in it.
But, for me, it’s very important to stick to the most basic function: a tasty, hearty meal. Hospitality is another important parameter, and every restaurant is an extension of my home in attitude and ethos. If someone wants to order something off the menu, and, if we have all the ingredients, we definitely do it. Why not? I want you to walk out saying that you enjoyed your meal.

The best and worst thing about being the boss is being the boss.
Therefore, I maintain a friendly equation with everybody, and we are all like family. We sit down together and have lunch every day. No one is allowed to call me ‘Sir’.

I still have huge insecurities as I haven’t come from a culinary school.
Because I’ve learned everything on the job, awards and good reviews are very reaffirming for me. Honestly, if I could go back in time, I’d like to spend a good amount of time working under an established and acclaimed chef.

I believe there’s something up there,
something bigger than us, but I don’t worship it. Have you heard the one about the dyslexic agnostic insomniac? He stayed up all night wondering if there
was a dog.