Every week, I receive 10 emails —professionals from all walks of life—who want to open a restaurant. My answer is: Don’t bother.
Not that I regret what I do or the switch I made. But it has become a fad now to announce setting up a restaurant without any real business skills, maybe because you like to cook. Four years ago, that’s what I did, only I had a bit more going for me: I turned my back on my IT career and launched Shiok, specializing in Far Eastern cuisine in Bangalore. I was 28.
Sharp edge: Menon demonstrates his skills.
Almost 15 years earlier, my interest in food, and more specifically Chinese food, had been aroused by an Argos Superstore catalogue my father brought back from a trip abroad. It featured a 14-inch steel wok and I set my heart on it. On his next trip, my father did get back the wok—and, with it, a Ken Hom cookbook. No one in my family was particularly interested in cooking but my father and his friends indulged my requests for sauces and pastes—in the 1980s, Delhi groceries did not stock fish sauce and black bean paste—and I returned the favour by cooking for them. I realized this was something I was good at.
The interest grew when I went to the University of Tasmania for a degree in computing. In India, I had toyed with the idea of joining a hotel management school. But I decided that making beds and cleaning rooms wasn’t what I wanted to do. Computers were a natural choice: I had been dabbling in them and the idea of studying in Australia was attractive.
Since there were no direct flights to Oz, I had a four-hour layover in Singapore. For want of anything better to do, I checked out the South-East Asian dishes at the airport and was wowed by the tastes and flavours. The discovery continued in Australia.
By the time I came back to Delhi, the idea of opening a restaurant was already present at the back of my mind. But I thought that would happen when I was in my mid-30s.Just ahead of the dot-com bust, I worked with the Cyber Media Group and CNET India. I also worked as a consultant but I realized that working on my own was not for me.
I had two options: To return to the workforce or start a software consultancy. That’s when the restaurant idea came back. After seven years as a techie, I had certain management skills, basic business skills and a knowledge of food, but there were restaurant-related areas about which I knew nothing. The smartest thing to do—which, of course, I did—was to hire a manager with 17 years of experience. Ditto with my stores guy: He knew the supplies network like the back of his hand. Both men proved invaluable.
But there were plenty of things that could go wrong, and they did. I made a mistake in choosing my location, on the second floor of a building on the super-busy CMH Road. I also hired as my architects the firm with the lowest quote and then had to watch costs escalate by almost 60-70%. For the kitchen, I went along with the consultant’s suggestion of a 1,000-litre refrigerator (instead of the 3,000-litres of refrigeration that I eventually needed) from an inexpensive supplier that cost me Rs25,000 over the next few years in repairs.
All through the ups and downs, I have not compromised on the food that I believe in. But when some wannabe says, “I want to open a restaurant”, my first words are of caution. Running a restaurant is not a desk job, nor is it about mingling with people and cooking up a few dishes. My social life is totally destroyed since I work when people party. And yes, I often think about all the other stuff I could have been doing, such as cartoon voiceovers, but since I don’t believe in waiting for opportunities to knock on the door, I’m always on the lookout.
BEFORE: Software Consultant
AFTER: Chef and restaurateur
As told to Sumana Mukherjee.
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