Q&A: Rahul Akerkar
The chef-restaurateur on leaving Indigo, his ‘khichdi’ idiom and the difficulties of running a restaurant in India
If you love eating out in Mumbai, you must know that Rahul Akerkar changed the way the city fine-dined in the past decade. His flagship property, Indigo, which opened in Colaba in 1999, was the beginning of a remarkably successful run as chef-restaurateur.
Recently, Akerkar made his exit from deGustibus Hospitality Pvt. Ltd, a company he built with wife Malini, and which runs restaurants like Indigo, Indigo Delicatessen, and Neel, as well as a catering business called Moveable Feast. As we settled into an early lunch with Akerkar at the seaside Breach Candy Club, our conversation rapidly switched from the juggle between kitchen and logistics to his plans for the future.
Akerkar is hopeful of the restaurant scene in India and has a few lessons for diners and young chefs. The secret to his success, it appears, isn’t rocket science.
Edited excerpts from the interview:
What led to your exit from deGustibus, a company you founded by launching Indigo in Mumbai 15 years ago?
When you set up a company, you have a certain vision in mind and then you take on partners who don’t necessarily share the vision throughout or at some point whose vision gets a little divergent. You start to, one, try and put things back on track and two, if that’s not happening, think of what is it that makes you happy and what you stand for and what you need to do. There are sometimes differences in how to grow a business. I come from a place where everything is cuisine-driven, food-focused and design-oriented; there is attention to detail and hospitality, training staff, the quality of your people, etc. I believe that if you get these fundamentals right, then the business at the end of the day takes care of itself because we are a hospitality-driven industry. If the focus shifts from that, then it might not work. I needed to be able to look myself in the mirror and say that I believe in what I’m doing.
What is the plan from here?
I’m going to travel a little bit, I want to eat, I want to see what the world is doing food-wise, I’m a little out of touch maybe. I have some ideas that I’m playing around with in my head. Whatever I do now, I’m not going to get a third chance, maybe, so I want to make sure I’m doing it right. I want to think about version 2.0, do a little bit of beta testing a little longer than one needs to do it, just to be safe that when 2.0 comes out, it hits the ground running.
Would you like to spend more time in the kitchen now?
I don’t know yet. As I said, there are many, many different things that I’m playing through my head, there’s, you know, whether in the kitchen, what format, what cuisine...well, cuisine, I know. I’ll always do what I’m comfortable with.
Well, pretty much. But I also want to learn a little more about Indian food, you know, I’m pretty clear about that. But that’s for myself. Whether there’s a show somewhere, whether there’s a book somewhere, I mean, who knows, there are a bunch of different opportunities.
Is there a particular cuisine you’d say you’re an expert at?
No idea. When I first came back from the US, I had to work at many kinds of restaurants so there was French, there was Italian, there was Tex-Mex, there was fine-dine Mex, modern American, modern European, Greek, so since I learnt everything on the job, it was all like a khichdi of influence, and then my own Indian taste buds. I like strongly flavoured foods. I like distinctive flavours, but too subtle or overly engineered food doesn’t appeal to me much.
So you’re not a fan of molecular gastronomy?
I think it’s fun from a cocktail- party conversation point of view. I’d rather eat chaat off the road, you know what I mean?
Has it become increasingly difficult to manage the reputation of a restaurant with more critics, the expanse of freedom and reach the social media has given to every diner?
It’s different, it involves different management. Social media has given everybody access to sharing opinion rapidly. It’s so easy to sabotage a restaurant. One hopes reviewers have brains.
You have publicly apologized for mistakes and incidents at your restaurants Tote on the Turf (later changed to an Indian restaurant called Neel) in Mumbai and Indigo Deli in Delhi.
It’s what I stand for. Fundamentally, as I said, I need to sleep at night, I need to be able to look at myself in the mirror and say that you’ve stuck to your own beliefs and professional morality. If I’ve compromised on that, I want to say I’m sorry. At Neel/Tote, it was a combination of things, I think we were more excited with perhaps the space. Perhaps I hadn’t really thought through the food properly. You learn things about yourself along the way.
Are you then happier in the kitchen or managing the business?
That’s a good question. I wrestle with myself. When I am with chefs, I want to be one of them, and when I’m with businessmen, I want to be a businessman. So, I’m sort of jack-of-all-trades in a way and probably master of none. I like it all, I just love the way it all comes together. I love spending time in the kitchen for sure.
What are the challenges of running a restaurant in India today?
It’s an interesting question. Most places are serving the same food. I don’t buy into trends, I think there’s only one trend that will always work and that’s attention to your food and your hospitality and your service and doing things right. The West is finally at a point where there is something for everyone—the food trucks, food on the streets, fine dining at the haute cuisine level, fun, simple casual-dining fast food. The entire gamut is still going through an evolution here. But the evolution is kind of disjointed. We are picking up ideas that the West developed through an organic process. We are bringing in concepts which we think are successful overseas. But they are successful overseas for a reason: because they’ve evolved to suit that temperament, that lifestyle, that environment, that anthropology. We have a talent deficit, we have a labour deficit, we have an ingredient deficit, we have problems with distribution of raw materials, we have laws that are ridiculous. We have licences that make no sense.
So many celebrated chefs from Europe and America have gone to China. Why? Because the system works. Here we need home-grown concepts and home-grown players. Some of us like Riyaaz Amlani, A.D. (Singh) and others who are home-grown, and I’m going to use the word home-grown, because we are nimble about working around the Indian ways.
We are in a sellers’ market right now, so new people entering the business can sell anything and the market is so big, people will buy it—so why should I care whether I’m serving, you know, first cold-pressed olive oil or whether I’m serving some cheap oil?
But I am optimistic, I think there’s a huge potential. I’m happy that there is a huge market and there are people who want to try and experiment. Our training is very outdated. The culinary schools are a joke. They learn about wine with empty wine bottles. Thankfully, now it’s sexy to be a chef. Young people are going to culinary school and they are serious about it, they treat culinary school like medical school.
Tell us more about your first Indian restaurant, Neel.
It was a big step because I realized Mukhtar (Qureshi) is a genius. Personally, my Indian food is very weak. Mukhtar joined us and he was heading the Indian food side of Moveable Feast, our catering thing (arm), and his food was so great that, you know, it just made sense to do a restaurant with him. It was the first time I didn’t have any control over the food. I wanted to do stuff with him, like I told him, I want to do pork kebabs because I think pork is a great meat and he said, “Mera kitchen mein nahi hoga (It will not be cooked in my kitchen).” So I said, okay boss, it’s your kitchen.
How do you feel about where Indian and regional food is headed, restaurateurs trying to make it cool by calling it progressive, applying molecular gastronomy to it and the like?
So, Indian food—what we called Indian food at restaurants earlier on—was all Punjabi. Well, Punjabi of a sort. So we have delicious food in this country and why not grow it? Why not evolve it? I hope it (the industry) does more. You know all this will pass (applying progressive and molecular gastronomy to Indian food), they have to work it through the system in order to realize that day after tomorrow that there was no need to do it. So they will go through all these flights of fancy and eventually they will settle down to doing something that’s creative and honest.
Is there a lot of money to be made in bars and nightlife?
Lots. We used to have Tote bar but I always said I’ll never own a bar but I did and I still say I’ll never own a bar.
Too many controls. At the end of the day, there’s only so many ways to make a gin and tonic, you know what I mean? It’s always a question of what your customer wants. If we’re all drinking just vodka tonics and you do beautiful cocktails, how many people really appreciate it?
We also have ridiculous laws and it’s not an encouraging environment for creativity in this country. Our excise laws are absurd, maintaining brand-wise registers and peg-wise pours. Come on, give me a break. Why do pubs work in England? Because it’s like the culture. When you’re in an environment of “can’t-do” and “oh, I’m sorry it’s 12.30 at night, so we have to do last call”, you are not encouraging people to unwind, relax, have a good time.
Do you have favourite restaurants in India?
Well, I tend to go to the same places over and over again. I love (Shree) Thaker Bhojanalay in Mumbai; I’ve been going there for years. There is no pretence, there’s great integrity in the food. Royal China in Mumbai, for the same reason. I do sushi nights with my daughter Amalia, we have a father-daughter sushi thing that we do, so we hit different restaurants in the city once a month. Just the two of us, all over, but not Wasabi (by Morimoto). I can’t afford it, it’s too expensive.
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