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August 18, 2008

Indigo The Untold Stories

Photograph by Ankur Chaturvedi

On the famed Mumbai eatery’s ninth anniversary, Avantika Akerkar, sister of the owner Rahul Akerkar, quizzes him and wife, Malini, on their success story

We’re finally going to have the baby,” shouted an excited Malini Vachani-Akerkar into the telephone while her husband, who was in New York on an assignment working with Michael Romano, chef of the Union Square Café, sat and listened in stunned silence.  It was 1998.

“I thought she wasn’t due for at least a few more months,” he stuttered.  “Are you sure? What does the doctor say?” And that’s how Rahul Akerkar, co-owner of one of the most successful and popular restaurants in India found out that the ‘birth’ Malini was exulting about was actually the new home of their second ‘baby,’ Indigo. But, unlike all normal deliveries, this one did not begin nine months prior to its birth.

In fact it began in the early ’80s when Rahul, on a holiday break in Mumbai from university in the States, whimsically decided to follow up on a tip offered by the late Tina Khote to visit a house, that was then being used as a storage facility, as a potential restaurant venue. “After I saw the space I knew I had fallen in love, but nothing ever came of it,” Rahul stated very matter-of-factly. “In fact,” added Malini, “in the late ’90s, we were on holiday in America, decided to open a restaurant and had almost signed on another ideal space we had found in San Francisco, but changed our minds at the last minute.”

So was it karma or the many late nights with Malini and good friend Bijoy Jain, eventual architect and designer of Indigo, in heated discussions about the plight of the food industry in Mumbai and the necessity to turn it on its head, that led to the eventual birth? “I was sick of glutinous pasta in nondescript white fevicol sauce,” Rahul informed me. “I also didn’t care for the fact that we were being held culinary hostage by the five-star hotels. We thought it was time Mumbai woke up and tasted what we like to call non-fussy, tasteful and interesting food.”

Could this new kind of cuisine be palatable to the average Mumbaiker? “In fact, I remember Camelia Punjabi (of Taj Hotel fame), telling us during our soft opening that Indigo was a gutsy move, but would it work? And she wasn’t the only nay-sayer and doomsday caller,” says Malini.

Yet here it is, nine years later an exuberant young adult having grown from an infant with teething problems; its popularity, success and consistency continuing to build. And given the fickle nature of Mumbai’s diner today who has travelled the world, been exposed to global cuisine, and demands the best, what really was its secret formula?

Could it have anything to do with the fact that a leading publishing house, in 2000, listed Indigo as one of the ‘60 Hottest New Tables in the World’? “Well it certainly didn’t hurt the business,” joked Rahul. “In fact, on any given night, what never fails to amaze me, are the number of foreigners that I see dotting the restaurant.”

So has the image of Indigo changed then from a local eatery to one that caters to the ever increasing number of tourists making their way to Mumbai?  “Nonsense,” jumped in Malini emphatically. “We have never catered to any particular kind of clientele. In fact, some of our most loyal customers are local and have been coming to Indigo since the day it opened. There was a rumour once that it was easier to get a reservation at Indigo if you were a foreigner. It so happened that friends of ours called to make a reservation; the husband was denied, as the restaurant was full, so the wife decided to call back and speak with an American accent to prove the rumour correct.  She too was unsuccessful and so another myth was dispelled!”

Then maybe it was all about the right vastu and feng shui to which Rahul laughingly shared how in Indigo’s infant years a customer called him over, complimented him on his food, but very seriously admonished him on how placing the kitchen in the North was very bad vastu, and would lead to the premature demise of the restaurant!

Rahul, then spilled the beans and explained the Indigo mantra: taking the freshest ingredients, using solid basic traditional cooking techniques and preparing food that reserves the integrity of the flavour while appealing aesthetically to the eye. Sounds impressive I reckoned. But what does this really mean? “Simply put,” he continued, “I think we are still around because those who visit us feel like they are coming home after a hard day’s work, kicking off their shoes and sinking into that old worn-out armchair that sighs with comfort, nurturance and warmth.”

Dig a little deeper and one discovers it is the old-world charm that exudes from the sensitively restored bungalow; it is the conscious thought behind preserving the dying tradition of araish work on the restaurant’s walls; it is Malini’s keen eye and attention to detail that has created the timeless décor; it is the steadfast and firm belief in the often misunderstood concept of great service and treating all customers with respect irrespective of status; it is the dedication of the kitchen to continuously create magic and it is the wonderful guiding principle of ‘having a good time doing what you love doing’.

“Why Indigo never fails to excite and thrill me,” Rahul tells me suddenly, “is seeing the pure expression of joy and happiness on a customer’s face who is surprised by finding an actual pearl in her oyster.”  To which Malini added how when Indigo first opened, a group of 10 came to Indigo and had to wait a while before getting their table. Not pleased at having to wait, as well as being accommodated in what is today known as the Black Lounge, they were rendered speechless when the restaurant paid for their entire meal in recognition of its breach of promise to honour a reservation. It is not surprising then that in its nine years of gracing the city, Indigo has provided for many a memorable experience. But the one that, for me, epitomises Indigo’s heart and soul is the touching story of a customer who had always wanted to come to dine at Indigo but could not due to severe dietary restrictions and illness. Upon hearing this, Chef Nitin personally created a special menu for her so she could enjoy her meal at the restaurant. A month later, the restaurant got a call from her husband to inform them his wife had passed on but that she never forgot her special meal.

I finally had to ask both Rahul and Malini, what kept them going both as a couple and as restaurateurs. “I think it’s the love for food, continuously evaluating yourself and….” But Rahul was quickly interrupted by Malini who said, “our passion, commitment to excellence and penchant for punishment is what keeps us going.”  Listening to her finish Rahul’s sentence I realised that it was this simple act that was the key to their success: the complete faith and trust in each other that overflows into everything they do.

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