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Wine & Dine
July 24, 2019

Chef Rahul Akerkar Looks Back On The Milestones That Made Him A Household Name

Photography by Rohan Hande

The man behind the wildly popular but now-shuttered Indigo and the newly-opened Qualia writes about his experiences of the good ol’ days….

While working restaurants in New York City in the 1980s, my life played out like a sex-and-booze-fuelled episode of Kitchen Confidential. So, when I came back to India in 1989 and found the country stuck in a colonial time warp, with the ‘white sauce baked diss’ (sic) representing all Western food, I knew I had my work cut out.

There wasn’t a basil leaf in sight when I started cooking here. I grew the herb at home and was the only guy in town with the stuff. On weekends, we’d have sheets of fresh pasta drying all over our living room. It was mental. I even started a delicatessen chain — Indigo Deli  — just so I could make myself, and everyone else, a wholesome bloody ham and cheese sandwich!

In the early ’90s, cooking here was not craft-driven, and the restaurant business wasn’t chef driven; the seths counted money in the front while the cooks worked in sweatshops in back. So, when Under The Over opened in Mumbai in April 1992, on my birthday, there was no other dining experience quite like it in the country, outside of a hotel. And when we opened Indigo in a beautiful heritage bungalow in Colaba seven years later, at the turn of the century (once again on my birthday), there was nothing like that either.

Indigo became famous for an elevated dining experience with modern and classic-modern food at the centre of everything. The first restaurant in India to have over 300 wine labels and a schmoozy Sunday brunch. It was just correct ‘restauranting’, if you will.Sometimes, I think that maybe all we did was to accidentally be in the right place, at the right time, just doing things right, you know?

But of course, it’s more than that.

As entrepreneur chefs, we consciously took the decision to not hide behind our toques (white hats), and instead, wear them with a sense of pride and ownership. This also made us a lot more accountable for what we were serving our guests. Which was intended to be innovative, creative, flavour-centric food. A menu that never ignored its context…

We did a popular red snapper with a solad chi kadi-inspired sauce, a basil pesto poha and a tuna loin spiced with methi in a Shiraz wine and clove reduction. I didn’t just replicate what I had learned abroad. I adapted it. I had to. After all, my chefs were Indian, their taste buds were Indian, my ingredients were Indian and the audience also, mostly Indian. Growing up with mixed parentage (an American mother and a Maharashtrian dad), my taste buds were all over the place — food at home was always a ‘khichdi’! Sometimes, I don’t know whether I Indianised Western food or Westernised Indian food, but, for me, it’s just what works in the mouth and on the tongue.

Indigo’s growth graph defeated any expectation. Usually, an establishment has a peak phase and then a plateau before it starts to ebb as a restaurant loses favour. We peaked for 10 years! Even we couldn’t understand it. I spent 5.5 crore rupees on Indigo in 1998. Unheard of! If I looked at that business plan today, I’d throw it in the freaking garbage. I was foolish. But I was driven by something I had to do, more than how I was going to do it.

Somewhere after Indigo’s mad success, I lost myself and that vision by studying the market too much instead of closing my eyes and asking myself, “What do you want to do?” Finally, I just stopped listening to other people.

Qualia, which opened this April on my 60th birthday, is a very modern, polished space…and all I hope, all I really hope, is that we do not get labelled as ‘fine dining’ because of it. The idea of haute cuisine — fiddly, intimidating food and fawning service — is kaput. I saw that in my eating expeditions to 15 or more cities in the last couple of years. I love how high-end Michelin star restaurants today can be really casual. And this feels more like my style. A warm, stress-free, really inclusive dining experience. As I’ve grown older, I’ve become more open, more gracious, more generous…and that’s what I believe hospitality is about at heart.

I like really bright food now, with good acidity, a good play of sweet and sour. The margarita cocktail profile, the chaat flavour profile. That’s why we’ve been doing a lot of pickling of late. I’ve got 500 to 600 jars of pickled produce on the walls at Qualia, a sort of live installation, which we’ll use in the food so that it’s also an interactive experience in some way. Should be fun. Guests will watch us cook and chat with the chefs. It doesn’t matter as long as it’s fun and relaxed.

There’s an inventive playfulness that we have always tried to bring to the plate, decade after decade, inspired by local ideas and ingredients. But not for the sake of being clever or different. We never lose sight of what makes good, honest, tasty cooking. For example, a dish we’re debuting at Qualia, a goat cheese agnolotti with a ragu sauce made from banana flowers, is inspired by something we ate at a Bengali restaurant. It’s an innovative pasta and it’s effing delicious.

We don’t play with every recipe, though. I continue to gravitate towards the straightforward supper — like a good steak and sauce or a succulent roast chicken. Tough to get right every time!

All I ask of my guests is that they keep an open mind. Ask yourself if you’re enjoying what you’re eating and where you’re eating it; and if the answer is yes, then have the gumption to say, “Thanks, that was a great meal!” For God’s sake, just don’t tell me this is how it should or should not be done. Or that this is authentic and that’s not. I hate that word — ‘authentic’. What the hell? It’s my food and I’m doing it my way.

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