Monday, 28 October 2013

Rahul Akerkar Can't Find Executive Chef for Delhi Because Seniors Don't Want to Take Trade Test

By Sourish Bhattacharyya

I MET Rahul Akerkar at the Hyatt Regency, right across the road from where his celebrated restaurant, Indigo, is opening its Delhi innings by the middle of next month. With his bald pate capping a head brimming over with ideas and eyes glittering with anticipation, Akerkar said the "same thought process" that drives Indigo Mumbai would guide his Delhi venture. It would be food focused and chef driven.
Rahul Akerkar says Indigo Delhi will be
food focused and chef driven, but he
can't find an executive chef to run his
operations here. It means we're going
to see a lot of him in Delhi.
So who's the chef leading the project, I asked, and my question was enough for Akerkar to take off on "how tough it is to find skilled people" in Delhi. He hasn't found an executive chef in the city, which means, as he put it, he and his Executive Chef, Nitin Kulkarni (who has been with him since 1999), are going to collect "a lot of frequent flier miles" by dividing their time between Mumbai and the Capital. "It's tough finding skilled people," Akerkar said. "There's a huge lack of homegrown talent. That is a cause for concern."
He was also surprised by the reluctance of senior chefs to take a trade test. "How else would I know if they are as good as their CVs say they are? Akerkar asked retorically. Trained as a biochemical engineer at Columbia University, Akerkar found his true calling while he was working in New York kitchen to pay his bills. He's therefore not a chef-owner who doesn't believe in getting his hands dirty. And he expects the same work ethic from the chefs he hires.
Moving away from his complaints against Delhi's senior chefs, we got into a discussion of his menu for Indigo Delhi. It will be "mainly modern European with a healthy dose of Asian," he said. "We are quite seafood driven," he continued, assuring me that he has lined up some of the best suppliers in the business. But do 
not expect pomfret on the menu because Akerkar believes (and his words were music to my ears) it's "a very over-rated fish". There will however be "good duck and quail," he assured me, adding "I discovered Vivek Kushwaha much before the rest of the world." Akerkar was referring to the CEO of Gayatri Farms, the favourite poulty supplier of hotels and restaurants. And he kept emphasising that his menu has an equal share of vegetarian and non-vegetarian items.
The Indigo Delhi menu took Akerkar and his team up to three months to develop by listening to each other. "I read, eat and play around with stuff," Akerkar said. "I am learning all the time. I draw upon influences all the time, assimilate them and express them in my own way." Unsurprisingly, you'll find a tandoor in his 
kitchen, where he make a great chicken preparation with tamarind. And the rawas (Indian salmon) dish on his menu is an adaptation of his grandmother's kairi (green mango) curry.
More than anything else, Akerkar takes pride in being creative, in using the best ingredients and yet offering great value for money. "Guess what Indigo's average price per cover (APC) is?" he asked and then answered his own question triumphantly: "It is Rs 2,100-2,200 with alcohol." Explaining his philosophy of menu pricing, he said: "I don't believe in retiring with what I earn from the next meal I serve. Each dish has to be priced at a point that is reasonable. We are in the perception management business. The customer must believe he's getting value. I would rather somebody eats out four times a week and not once a month because it's too expensive."
I asked him about his wine list, which had got him the Wine Spectator excellence award for ten years in a row. "To get the award, you have to maintain a wine list of more than 300 labels," he said. "That's too much inventory. At one point, I had 63 chardonnays on my menu. My financial controller was very upset with me."
Akerkar's current wine menu is organised grape-wise, with the labels drawn from regions where particular grape varieties express themselves the best and then organised according to entry, mid-level and upper-end pricing.
And what does he believe to be the taste profile of the Delhi market? "Assessing people's taste is a very dangerous game," Akerkar said with an air of finality. "Taste is a very personal thing," he added, pointing out that the origin of the name of his company, deGustibus, is in the Latin aphorism: "Degustibus non est disputandem (You cannot dispute taste)." What he knows, though, is that "Delhi is a great market to be in. It is a consuming market, a well-heeled market."
If you go to Indigo Delhi, Akerkar would want you to ask yourself before you pass judgment on his food: "Are the ingredients good? Have they been treated with respect? Does the food sit well on my palate?" His final words summed up his restaurateuring philosophy: "Food must always take you somewhere. It must evoke some memory."

Check out my previous story on Indigo coming to Delhi: