It’s funny how you sometimes underestimate the influence and achievements of your old friends. I have known Rohit Khattar for over two decades now. We were introduced in the 1990s by my old school and college friend, Arvind Sethi. Rohit had just returned to India after hotel school in America and planned to open a theme restaurant at the Hotel Broadway on Delhi’s Asaf Ali Road, owned by his family.
Looking back, I recognise how successful he has been in the decades that followed. But I never really put it together till a couple of weeks ago when we were on a panel together at the Global Hospitality Conclave. This is an organisation comprising graduates of the Oberoi hotel school (now referred to as OCLD) who have gone on to find fame and fortune in other companies.
This group has no connection with the Oberoi chain now, but believes that as people who grew up in the Oberoi culture they share values (excellence in hoteliering etc.). They organise a conference each year with talks and discussions on the global hospitality business. It is an exclusive club. They frown on outsiders and there are no commercial interests involved. So, as I discovered when they first invited me to speak last year, standards of discussion are high.
This year, I moderated a session on the restaurant world with such panellists as Habib Rehman, the legendary former boss (he is still a director) of ITC Hotels and super-restaurateur AD Singh.
Also on the panel was Rohit and as the session went on, I told the story of how Rohit and I had first met AD in Mumbai in 1998, way before the first Olive opened, and had been hugely impressed by him.
Afterwards, some of those attending the conference asked me, “Did you know Rohit as far back as 1998? What was he doing then? Had Indian Accent already opened?” I saw the admiration all of the attendees had for Rohit and for what he had achieved. Okay, I thought to myself, I should stop taking my old friends for granted!
Rohit is the grandson of Tirath Ram Amla, who owned several important institutions in Kashmir, including Broadway Motors, Broadway Cinema and the Broadway Hotel. Tirath Ramji also owned the Delhi Broadway Hotel, but never did much with it till his daughter Vijay Lakshmi Khattar (Rohit’s mother) moved to Delhi in the early ’70s and took it over.
When Rohit returned to India from America, his dream was to start an American-style theme restaurant at the Broadway. Recognising, eventually, that Asaf Ali Road was the wrong location for that sort of place, he opened Chor Bizarre, serving traditional Kashmiri food that met his mother’s high standards. He packed it with bric-a-brac sourced from chor bazaars all over India and the restaurant became a runaway hit.
Thrilled by this success, Rohit grew ambitious. When the India Habitat Centre was being planned in Delhi, he bid to run its restaurants and banqueting. Because his was the highest bid, the organisation (government controlled) had to give the contract to him rather than to more experienced restaurateurs. Though the project was beset by delays, Rohit managed to open the conference wing and some of the restaurants by 1997.
Most of these restaurants were truly innovative: American Diner (the same American theme restaurant, straight out of Pop Tate’s in Riverdale that he had always wanted to open), Oriental Octopus (a pan-Asian place before the idea became fashionable), Eatopia (a food court with astonishingly good chaat) and many others. Despite the frustrating delays, the project went better than anyone had dared to expect and its success established Rohit as one of India’s premier restaurant operators.
While the Habitat project was being delayed, Mahendra Kaul, the first Indian broadcaster to become a household name in the UK, asked Rohit to look at a branch of Gaylord in London’s Mayfair. Kaul was like a godparent to Rohit, and worried how he would survive till Habitat opened. Kaul thought that Gaylord − where he was a partner − might give Rohit something to do while the Habitat project was delayed.
Rohit grabbed the opportunity and opened the London outpost of Chor Bizarre there. But even as that restaurant was getting established, Habitat finally got off the ground. Suddenly, Rohit found himself shuttling between countries. Fortunately, Sandeep Tandon, an old friend from his college days, had come on board and became managing director of the company, and handled the Habitat openings. (Tandon continues to head the company with great distinction.)
What followed was pure chance. Ismail Merchant, the film director, treated Chor Bizarre as his London office. One day, two girls dropped in and asked him to come to the Millennium Club in Covent Garden. Merchant took Rohit along.
Rohit liked the space, found that it was available and secured the lease. He opened a Bollywood themed restaurant/bar called Sitaaray and a club with pan-Asian food called Tamarai. The club did okay though Rohit, with his straight arrow disdain for wild drinking and hatred of drugs (he is also a world-class prude!), was the wrong person to run a nightclub in London. When the lease ran out, he eventually gave up the space.
By then, he had a new idea. The lease for the Manor, a small boutique hotel near Rohit’s house in Delhi’s Friend’s Colony, was available and the owners offered it to him. He took it, but had no great hopes for the hotel restaurant where the likes of Vineet Bhatia and Abhijit Saha had previously opened and failed.
So, Rohit first ran a Mediterranean menu in the space. That failed and as a last resort, he decided he might as well open a modern Indian restaurant. (“What did I have to lose? I had the space already.”) He had the name ready – Indian Accent – and decided to entrust the kitchen to Manish Mehrotra, who had worked with him at Oriental Octopus in Delhi and Tamarai in London. Manish’s speciality was Thai food, but Rohit believed he could successfully switch to modern Indian.
It was heavy going. Just as Vineet Bhatia’s restaurant in the same space had been ahead of its time, so was Indian Accent. It took two years for people to discover the complexities of Manish’s food. But when they finally did, the place exploded. Nobody now seriously disputes that it is the country’s finest modern Indian restaurant.
Three years ago, Rohit was all set to open Indian Accent branches in Mumbai and the Gulf when he found a great location in New York. Deciding to live dangerously, he put all the other Indian Accents on hold and opened in the world’s most competitive restaurant city.
The opening was so eagerly awaited that Pete Wells, the New York Times critic, began his review by saying that he had received innumerable emails from fans of the Delhi original as his “first exposure to the cult of Manish Mehrotra”, whom he called “one of the most admired chefs in India.”
Rohit ended up spending seven months in New York overseeing that opening but it went so well that he now expects to open a London outpost of Indian Accent by this autumn. Mumbai, Dubai and all the other locations are still in the planning stages, but knowing Rohit’s passion for perfection, I don’t think anything will open before he gets London right.
People asked me at that Global Hospitality Conclave if I had always known that Rohit would end up being one of the most influential figures in the restaurant world. After all, Rohit and I had said, during our session, how we always thought that AD was a winner. So, had I thought that about Rohit too?
I’ve known Rohit and his wife Rashmi (who builds every single one of his projects and without whom, he says, the company would never run) for a very long time. I know also that his mother (who not only ensures the high quality of the Chor Bizarre food, but also watches over the finances of the group) is, in many ways, the key to his success.
So yes, I knew that the Khattars would do well. I have always respected Rohit for his passion, his vast knowledge and for his vision.
But did I think, all those years ago, that he would create the world’s most admired Indian restaurant brand?
Gosh no. We love our friends. But all too often, we underestimate them. And when they succeed beyond our wildest imagination, it can be the best feeling in the world!
From HT Brunch, January 22, 2017
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