Chef Alex Sanchez with Mallyeka Watsa, the co-founder of Americano, which was always packed out prior to the pandemic
Chef Alex Sanchez with Mallyeka Watsa, the co-founder of Americano, which was always packed out prior to the pandemic

Rude Food by Vir Sanghvi: They’re back

How three of India’s finest chefs, Alex Sanchez, Ritu Dalmia and Regi Mathew, have been to hell and back
PUBLISHED ON FEB 13, 2021 08:30 PM IST

In the early months of 2020, I finally managed to score a table at Mumbai’s Americano. I had heard good things about the restaurant and had admired the chef-patron Alex Sanchez when he was at The Table, a lovely and influential restaurant near the Gateway of India.

But it took me three tries to get a table because Americano was always packed out. When I finally ate there, I discovered why Sanchez had disappeared after his stint at The Table: he had spent much of his time travelling through Italy, cooking in small towns with nonnas and learning the secrets of ‘real’ (as distinct from ‘restaurant-style’) Italian food.

His learnings were all there on the plates. Americano, I wrote after my visit, was easily the finest European (using the term loosely: Alex is American) restaurant in Mumbai and possibly all of India. The food was not showy or fancy. But each dish had a distinctive and delicious flavour of its own.

A few weeks after I went, even as I was planning my next trip to Mumbai, Americano shut down. Covid had just hit India and though there was no requirement for restaurants to shut, Alex closed Americano. He was being cautious, he said, but his priority was to protect the health of his staff, many of whom journeyed to the restaurant’s Kala Ghoda location from the suburbs by public transport: buses and local trains.

A little later, the state government shut down all restaurants and stopped public transport. So Americano would have had to close anyway.

When Americano had started food delivery, people from all over the city ordered their famous pizzas
When Americano had started food delivery, people from all over the city ordered their famous pizzas

For three months, as Mumbai went dark, I heard nothing more about Americano. Then I was told they had started delivery food. People from all over the city ordered their famous pizzas. Sanchez put together pasta kits that were not exactly DIY, but let you assemble the dishes at home.

Then, finally, a few weeks ago Americano opened for business again. I called Alex to ask how he had coped through this dark period. It was gloomy, he said, because for much of the time he could not see a light at the end of the tunnel. His commitment was to his staff (he did not sack a single person) and to his loyal band of regulars who ordered delivery food when Americano was shut.

He was luckier than most, he said. His landlord was flexible and understanding. He found a perfect delivery service in Thrive, which was ideal for neighbourhood restaurants like his. But no, he did not think that Americano would recoup its losses any time soon. The struggle was always to simply stay afloat.

If one of India’s best restaurants, with a loyal clientele, a packed waiting list and an understanding landlord had to struggle so much during the pandemic, how have the others coped?

I spoke to Ritu Dalmia, queen of the Delhi restaurant scene, and she conceded that the restaurant industry has never known a bigger crisis or a worse time. In the Greater Kailash market, where she ran the supremely trendy Café Diva, she says, restaurants are shuttering up every week. Even Café Diva, with its formidable reputation, has had to shut down. So has Ritu’s newly-opened Diva Spice.

Some of it has to do with social distancing regulations, she says. All restaurants have a business plan that depends on serving a certain number of meals a day. If they have to, say, halve their seating capacity, then the economics collapse.

Plus, says Ritu, there are short-sighted Delhi landlords who will demand full rent even when the restaurant is shut. Obviously, this means that restaurants have to close down. But the landlords can’t find new tenants either. So the space goes empty. This works to nobody’s advantage, so Ritu says she can’t understand the inflexibility of some Delhi landlords.

Ritu also runs two restaurants in Milan, Italy and their fortunes have been mixed. They were shut down in the early part of 2020, re-opened to roaring business in the summer and then closed again as the lockdown was re-imposed in the winter. But, says Ritu, the Italian government helps pay staff salaries, which makes a huge difference. In India, on the other hand, the hospitality sector has received no government support.

Ritu has found ways of coping. Fortunately, three of her restaurants continue to flourish: the flagship, original Diva,

Ritu Dalmia forayed into delivery during the lockdown and her pasta kits have become wildly popular during the pandemic
Ritu Dalmia forayed into delivery during the lockdown and her pasta kits have become wildly popular during the pandemic

Latitude 28 in Khan Market and the wonderful café she runs at the Italian Embassy Cultural Centre. She forayed into delivery during the lockdown and her (CasaDiva) pasta kits have become wildly popular during the pandemic. But, like Alex, she is against treating delivery as a replacement for customers at restaurants. Restaurateurs can raise some revenues from delivery to help with cash flow, she explains, but the Diva group’s delivery revenues rarely exceed 10 per cent of the total turnover. She is in the restaurant industry, she says, and until that recovers her business will suffer.   

Listening to Alex and Ritu, I wondered what things were like for chef-patrons in the South. I have known Regi Mathew since the 1990s when he was the Thai cuisine chef at Bengaluru’s Taj West End. Regi left the hotel business fired by a mission to popularise the food of his native Kerala.

He opened the stand-alone Thai place, Benjarong, after leaving the West End but he really made his solo reputation with Chennai’s Ente Keralam.

At present, he is best known for Kappa Chakka Kandhari, which is easily one of the best restaurants in Chennai.

The concept is unusual. Regi and a few friends went back to their mothers to ask for home recipes. Each of them also asked their mothers to introduce them to 10 ladies of their mothers’ generation who liked cooking. They then requested the ladies to give them home recipes. Not content with this, they went to Kerala’s toddy shops to look for popular recipes.

Kappa Chakka Kandhari is like no other Malayali restaurant in India because it still relies on home chefs in its kitchen and refuses to serve Malabar Parotta (“it is not a mother’s dish”) or biryani (“mothers don’t make it”: I’m not sure about that one, frankly).

Chef Regi Mathew (inset) is best known for Kappa Chakka Kandhari, one of the best restaurants in Chennai; An assortment of vegetarian food at the restaurant
Chef Regi Mathew (inset) is best known for Kappa Chakka Kandhari, one of the best restaurants in Chennai; An assortment of vegetarian food at the restaurant

When the lockdown hit, Regi was devastated. He had to close down his Bengaluru operation and offered the home chefs who cooked at his Chennai restaurant the opportunity to go home. Most stayed with the restaurant and he struggled to find cash flow doing some delivery and supplying food to the state government’s Covid relief schemes.

He has kept his head above water though and his Chennai place has re-opened successfully and by the time you read this, Bengaluru should have too. He has taken a huge financial hit, but is proudest of having stood by his people.

Alex, Ritu, Regi are among the finest chefs I know. They are not mere food entrepreneurs. They work in this field because they love food. All three of them have been to hell and back.

But perhaps better times are coming. Regi says that he expects to be back at full capacity in a couple of months. If the market improves, Ritu will look for a new location for Café Diva. And ironically enough, there has never been a better time to go to Americano. With customers only trickling back slowly to restaurants, this is the one time when it is not too difficult to get a table at Americano.

I can’t wait to go!

The views expressed by the columnist are personal

From HT Brunch, February 14, 2021

Follow us on twitter.com/HTBrunch

Connect with us on facebook.com/hindustantimesbrunch

SHARE THIS ARTICLE ON
Close
Ricardo Sciutto, CEO of Italian footwear brand Sergio Rossi
Ricardo Sciutto, CEO of Italian footwear brand Sergio Rossi

Indian embroidery brings about cross-influence, but it’s tricky: Ricardo Sciutto

By Shruti Nair
UPDATED ON FEB 27, 2021 08:59 PM IST
Riccardo Sciutto, CEO of Italian footwear brand, Sergio Rossi, pointed out how it’s more difficult to understand the market for footwear and jewellery as compared to clothing
Close
Myntra’s CEO, Amar Nagaram
Myntra’s CEO, Amar Nagaram

“Next step: apps must include luxury items”

By Shruti Nair
PUBLISHED ON FEB 27, 2021 08:23 PM IST
Myntra CEO says that the younger generation has more disposable income and is more willing to spend on luxury
Close
HT Image
HT Image

“Made in Italy means high-quality craftsmanship”

By Shruti Nair
PUBLISHED ON FEB 27, 2021 08:12 PM IST
Vincenzo De Luca, the Italian Ambassador to India, spells out why Italian fashion is so loved around the world
Close
Stefano Canali of Canali Menswear, which has had a brand presence in India since 2009
Stefano Canali of Canali Menswear, which has had a brand presence in India since 2009

The Nawab jacket was our tribute to India: Stefano Canali

By Shruti Nair
PUBLISHED ON FEB 27, 2021 08:07 PM IST
Canali Menswear has had a brand presence in India since 2009
Close
Alessandro Liberatori, Director of the ITA
Alessandro Liberatori, Director of the ITA

“‘Made in Italy’ extends beyond fashion…”

By Shruti Nair
UPDATED ON FEB 27, 2021 08:19 PM IST
Alessandro Liberatori, Director of the ITA, says India is one of the most important markets for fashion, and will be valued at $93 million by 2025
Close
(Top) Gong Bao chicken at Hyatt Regency; Mai Bao restaurant was jam-packed for an event on Valentine’s Day
(Top) Gong Bao chicken at Hyatt Regency; Mai Bao restaurant was jam-packed for an event on Valentine’s Day

Rude food by Vir Sanghvi: Welcome back, restaurants!

PUBLISHED ON FEB 27, 2021 06:58 PM IST
Yes, it’s time to eat out again and enjoy the full experience. As long as you follow physical distancing and remember to sanitise and wear a mask except while you’re eating!
Close
From diving into dark chocolate sorbet to immersing in hours of literary fiction, decadence is in (Parth Garg)
From diving into dark chocolate sorbet to immersing in hours of literary fiction, decadence is in (Parth Garg)

Humour by Rehana Munir: In defence of decadence

By Rehana Munir
PUBLISHED ON FEB 27, 2021 06:58 PM IST
Equanimity has its sensible uses, but nothing succeeds like excess. Especially after the year and then some spent in lockdown
Close
Thick and bushy eyebrows is the way to go for a natural look; Model: Naveed Khan (A theatre actor and model from Afghanistan) (Yatan Ahluwalia)
Thick and bushy eyebrows is the way to go for a natural look; Model: Naveed Khan (A theatre actor and model from Afghanistan) (Yatan Ahluwalia)

Men’s Style & Grooming by Yatan Ahluwalia: Casual is cool

By Yatan Ahluwalia
PUBLISHED ON FEB 27, 2021 06:58 PM IST
A style guide to creating a casual look that suits your personality and fits you just right. Something for every kind of occasion
Close
How to make sneakers sexy and why kaftan suits all
How to make sneakers sexy and why kaftan suits all

Ami Patel: How to up your sneaker game & why kaftans work

By Ami Patel
PUBLISHED ON FEB 27, 2021 06:56 PM IST
Ditch those stilettos and embrace your comfy, sexy sneakers; and knee-length kaftans that work for even those who are 4 feet zilch
Close
Gaurav opines that if you want to upgrade an iPhone every year, then you’re not going to find any major difference or notice tangible improvements with every upgrade
Gaurav opines that if you want to upgrade an iPhone every year, then you’re not going to find any major difference or notice tangible improvements with every upgrade

Technical Guruji: When do you upgrade your iPhone?

By Gaurav Chaudhary
UPDATED ON FEB 27, 2021 08:58 PM IST
Eyeing the new iPhone? Well, considering it will burn a hole in your pocket, it’s best to wait for at least two years to upgrade to another
Close
Chef Prateek suggests saving all the vegetable trimmings and freezing them
Chef Prateek suggests saving all the vegetable trimmings and freezing them

Prateek Sadhu: Stocking up on stock

By Prateek Sadhu
UPDATED ON FEB 27, 2021 06:56 PM IST
How can you make non-vegetarian or vegetarian stock and use it for the whole week, especially with offices opening up or WFH becoming more hectic?
Close
(From left) Islamabad resident Dananeer Mobin, 19, whose pawri/party video went viral and music producer Yashraj Mukhate, 25, whose pawri mash-up started trending
(From left) Islamabad resident Dananeer Mobin, 19, whose pawri/party video went viral and music producer Yashraj Mukhate, 25, whose pawri mash-up started trending

HT Brunch Social Media Star of the Week: Pawrriii… aka Party

By Karishma Kuenzang
PUBLISHED ON FEB 27, 2021 06:55 PM IST
The word with an exaggeratedly rolled American R became a meme and showed us how having an accent has gone from elite to funny
Close
Mandvi Sharma, who was Shah Rukh Khan’s publicist for several years, now works with the likes of Kamal Haasan
Mandvi Sharma, who was Shah Rukh Khan’s publicist for several years, now works with the likes of Kamal Haasan

HT Brunch Game Show: Which star has the right idea of fame?

By Karishma Kuenzang
PUBLISHED ON FEB 27, 2021 06:54 PM IST
The actor who believes that social media following shouldn’t affect the films they do, who says one shouldn’t idolise celebs, or the one who believes the mystery of stars is a thing of the past
Close
Did Shonda Rhimes’ version of Bridgerton work for you or do you prefer the book by Julia Quinn?
Did Shonda Rhimes’ version of Bridgerton work for you or do you prefer the book by Julia Quinn?

HT Brunch Sunday Debate: Play it by the book

By Vivek Bhattacharyya, Ritika Passi
PUBLISHED ON FEB 27, 2021 06:54 PM IST
A bookworm and a bingewatcher who’ve watched and read the books Bridgerton is based on argue which version works better
Close
David remembers that when he first came to India, EDM was still a little bit new but the response was still amazing. The scene has only become bigger, he opines
David remembers that when he first came to India, EDM was still a little bit new but the response was still amazing. The scene has only become bigger, he opines

India Exclusive: India on the cards for David Guetta?

By Karishma Kuenzang
PUBLISHED ON FEB 27, 2021 06:53 PM IST
The French DJ talks about post-Covid performances, the rise and fall of EDM and returning to the subcontinent
Close
SHARE
Story Saved
OPEN APP