Rude Food by Vir Sanghvi: They’re back
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.
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,
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).
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
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