From being the only standalone fine-dining restaurant in Mumbai to being ranked 28th at the San Pellegrino Asia's 50 Best Restaurants Awards 2013, chef and restaurateur Rahul Akerkar's Indigo has come a long way since its launch in April 1999.
Over the last 15 years, Akerkar's enterprise has also grown into deGustibus Hospitality with a range of restaurants to its credit — Indigo, Neel and a string of Indigo Delis — a remarkable feat for someone who literally stumbled into the culinary world.
Akerkar began his culinary journey at a small French bistro while still in college in the United States, "I did everything from washing dishes to being a waiter and a bartender, but most of the time you could find me in the kitchen cooking," he remembers. After a fallout with his research adviser (he holds a degree in biochemical engineering and was pursuing his PhD at the time), Akerkar decided academia wasn't where his heart lay.
"Then I was stuck wondering: What was I going to do? I did a whole bunch of stuff in New York, but the only constant thing was working in restaurants. So one day, I just woke up and decided that since I was really enjoying this, I should just do it."
He went on to work in many of New York's finest kitchens over a 10-year period during the 1980s, and moved back to India in 1989. But it was only in 1999 that Indigo came into existence.
"I was very keen on starting a food centric restaurant that puts serious focus on its food, because such a restaurant didn't really exist here in those days. And we wanted it to be in a nice space, something that would stand the test of time and become a classic. After a year of looking for the perfect place, we found the bungalow that now houses the restaurant. That's how Indigo was born," says Akerkar about his brainchild in Colaba that turns 15 this month.
After it opened its doors in 1999, Indigo quickly drew critical acclaim as Mumbai's finest stand-alone restaurant. Its owner proudly adds that such was the hype surrounding the restaurant that people were willing to wait four-and-a-half months to eat there.
Akerkar says, "I think we turned things on the head. All of a sudden, five star hotels woke up from their complacency and said we need to really start looking at what we're doing. There started the whole improvement all around. And it just changed the way people ate."
In the last 15 years, deGustibus Hospitality has grown by leaps and bounds. Usually, such expansion comes at the cost of quality. But not at any of Akerkar's restaurants. "I'm very kitchen centric — I always build from the inside out. For me, it's my chefs and my kitchen that lead the place. And while I can teach and explain the style of food I want to do, at the same time, I'm not there cooking every day. The way I do a burger will be different from how a chef at Indigo Deli does it. And rather than fight that difference, it's better to embrace it, right?"
Right. And all the passion and dedication put in by every employee shows. Akerkar believes it is most important to ensure that the person you're serving the dish to leaves the place happy. That in itself can be a monumental task considering the food culture is never static. But Akerkar manages to achieve this in a seemingly effortless manner by, in his words, being attentive to the needs of his guests.
Although several fine-dining establishments have popped up since Indigo's inception, Akerkar laments that the Indian palate has not evolved as much as he had hoped. While more and more people are gaining the disposable income that enables them to go out and eat, he adds, they aren't necessarily exposed to world cuisine. Which means that every new restaurant sets a benchmark, whether good or bad.
"In the West, the food industry went through a two-decade evolution during the 1980s and 1990s, to the point where now the public is educated, exposed and evolved. People can tell the difference between the good and the not-so-good. What's happening here is that people are so hungry for experience and exposure, our criteria for selection is a lot based on price today. It will take a few more years before we have a mature, evolved and exposed diner," he says.
But the scene is a lot different from when he started out, Akerkar says. "For years, people ate pasta that was completely overcooked but now they appreciate pasta that is al dente. Years ago, people would tell me they don't like a dish, but when I asked them why, they couldn't tell me. Today they have the vocabulary to answer."
"Exposure comes slowly with time. Many restaurants have opened and shut in the last few years. Those that are doing well have stuck around because people are starting to recognise that how good they are."
What is the recipe for Akerkar's success? "I don't take myself seriously, I take what I do seriously. Recognising your strengths and playing to those, recognising your shortcomings and trying to fix those — all that is important. And realising that you're only as good as your last meal. I think there's a healthy dose of timing and luck too," he says.
So what next? "A complete change in profession," he jokes, and then adds quickly, "No no, we are going to grow, of course. I'm also working on a couple of other ideas, for which you'll have to wait and see. At some point, I'd also like to teach."