Rahul Akerkar and his partner Malini, of the Indigo fame, tell LuxeBook what it takes to set up a new restaurant in the times of intense competition and rapidly evolving dining habits
The ceiling-to-roof fine golden chain curtains, shorter in some parts, demark the different zones of Rahul and Malini Akerkar’s new restaurant Qualia (the essence of sensory experience). Intelligently designed by Serie Architects, the open kitchen, the bar, the seating area, of the 4,000-sq-ft, long space, are well defined, yet wonderfully integrated into the premium space on the ground floor of LODHA The World Towers, Lower Parel.
The restaurant lends warmth and opulence from dark wood, a combination seating of red and brown stools and sofas and cone-shaped copper lights. The light and sound design drives conversations and interactions, to make it a fun, casual place. “Guests here can roll up their sleeves and eat non-fussily, and, at the same time, make an event of it,” says Malini.
But setting up a new restaurant for the modern-day, evolved clientele, is no easy task. Rahul and Malini tell us how they did it and how the Indian food & beverage industry evolved since 1996, the year they launched the iconic Colaba eatery Indigo.
Qualia, Rahul says, is entirely different from Indigo. “The World has moved on since,” says Rahul. During Indigo days, restaurants usually served a protein, starch and vegetable on a plate. “Today, it’s about showing an ingredient,” adds Rahul. Also, while people today enjoy eating out more than ever and have a better understanding of food, thanks to extensive travels and culinary shows, their attention spans have greatly reduced. “They don’t want to have too much of the same thing. They want to experience different dishes, which are not fiddly constructs and neither architecture on the plate,” says Rahul. The approach towards dining is a lot more casual, reiterates Malini. “People are trying to simplify life and not complicate it,” she adds.
Another major change in people’s dining preference is their attitude towards healthy food. People want gluten-free, vegan meals and are also eating early. At Indigo, the first seating was mostly occupied by tourists and foreigners Today, the first seating is completely full. Fewer people opt for the second seating on weekdays. “Also, back then we had to really upsell wine. Today, many people are drinking the spirit, and wanting to be in a more casual, relaxed environment.”
So, no white-glove service at Qualia. And the food, which draws inspiration from traditional methods, is prepared using modern techniques. “The one flavour profile that reminds me of my childhood is the ambad-god (sweet-sour in Marathi).” The profile has been used in many of Rahul’s preparations at Qualia. While he was on a break, he played with pickling and acidity, which brightens and lightens all the dishes of the restaurant.
But the menu really came together during the soft launch in April. Before that, Rahul was cooking at home and not on a commercial stove and without a charcoal oven or grill. “Those were early days of our pickled vegetables and fruits.” Initially, some vegetables didn’t pickle at all. It was only after a year that the taste profiles and the complexity of the flavours started becoming evident. “The treated food was expressing itself,” says Rahul. In the final stage, a few dishes were manipulated and a few others omitted to maintain a fine balance between the modern and traditional. For instance, their Kerala influenced Tuna Loin spice mix, coated with sesame, bay leaves and curry leaves, is seared in western style and served with an avocado pachadi (thick raita) with pickled beetroot.
Striking the right balance has been the key for the Akerkar family — Rahul, Malini and their 25-year-old daughter Shaan — also colleagues at Qualia. The process of setting up a new restaurant has had its ups and downs in Akerkars’ family and work lives. “I have learnt to be a lot more patient and observant. In spite of growing up in a restaurateur’s family, I hadn’t realised what amount of work really goes into launching a new set up,” says Shaan. She also realised that working in a restaurant is a huge adjustment in many ways. “We work while others dine. It’s a bit discomforting in the beginning,” says Malini. Moreover, it’s not always easy to not step on each other’s toes even when the roles are well defined. Now, that’s tricky.
“We try not to take work home, but that’s hard as well.” Also, Rahul is a demanding boss. “Shaan took some time to understand in the restaurant she is like any other employee and not my daughter. Also, I do have more expectations from her and tend to be more difficult on her.” But now that the restaurant is up and running, the tension seems to have eased. “I am sure we will all settle in our new roles soon,” says Malini.
In the meanwhile, the restaurant is fast gaining popularity. Even Sachin Tendulkar was spotted at the eatery, enjoying a hearty meal with friends. The credit for the success goes to Rahul’s business acumen and fantastic cheffing skills, Malini’s public relations and marketing efforts, Shaan’s new ideas and restaurant’s young team’s hard work. “The way you run a restaurant or rather should run a restaurant is the same as it was way back in the 90s,” says Rahul. Akerkars have always practised a democratic, open management style and continue to do so. “We empower our people to be a part of the process, to take ownership of the various things they are responsible for,” says Malini.
She thinks that the restaurants today are more systematized and professionalized and the food has certainly evolved. “Two decades ago, Rahul was called a bavarchee,” says Malini. “Now, cheffing has become cool. I know of people who are in their thirties and changing their careers to become chefs. From investment bankers to chefs. That is the biggest change in the industry.”
But Rahul believes that India still lacks thinking chefs. “Unless you have exposed, experienced, and travelled chefs, it’s going to take a while to get that groundswell of people to really, really take the restaurant scene to its own evolution and progress.”
But it’s getting there, thanks to restaurateurs like Riyaaz Amlani and chefs like Prateek Sadhu. The industry lifted itself from the phase of mediocrity, when most restaurants were churning out similar kind of food. “I believe that we are on the cusp of getting thinking chefs, which is an exciting time to be here,” says Malini.