My mother also attempted a bit of catering. There was a Vivek Public School on Mall Road. She would go there and we would sell bhature-choley to the kids during their break and sometimes toffees and chocolates as well. However, when we went there with all our goodies packed, it was very difficult for us to take money from the kids who lined up; it was totally chaotic.
We would be serving them on a paper plate, on which was placed a bhatura, not warm, almost at room temperature and then a big scoop of channa (spiced Punjabi chickpeas). But it did not amount to anything because we did not have the courage to ask for money for the food from these kids. Some of them knew it was four rupees but we didn’t have change when those kids gave us five-rupee notes. Many times we gave the food away for free when they didn’t have change.
However, something very interesting came out of this: it became a training ground and a sort of stepping stone into business and soon we had an opportunity!
There was a little space at the back of our house that had been rented out to a beauty parlour. The owners decided to move out as they needed a bigger space where there was more visibility because the parlour was in a small lane behind our house. A lot of people refused to come there because it was very difficult to get big cars in, so the owners decided to move out for the sake of their business.
Destiny was working in our favour and we decided to find a way to make this work. We went to my grandfather and told him that we were going to open a small place where we could host kitty parties. We already had the experience of cooking for small gatherings and we planned to open something amazing here.
My grandfather said that we were getting rent right now, so we should rent it again to someone else, so we would at least have a steady source of income. To this, I threw a tantrum! Of course, I had a big supporter at home, my grandmom, and she said, “No, no, no, we should open a banquet area, this is going to be wonderful.”
So we did that. My grandmother and grandfather had fond memories of a place in Lahore called Lawrence Garden, which is now called Bagh-e-Jinnah. We decided to call it Lawrence Garden as a tribute to the place where they’d always go and meet each other in groups with friends – and that’s how the business started!
We got a board painted, but then the question of capital money came up. We went back to Vivek Public School and met the principal. She was very nice and told us, “If you want to make some money, why don’t you make some hand-knitted sweaters for uniforms?”
My mom jumped at the opportunity. That would be good seed money – 10,000 rupees or thereabouts. That would help us to buy chairs and tables and some basic amenities to run the kitchen – the gas range, plates, silverware, etc. Nothing was going to be of high quality, and everything had to be bought cheaply.
That was the beginning of a chapter of my life that I keep very close to my heart – Lawrence Garden.
This was also when I began to understand the resilience that is required to run a business and how easy it is to fail and how difficult it is to start a business without taking loans.
We accepted the offer of the sweaters and throughout the summer of 1990 and 1991, we made sweaters for Vivek Public School. That was a beginning of a new era when we learnt how to knit. We started making blue sweaters and we finished the assignment and got the money, the board and the small stuff. On 2 December 1990, we opened Lawrence Garden. And a new journey was under way!
But we did not realise that we were just a group of people who loved and respected food. We had no sense of business. Often, people would say, “Oh, we can’t afford this” and we’d keep reducing the prices!
When anyone said that someone’s daughter was getting married, but they did not have the budget for catering, we’d jump up and say, “Oh, don’t worry about it, we’ll take care of it.” So there we were! That place became more like a charity ground than a serious business.
It is a very tough time for a business when you merge these two things: business and charity. There has to be a balance, but we did not understand it. We felt that we had the space now and we were sure that we would do something great with it. I got one big pot from the attic to start making some food in it, because we had big events to cater for.
We had a mundan ceremony (head tonsuring of kids that is auspicious in our culture), which was a big party, our first one, and we were super excited.
However, we gradually figured that this was going to be very tough, running this on an inside street, when there was still no power of social media. It was very difficult for people to know that you existed and all publicity was done by word of mouth.
Something I learnt very early on was that you can be successful in any business – it could be in the media, television, restaurants, hospitality or movie-making – but it is dependent on how good you are with people. When there is a complaint, you need to address it; you can’t just hide from it.
And there were obviously many complaints because we were not equipped to do proper parties as compared to the hotels or the places that were more established. There were a few things that I had learnt, and we did the same repeatedly – a very small menu.
Then something new happened in our lives. My chacha ji (father’s first cousin), who was living in Ireland at that time, came to Amritsar. He was an extremely progressive man, and he came to visit my grandmom. He saw me passionate about all the small things that were happening in the kitchen; me coming back from school and working or on the weekends – totally obsessed with being in the kitchen.
That was when he told everyone at the dining table, “You can’t be serious that you’re not seeing this. It’s very rare that kids have so much passion! Most of them are forced to go to school and do jobs; they don’t do things so voluntarily. This is an incredible gift that he has, he’s passionate about it, he needs proper training. You can’t think that this is just a hobby for him and you people are giving him an outlet.” He announced that he would take me to Delhi.
This was at the beginning of 1991. He took me to Delhi and for the first time, I entered the Maurya Sheraton. Though I had seen a big hotel earlier in Srinagar, I was not allowed to see how the food was prepared according to what had been ordered for that wedding banquet. There were just a few dishes, but the layout was awesome.
This was the first time I was going to see a twenty-four-hour buffet at the Maurya Sheraton and it was the most delightful experience for me at that time! My eyes almost popped out of my skull because I had never seen something so beautiful! The way the food was laid out, the variety, the colours, the spread, the sophistication, the kind of choices, what they had done to set up the place – I had never seen anything like that before, because for me it used to be just plastic plates with a paper napkin in between.
Here they had silverware on the side! Then the salad, the rice, the lentils, the meats and everything else. It was a typical layout, there was nothing special and everything was basic. But this was the first time I was seeing some first-rate crockery, and air-conditioning, and elegant people sitting and the way the breads came to the table – so warm!
Everything was picture-perfect to me. It was the place where I wanted to be! I was literally on my knees. I couldn’t stop my tears and I kept asking my uncle, “How come the food is so beautiful? How do people make such good-looking food?”
He told me, “This is what the chefs do. They are trained to do this and this is your benchmark. You should find a way to reach this. This is the level you should be working at. All you need is training, guidance and education to be one of these chefs.”
I still remember seeing one chef who walked out with his cap on. It was as if I was looking at the most majestic hero! There was a grace to him as he came out. He was inspecting the buffet and that was something surprising; I’d never seen that before. I think there was a little shade of red on the chef’s scarf and I couldn’t stop looking at him.
Later, he helped me find a way to apply to Maurya Sheraton by ITC, to the Welcomgroup administration for the college in Manipal. Everyone in my family had thought that I was going to follow in my brother’s footsteps and become an engineer, but I was totally dedicated to how I wanted my life to be and I had to find a way to follow my passion.
Excerpted with permission from Barkat: The inspiration and story behind one of the world’s largest food drives, Feed India, Vikas Khanna, Penguin Books India.