For someone who inarguably transformed Mumbai’s culinary landscape, Rahul Akerkar’s credo in the kitchen is quite simple: “Serve good food cooked well”.
This tenet has served him well, from when he was a twenty-something understudy in American restaurants, earning a little extra money to pay for college, to when he returned to Mumbai in the 1990s to start a restaurant. Even now, after he has spent thirty years in the business and opened several pioneering restaurants, the words Scroll Food’s first Chef of the Month uses most often to describe his work is “good food”.
To him, the ingredient is always the hero, seasonality must be respected at all times, cooking techniques have to be valued, and processes unfailingly followed.
At Under The Over, his first restaurant at Kemps Corner in Mumbai, the ubiquitous “white sauce-based cooking” – “your Lobster Thermidor, your Chicken Kiev and all that kind of crap” – was eschewed for things unfamiliar. With Indigo, his flagship in Colaba, he tore up the rules of restauranting and rewrote them. Out went the antiquated work ethos common in Indian restaurants of the time, and in came the spirit of punctiliousness. A similar boldness defined his food too. There were no attempts to pander, no patience for pigeonholing. His grandmom’s kairi curry, for instance, was served as a sauce with a fish. A potato-crusted Indian salmon came with a basil poha and a solachi kadhi-inspired sauce.
In the 16 years Akerkar helmed Indigo, thousands of diners, including celebrities and politicians, must have passed through its doors. But he still remembers a guy who was told that the food at the restaurant was neither European, nor French or German. It was, again, “good food”. “We had a well thought-out plate, with food that was perfectly cooked and consistent,” he says of those times.
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All those things are still crucial for him at Qualia, his year-old labour of love in Lower Parel. The flavours are elemental and crisp. The plates are constructed light and clean. The attention to detail is almost obsessive. And there is a casual defiance of critics’ expectation to stick to a cuisine.
“I don’t know if I have Westernised Indian food or Indianised Western food – I don’t do it all the time, but when I do it, it is pretty good,” he says. “That is something I would like to be remembered for – that I was able to express my mixed heritage on a plate.”
Edited excerpts from an interview:
What is your earliest memory of food?
My earliest memory of food – a conscious one – was as a child in Nashik. My father’s parents lived there – they had a beautiful house and I remember it had a couple of acres of garden. On one acre, my grandfather grew wheat or rice, depending on the time of the year. And on the rest of it, they had every kind of fruit tree you could think of: four to six kinds of mangoes, a banana grove, chikoos, papayas...tonnes and tonnes of fruit trees. We used to go there for about a month every summer. The whole experience was quite like what [is described] in My Family and Other Animals. We would play in the gardens, smoke out bees and eat honey right out of the hive – sometimes, our tongues would get stung. We would climb the trees when the pairees were in season, sit on the branches, pluck the fruit, roll them around on our thighs to knead the pulp inside, bite off the tip, and suck out the fresh aamras.
My ajji spent her days either in the God room – she was very pious – or in the kitchen. That was her life. She had a pantry where she made pickles, murabbas, fresh white butter from milk, chaklis, pedas, ladoos, karanjia. As a kid, I remember sitting with her as she made these. I was the first grandchild and she spoiled the sh*t out of me. I used to love her food and everything was done for me. I would go into the garden to play, and as I would come in, she would offer me ladoos or something and say, “Kha kha, thoda kha.” Eat a little.
I remember they had a huge dining table, which could, if my memory serves me correctly, seat 12-14 people. And they had a cat called Jyotsna. Jyotsna used to sit at the end of the dining table as we had lunch. My grandfather would throw her fish bones and stuff, just literally from one end of the table to the other, and she would eat it all. The other thing Jyotsna loved was sitaphal, so one of my grandparents would give her a bowl of it. She would sit there and eat and spit out the seeds. By the end, she would have a semicircle of sitaphal seeds around her – it was very cute.
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This sounds like idyllic. But then you went to boarding school, a place not known for its food. What was that like?
Beyond horror. Boarding school food was literally the most atrocious food you could have. In the morning, your eggs were ice cold and like rubber. The toast was soggy and cold. Everything was cold. It was a terrible meal. But what was interesting was that every kid used to have what we called tuck or food from home. My ajji would send me stuff and I would survive on it. I remember having one of these huge steel trunks, like all kids, that would be full of the tuck that she sent me during the semester: chaklis, chudas, ladoos, all sorts of stuff. So that kind of helped along the way, but otherwise, the food was terrible.
Did all these things play a role in shaping your food journey? Did you always know you wanted a career in food?
No, definitely not. I don’t think food was a conscious part of my life from that point of view. I remember the times spent with my grandmother, but food to me was something you did – you sat down and ate a meal.
How did food happen, then? I went to Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, which is one of the top pre-med schools in the US. But very soon, I figured I didn’t have the brains to do medicine. In the meantime, I did a January semester course at Washington University in St Louis. It was a survey course in the field of bioengineering, which was new at the time. It was a four-week course, I think: a week of bio engineering going into mechanical engineering going into electrical engineering, or chemical engineering, something like that. Basically taking the root and discipline of engineering and then extrapolating to see how that was applied to the field of bioengineering. I remember getting really excited by that because computers were just starting off in those days. I had done a basic computer programming course and there were all sorts of sciences and physics here – all the stuff that could be applied to the bio system and so I decided pretty quickly that that’s what I wanted to do. I didn’t think any more of it and I just, you know, kind of went through school.
The summer of my junior year I stayed in Lancaster and we used to go to this restaurant called Jethros, which made the best martini in town. It was a tiny restaurant, with five or six tables, that served French food. By the end of the summer, I was broke. I turned to the owner Ed and said, “Do you want me to keep coming here to spend money? If you do, you have to give me a job here.” I started as a dishwasher and I watched and learned. Ed had a consulting chef from Nice who was also the major-domo of the owner of the Hamilton Watch Company in Lancaster. He used to come in the afternoon and do the specials of the day. He took me under his wing and taught me how to cook. That’s how it started. I went on to graduate school in New York and I continued working in restaurants. That’s how it continued.
Was this the realisation that you could make food professionally?
No, I still hadn’t thought of that. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I was keen on doing something in science, but not cooking, my God. Cooking was a means to an end. It allowed me to earn money and more often than not, it paid for my food. I loved the kitchen, and the idea of feeding people was cool. But I never thought I could make a career out of it.
After Lancaster, I went to Columbia University in New York to do a second Bachelor’s in chemical engineering and I started working in restaurants because it was a way to pay for school. Everything was expensive and working meant I could get some pocket money and food was taken care of.
Towards the end of 1986, I had started doing research towards my PhD, when I had a falling-out with my advisor. Overnight, I lost interest in what I was doing. I had finished two Bachelors and Masters in chemical engineering by this time, but because of this nasty falling-out, I dropped out of my PhD programme. I just quit.
A bunch of crazy things followed. I sourced silver jewellery from Jaipur and sold it in a flea market in New York, I did some computer consulting, and I got into a bit of real estate development with a friend in Philadelphia. The only constant through all these things was working in restaurants.
One day, I said to myself, I am enjoying this and I am going to stick with this. That’s what happened. My parents came over and I told them, “Look, I don’t know if this is the right decision; I have all these degrees that say I’m a biochemical engineer, but your son wants to be a cook.”
And what was their reaction?
They said, “Great, you have finally made up your mind. Now go for it.”
From then on, I got serious about my craft. For three years, I did things I hadn’t done before. I worked as a restaurant manager to understand how to supervise a restaurant. I worked with some really good chefs to get proper kitchen practice. I grew conscious about what I was doing, about where I worked.
Then, in 1989, I came back to India with the idea of opening a restaurant.
Did those three years lay the groundwork for what was to follow?
To a point. Everything I did there laid the groundwork. For about 10 years, I worked in different kinds of restaurants – Mexican, French, Native American, modern American. So I became a kind of a generalist.
What challenges did you face in the India of 1990s? The culinary landscape was very different then.
It was entirely different. I came back with the idea of opening a restaurant, but I didn’t know a thing about it. I didn’t come from a business family. I didn’t know how to run a business – finance and corporate law were alien to me. I had to teach myself everything.
My first step was to start catering out of my house. I did that for a year from around 1990 and built quite a reputation for myself. Somewhere along the way, I met AD [Singh], probably at one of my parties. He and Naomi Khatau had the idea of Just Desserts, and he approached me with it. He possibly realised that he didn’t have the production ability to run a restaurant and they kind of offered me a partnership. The three of us set up Just Desserts. I was only part of it for three months and then I left to set up Under The Over.
One of my mother’s lawyer bosses introduced us to the guy who owned the Open House chain of restaurants in Bombay back in the day. One of their Open Houses was at Kemps Corner and it was doing really badly. That’s the one I took over and it eventually became Under The Over. That’s how I got started.
And the other challenges?
Just getting introduced to the bureaucracy in India: licensing, going to the bank, trying to get a term loan, collateral, all the paperwork, and filling everything in quadruple. It was a hell of a learning experience. We put together Under The Over with an astronomical sum of Rs 14 or 16 lakh. Today I spend five times that amount on my kitchen equipment. It’s pretty wild, what you learn.
What was your food philosophy at the time? What experience did you want to serve?
When I started Under The Over, I didn’t have a philosophy. I knew how to cook and I wanted to do a restaurant. What I did have was OCD. My I’s were dotted and T’s were crossed, and my only driving force was that I wanted to do Western food as true to taste and as true to cuisine as I could. I was reproducing what I had learnt, which was far removed from anything here at the time. What we had here was your white sauce-based cooking, your Lobster Thermidor, Chicken Kiev, all that kind of crap.
I did nachos for the first time, Texas-style barbecue chicken, cornbread, blackened pomfret, our pizzas were good as well. I already had a clientele with my catering, so when I opened the restaurant, we had enough people waiting in line to come in and eat, which was just amazing.
When I started, I didn’t have any direction with my food other than Western and I use this word loosely. We had European, Italian, French, Greek, Southeast Asian...they were non-Indian flavours. But once I had cooked all the stuff I wanted to cook, I hit a roadblock. What was I going to do next?
I needed to reinvent myself. I also realised when we left Under The Over and moved to Bangalore for a while, that I had begun to cut corners. I had taken on a chalta hai attitude. I needed to reinvent myself from a culinary point of view. I wanted to do a serious restaurant.
That’s really what became my driving force – to do a professionally-run, world-class restaurant.
Is that how Indigo was born?
Yes. But I’ll back up a little bit more. The lease at Under The Over was coming to an end and the landlord made it impossible to continue. He wanted to come in as a partner, plus he raised the rent. So I told him I will bring down the shutters in April 1995, when the lease ran out. He turned around and said that he wanted to buy the place. I replied, sure, take it.
As it happened, around 1994-’95, Protima [Bedi], who was a good friend of my parents, offered me and Malini [Akerkar, Chef Rahul’s wife] a place to run in Bangalore. At her dance place Nrityagram, she had built a 10-room retreat, if you want to call it that, called Kuteeram retreat.
We were thinking of moving to Bangalore anyway. We had had Shaan, our first daughter, and mom kind of threw us out of the house. She said, “I am thrilled that you have a child and that I’m a grandmother. But I want to either visit them or have them visit me. I don’t want to have everyone live under the same roof.” A very Western thing, right? We realised nothing was going to happen in Bombay because we couldn’t afford anything. And the fastest growing city in Asia at the time was Bangalore. So when Protima’s offer came, everything fell into place. We went and ran Kuteeram for two years. We also ran a little café in Tariq Ansari’s bookshop called Bookery.
During this time, we started studying consumption patterns in Bangalore, with the idea of opening a restaurant there. What we saw was surprising. It was the fastest growing city, all the bars and restaurants were buzzing, but when you watched people consume, it told you a different story. People would nurse a pitcher of beer and a plate of kebabs all night long. There was no sale happening. That became a worry: if you open a restaurant and find no business, it can only lead to a disaster. It was at this point that we decided to move back to Bombay.
We had some money in the bank. I had enough cooking experience; enough experience running a restaurant; and it was time to start our own place. We had a few investors, our families included, and we had, I think, about Rs 2.5 crore as seed capital.
One great thing about working at Kuteeram was the business exposure it gave us. We had no business experience growing up, nor did Protima. But she risked everything, sold everything she possessed and took a loan from the Karnataka State Finance Corporation to set up this 10-acre project. She poured her heart and soul into it, not knowing whether she’s doing the right thing.
We used to go with her to meet the banks and the Finance Corporation, and I started to understand how business ran, how finance worked. Until then I could never conceive of anything more than a couple of thousands and here we were working with crores.
And I realised they are just zeros on a page. If you have a project, putting it up for Rs 10,000 or Rs 10 lakh or crores of rupees is a function of scale. Don’t be scared of the large numbers. If the numbers work on paper and you’re passionate about it, it’s possible to make it work. That, to me, was a huge learning when we returned from Bangalore.
In Bombay, we spent the better part of a year searching for a space. Our lawyers had given us six or eight questions – to do with title, marketability, solvency and so on – for the landlords. At every place, before we even discussed rent, we had to raise these questions.
In those days, everything happened in black money, and all we had was white. If any landlord started the conversation with black-white ratio, we would just get up and walk away. Then there were instances where after long conversations we would finally find out that the guy was in liquidation, the property was attached to the courts. The better part of the year went by and we ran out of the meagre savings we had.
That year, I forget which one it was, Malini’s brother or sister got married in the US and we went there for the wedding. We happened to visit San Francisco and said, wow, it would be great to set up a restaurant here. We put together a business plan, we organised bank finance and – it all just happened very quickly – we even found a place. But then I developed cold feet. I felt something was weird. It had taken us almost a year to get nowhere in India and here, in a couple of weeks, we had managed to do everything and were ready to sign a lease. I got scared – maybe it was very easy to set up something in the US and very difficult to sustain it. In India, it was the other way around.
We decided to be prudent. I realised I had been away from the US for 10 years and needed to understand the mindset, the work ethic, people’s tastes and the evolution of the industry. I thought it would be better if I worked as an employee before starting my own thing. I called up my chef friends in New York, moved there, and started working at the Union Square Cafe with Michael Romano. Malini and Shaan came back to Bombay. Malini continued to look for a restaurant space. We had set ourselves the deadline of March 31 – if nothing happened by then, we would pack up and move to the US. But in February, she found Indigo. She said: come home, we have a place.
Everyone in Bombay seems to have an Indigo story. What was so unique about it?
I wanted to create a sort of New York sensibility. The question of service didn’t really exist in restaurants in India at the time. What existed was subservience. Waiters were talked down to. We brought in the work ethic of treating people as equals. We got waiters who could hold a conversation with the guest, who could chat with them one on one, who could say no to them.
There were other things, like not cutting corners with our food, going back to the basics of our cooking techniques, making ingredients the hero, paying attention to detail. By a fortuitous stroke of luck, the wine market opened up in India a year or two after we set up Indigo – on my birthday in April 1999. As wine grew in popularity, we became the first restaurant in the country to have a 300-label wine list. After that, we started winning the Wine Spectator Award for Excellence. We stayed a service-forward, cuisine-driven, restaurant-correct, action-driven operation. It was professionally run. There was no detail too small to attend to. We were clear what we were doing and knew how to do them.
A lot of people say that Indigo brought fine dining out of the five-star hotels...
The irony of it was that we were never fine dining. I don’t think there was fine dining anywhere in India at the time. The Zodiac Grill [at The Taj Mahal Palace in Colaba] was trying to pose as a fine-dining restaurant, but their food was out of date.
I think the reason people associated us with fine dining was because of the way the restaurant was run, the way we treated the customer, the attention to detail in our hospitality, the way we prepared and served food. All these things were considered western sensibilities. They were commonplace in restaurants in Europe or the US, but in India we were so far behind the times that all of a sudden, when we started doing these, we just stood out. We were miles and years ahead of anyone else.
I had a beautiful bar with a full offering of spirits and cocktails that were made with fresh ingredients, not anything canned. We had a well thought-out plate, with food that was perfectly cooked and consistent.
I don’t think it was fine dining. What I had brought in was the approach to restauranting that I had seen while working in New York. I didn’t copy any restaurant or cuisine. I brought in systems: how to be focused on food, hospitality, service. It was just different.
Besides, Malini was clear that everything had to look good, so a lot of attention was given to the design of the space. These are all very important parts. I think we were the first people to really pay attention at our restaurants to design and it became a big part of our offerings.
What dishes best captured what you were trying to do?
As time went on, I started to figure out what my cuisine was.
I started to embrace my Indianness, my Maharashtrian-ness and my mum’s Western European side. At home, we would have lighter Western food at night and a heavy, Maharashtrian thali kind of thing at lunch. At restaurants, we would eat Indian all the time. It was a khichdi of everything.
Slowly, with these influences, we started to tweak Indigo’s food. Some of the dishes... I don’t know if I Westernised Indian or Indianised Western, but I would play with flavours, play with Indian preparations, plating them in a Western style or cooking them Western style.
Because of my hands-on experience in New York, I continued cooking. I started embracing techniques and cuisines and flavours that meant something to me (I had spent five summers in southern Italy in the 1980s and learnt Italian cooking there). I grew more confident in not doing what other people expected of me. I got more comfortable in my skin, in doing my own thing.
You were evolving as well…
That is exactly right…
We made potato-crusted rawas with a sauce that came from a solachi kadhi. We did it with a basil poha. I was using solachi kadhi in Western-style preparations years before others. My ajji used to make this raw mango kairi curry, so we played with that – I made it as a sauce for a fish. We also did a lot of traditional Western food with our own expression.
We were very clear – my cooks at Indigo were Indian, my ingredients were Indian. Rather than fight the desire to look for authenticity in the food, I chose to embrace it. I was concerned more with the way flavours and textures came together on a plate. If you had a slightly Indianised version of something, it didn’t matter as long as the overall mouthfeel and balance of the dish made sense.
One evening, I came out of the kitchen and there was this guy sitting on one of the lounge chairs. I asked him: “Hi, how’s everything tonight?” He said: “I have to tell you that I came here because my friends said it’s great food. When I asked them what kind of food it is, they said it is not French, European or German. It is just good food cooked well.” And that is how it should be. That is what we achieved.
The ingredient was our hero. We respected cooking techniques, process and seasonality. The food we made was good food. It didn’t matter whether it was “authentic”. There was this guy who told me that the Home Fries he had was nothing like what he had tasted in Texas, and I said, exactly, because it was from my home. Our potatoes, oil, water, climate...everything is different. And we make them here. So what you need to do is ask yourself whether you are enjoying them. If the answer is yes, then have the b*lls to say you are having a great meal and not compare me to what you have eaten in some other part of the world. That was the thing we had to educate people about.
When Indigo first opened, we had a waitlist of four to six months, which was unheard of. We had teams from the Taj and Oberoi coming to study us: what was this phenomenon? Nobody could understand it.
You make a business plan and you set up a project because you think it is going to work. But to this extent? I had never imagined it. If you look at our sales graph, it climbed steadily for 10 years.
The decision to part ways must have been tough…
Yes. It got very ugly in the end.
How have you changed as a person from Indigo to now?
I think I’m more comfortable in my skin now. I don’t have to prove anything to anyone other than to myself. I’m a lot more tolerant and practical. Which is good but also bad. To continue in this industry, you need to be a bit stupid and ballsy. People ask me: what is your takeaway from having walked away and now coming back?
You bring all the experience to the new projects, the new restaurants, which is great. But it also sucks because you come with baggage, and the idea is to be both bold and foolish in order to put out stuff that shakes things up. If I look today at the business plan I made for Indigo, I would throw it in the garbage, saying it is too risky. But I was hell-bent, I was driven and I knew I needed it to work.
The Qualia menu brings together a variety of ingredients, textures, flavours and techniques. What was your thought behind it?
I knew by this time that I really enjoyed the sweet-sour profile, which makes your food pop with freshness. So I started to explore that.
The natural next step was to look at pickling because that’s where all this is expressed best. We had time to develop our pickles, to achieve the mindboggling complexity of textures and flavours you get from fermenting vegetables and fruit – or whatever it is – over six to 12 months.
As we played more, things began to shine. We played with the pickling and fermenting, right down to the point where we have it in some of our desserts, in our bar and in a lot of our food. It makes things pop and allows us to use out-of-season ingredients months down the road after they have developed all these complex flavours and textures. It is lovely.
Like before, there are still Indian, Western and Italian influences in our food, but the way it is expressed today is different. After all, the way people eat today is different than in 2000. The way we constructed our plates is different. It is lighter and cleaner. The flavours are more elemental, crisp and clean.
Is there a lot of me in the food?
There was a lot of me in my food in the past too. I have grown and I’m now clear that this is a collaborative effort. My role today is more directional. I have a couple of amazing chefs with me and I leave the expression in absolute terms to them. At age 61, I can’t be cooking in the kitchen every day. I can provide a direction and an ethos to the cuisine. But I mould them into expressing it themselves.
Which dishes in Qualia lucidly reflect your vision?
We have a Tuna Loin with Avocado Pachadi, Sesame Seeds and Curry Leaf Dust. It is a beautiful dish. The story behind it is that I made a two-week trip to Kerala for a thing I did with Conde Nast Traveller. It was a story on beef and food in Kerala. I got to understand a bunch of stuff there and realised I really loved the cuisine. The cuisine’s influence is in the tuna; the pachadi again is from the South. The pickled beets is Western, though we use a few Indian masalas in the pickling. The tuna is cooked Western-style, so it is rare. It is a great dish, which encompasses the East and the West very well.
On the vegetarian side, we have a Charred Broccoli and Cauliflower that has a couple of Indian flavours in the masala. We do a lot of stuff off coal and charcoal, and we have a wood-burning hearth. The elemental use of these cooking techniques imparts basic flavours to the food, which is yummy.
How is Qualia an evolution from Indigo?
It is an evolution because the way we approach it is different. The way we serve food, the way the kitchen is open – all this has evolved keeping in mind the way we eat, the flavour profiles I love.
Even the way we combine ingredients today is different. Back then you had a protein, a starch and vegetable. Today you don’t need all that. Today the food is geared towards sharing.
Indigo was fine for when it worked. But I have grown since then. Having said that, the seriousness with which we approach what we do hasn’t changed. In other words, the intensity or the attention to detail is the same.
Have you had to unlearn things that you’ve worked with in the past?
I wouldn’t say unlearn, but, certainly, skipping over the whole chalta hai attitude. I have to constantly kick my backside and say stop this sh*t. There was a period at Indigo when I got complacent. For 10 years, if the business just goes up, you can lose your perspective and hunger. I had to re-evaluate after I left the company and sold out. I realised the mistakes I had made. It is different now, I make sure I light that fire under my ar*e every day.
How has the culinary scene evolved in India?
There were periods of absolute mediocrity, like two-three years ago. Everybody had all the boxes checked on their menu: there were edamame dumplings, truffle fries. No one was cooking. Everybody was ripping everyone else off. I think the diner also got tired. It is changing again now. In the last two-three years, there have been good chef-driven restaurants, where people are thinking about the cuisine, about the source of their ingredients, about what to cook and when to cook it in terms of seasonality. We are also realising that we have a huge resource of cuisine in India – it is so diverse, rich, evolved and old that we could spend a lifetime turning inwards and still not document or understand it.
A lot more chefs are embracing all that is good locally – technique, ingredients, flavours. I think it’s wonderful. India’s time has truly come. It can only get better as more thinking chefs express local food and culinary traditions.
What do you expect from your diner?
I want them to drop preconceived ideas of what to eat and how to eat. I want them to keep an open mind and eat our food for what it is – not compare it to anything they have eaten before. I have always said this: if you close your eyes and like what you eat, have the b*lls to say this is great food in a great restaurant.
And finally, how would you like to be remembered?
Honestly, I don’t know. Maybe for having contributed in some small way to taking our eating and restauranting out of the dark ages. Making it current and acceptable. Making people think about what we do and how we do it, what we put on the plate and how we serve it on a plate.
I have loved having been able to marry my Indianness to my Western training. I don’t know if I have Westernised Indian food or Indianised Western food – I don’t do it all the time, but when I do it, it is pretty good. Lot of thought goes into it. That is something I would like to be remembered for – that I was able to express my mixed heritage on a plate.