“Don’t address me as the owner!” thundered P Oommen Koshy. Koshy, 56, is popularly known as Prem Koshy, and as we sat at his customary table at Koshy’s – arguably Bangalore’s most iconic restaurant – he insisted: “We are all workers here.”
Koshy’s began as a bakery in 1940, when it was set up by Prem Koshy’s grandfather, PO Koshy. In 1952, the restaurant was built on St Mark’s Road, right next to the bakery where it first began. After the death of his grandfather, Prem Koshy’s father and uncle took over the establishment – and upon their deaths in the early 1990s, the third generation took the reins. The non-air conditioned section of the restaurant was called Parade Cafe, the air-conditioned section called the Jewel Box. Along with the original bakery, the entire establishment was referred to as Koshy’s.
Through the long line of Koshys, what has remained consistent is the constant popularity of Koshy’s, which has repeatedly featured on the list go Bangalore’s must-visit restaurants. Prime ministers, royalty, artists, politicians of all hues and visitors from all walks have life have at some point of their lives been mesmerised by the restaurant’s timeless charm.
Koshy plays the blues
Prem Koshy’s tryst with the restaurant began when eight years old. He was allowed to spend time at the British Council library which used to be housed above the restaurant (the library moved to Kasturba Gandhi Road in 2002). In exchange, he would have to perform the odd cleaning job in the restaurant, or sell cakes and chocolates at the bakery. He learnt to multitask at an early age.
“The bottom-line is complete present moment awareness,” he said, referring to the skill he picked up early on. “If I am talking to you I need to be here in the moment with you. I cannot be multitasking. If I am then I am taking away from the present moment. Can I move to action when I need to? Yes. Multitasking is possible when you isolate each task and respond in the perfect way.”
As a teenager, he left for America to seek his fortune and according to Prem Koshy the story took the sorts of turns one might expect from a classic coming-of-age film. He even said he played the blues one night in New Orleans, earning hundreds of dollars in tips. But Prem Koshy’s stories aren’t all glitter and stardust – he said he saw places of “true darkness” on his journeys too.
“I thought I was invincible, but circumstances beat me right into the ground, largely due to my ego,” he mused. “I had forgotten what had protected me all those years, the higher power. That is when most of us move to the darkness. Now I see that I had to go there to know the difference between the darkness and the light.”
To the place I belong
Koshy can be found at the restaurant every day, going from table to table and chatting with regulars – some of whom have been patrons since the time of PO Koshy. One of the basic principles his family has instilled in him is to never count money. Another one of his guiding mantras is to instil a feeling of ownership among all his employees. Most waiters at Koshy’s have worked there for more than 40 years. Some, like Mohan Nair joined before Prem Koshy was born.
“One day I told my waiter Joseph,who was nodding off, ‘etta, why don’t you rest at home?’ He said, ‘No. I gave my word to your grandfather, that whichever one survived longer we would look after the other’s family. So I am here to look after you.’”
Food for the soul
Looking after people, according to Koshy, is serious business. In 2000 he started the Koshy’s Outpost on Brigade Road in Bengaluru, where he gathered several talented cooks to prepare various items from pickles to desserts and sold them out of a store. This was when he discovered why it was critical for talent to be matched by professionalism for any venture to succeed: one of the first indicators was when chefs stopped turning up with their food at the promised time. Another time, Prem Koshy was cutting into a carrot cake when he discovered a big eraser at the centre of the cake. When he called the baker, according to him, she said: “Oh! We have been looking for that the entire night – it’s my son’s favourite eraser.”
Once, Koshy’s menu boasted of an intimidating array of 1,200 items, but the staff had to reduce the number of dishes on offer, because the cash machine couldn’t process more than 900 items. One of his greatest moments was when I had several generations of one family sitting at a table and each generation had their favourite item, he said: “The youngest liked our potato smileys, the oldest gentlemen said the roast chicken tasted the same as when he was young, like my grandfather would serve in 1952.”
At present, Koshy’s menu is an eclectic mix. It includes food with roots in the family’s Kerala antecedents, as well dishes like Korean fried fish, kimchi and South African brie inspired by Koshy’s travels around the world. While the roast chicken is arguably the most popular items, others customer favourites include Kerala pork, mixed grill, fish biryani, cutlets, chicken puffs, the ever-popular Sunday breakfast items like apam and stew and of course, potato smileys – french fries shaped like smiling faces. Joshua’s steak is named after Prem Koshy’s son, who likes his steak done the same way each time – with bacon, mushrooms and onions.
“We try and keep the art out of the way,” Prem Koshy said, explaining the restaurant’s culinary style. “We don’t serve food because you need to be seen there and eat it because you ought to be eating it. People come here when they want to get their soul replenished.”
A wrinkle in time
It’s not just the food that keep bringing people back to Koshy’s, though. The restaurant offers a sense of timelessness and permanence in the face of an ever-changing Bangalore, whose name for instance, was changed to Bengaluru in 2014. “In the old days there was glass on the tables and we had cane chairs,” Koshy said. “Now we have formica and foam, but this is all largely as it was, from 1952. It’s our bit of Bangalore that won’t change for many, many people.”
Koshy is an incredible raconteur. In the space of an afternoon, he will tell you about the German couple, friends of his parents, who returned to Koshy’s after 40 years, armed with a photo of the young Prem with their children, and how the two were moved to tears tasting the cold coffee and chicken puff. In the next breath, he is speaking of a ragpicker, who would pay his bills only with coins but insist on eating at Koshy’s. A gentleman named Gundu Rao, who would travel all the way from Malleshwaram to sit for an hour with only a cup of coffee.
Rao, Prem Koshy said, could detect even the slightest variation in the coffee served to him, and would lift a finger if he was not happy about it. The coffee would be replaced at once.
“What makes Koshy’s are its customers,” he said with a sigh. “One Mr Narayan Swamy took out all his drips in hospital, said he was dying and that he would die here, in Koshy’s. He came and he sat and no one could move him out. Fortunately we could locate one relative of his, and they showed up. We said we had to close at 10.30pm. He left and he died an hour later.”