After an hour-long interview with veteran chef and restaurateur, Rahul Akerkar, I found out that the only thing common between us was the fact that we’re both night owls. Of course, it seems amateur to compare with the man behind the legendary restaurant—Indigo. I’ll be honest, interviewing Chef Akerkar was nothing less than a “celebrity interview.”
On a Wednesday afternoon, I rushed to his newest restaurant—Ode—in Worli. I was 15 minutes early and saw Chef Akerkar enter right before us. He greeted me with a smile and said, “Ah, yes. Let me introduce you to my team.” I gave a familiar smile to Head Chef Ash Moghe, with whom I had chatted from the time I visited Ode in December.
Almost a month in, Ode was fairly packed for a late weekday afternoon. Chef Akerkar excused himself to grab a quick lunch. I noticed how friendly he was with the staff. Before he sat down for lunch, his first stop after discussing details with Chef Moghe was the live kitchen that runs parallel to the dining space at Ode. His keen eye kept inspecting the kitchen, ensuring everything was up to the mark.
As I sat down for the interview, I noticed a framed photograph on the wall, right above where Chef Akerkar sat. It was a monochrome picture of Chowpatty by photographer, Sunhil Sippy. The photograph was quintessentially Mumbai and breathtaking. What better spot for a man who started this restaurant as a love letter to Mumbai?
The key to staying relevant
Chef Akerkar was approachable and at ease but also austere in his appearance. So how does a chef who come up with one of India’s first fine-dining European restaurants stay relevant even after 40 years in the industry? “Quite frankly,” says Chef Akerkar after thinking about our question for a few minutes, “I don’t have an answer.”
He admits that as someone in his 60s, he questions this all the time and it’s always there at the back of his mind. “The big question is, ‘Am I still in touch with the way the younger people or others eat?’ and I don’t have an answer for that. Maybe I’ve just been lucky.”
While luck could be one of the factors responsible for his success, his knowledge of food and sheer passion for cooking even after all these years, shines through. “I also listen to what my daughters tell me I should be doing,” he chuckles.
Going back to the question of staying relevant, Chef Akerkar repeats that it’s an important one because “people don’t eat the way they ate in the 90s.” Upon probing, he further explains, “When we started Indigo, it was a protein, starch and a vegetable on the plate with the sauce. That was the basic construct. Today, it’s more,” he says. “People properly dined back then. You know, the first course, the second and then dessert. Today, people don’t dine anymore. You order a bunch of plates and you’re sharing food. I think it also has to do with how we interact with the world where everything is in these finite bites of information or even food. It’s a bit random and by that I mean not as structured as it used to be. I think plates today are much more individually ingredient-driven.”
Decoding Indigo’s rise to fame
After creating a legacy like Indigo, we wondered whether any restaurant could come up with a concept that could shake the Indian culinary industry and who would be a better person than the man behind such an establishment. “I don’t think anything now can be that radically different,” he admits. “I think the industry is now changing in increments. When I first started Indigo [in 1999], it was a quantum leap forward.” However, he clears out how this was a quantum leap just for India because people in the West, “had already gone through their growth in the 1970s to 90s.” He says he simply brought the approach of the west to the restaurant business in India.
One of the reasons behind Indigo’s fame is the first-mover advantage. “It was the right place and right time. It had all the ingredients of what makes a restaurant good.”
I had many follow-up questions to everything he said. Perhaps I wanted more examples or perhaps I wanted a glimpse into this veteran chef’s train of thought. He gladly, and ever so eagerly, obliged. So what are the elements of a good restaurant according to Chef Akerkar? Good food, attention to detail, fresh ingredients and warm hospitality. His response was immediate as this was something recited daily. “You know,” he starts, “it [Indigo] was a restaurant that was system-driven—it wasn’t like the owner sitting at the gala, counting the kamai of the day. It was a professionally-run restaurant.”
The evolution of the restaurant game
While talking about Indigo, I couldn’t help but share our experience with the chef. “I was in school and my foodie parents always tried out new restaurants and watched out for recommendations in magazines and newspapers for places to go. I visited Indigo along with them, and after a couple of years, dad read about Neel. Our incentive to try it out was your name was attached to it,” I said with a grin and Chef Akerkar mirrored that, ever so subtly.
When I told him that my parents were now apprehensive about trying a new place, he was quick to question to know the reason. And I explained, “There are so many influencers posting reels that my parents feel they don’t know what to believe, which review is authentic.”
Chef Akerkar nodded, taking some time before responding, “I think the problem is that there was a period where everyone was rehashing the same things. You know, it was truffle fries, edamame dumplings and the same stuff. The industry was growing too rapidly and I think there were a lot of cooks and people with little experience who took on the mantle of head chef. They got their experience from YouTube rather than understanding what the food is about and understanding the flavour, context and texture,” he says.
“YouTube chefs,” he calls them. “People were doing stuff without actually knowing it so you had a lot of mediocrity,” he adds. He feels that this has changed post-COVID because “Everybody has become a baker, cooking and doing stuff at home. They also watched a lot of TV including MasterChef and other food shows and I think it gave people time to reflect on what good cooking is all about. So now you see restaurants making sort of good-sized jumps forward.”
The key to tapping into emotions via food
“If you go somewhere to eat, the food is as. It’s a story by the chef but you don’t need to understand the story behind it to enjoy the food but you can certainly use that as an extra dimension to your meal.” When it comes to Ode, the extra dimension would be knowing the mixed parentage and heritages of Chef Akerkar and seeing that in the food. But beyond the food, he feels that there are other external factors also that help in hitting the right chord with the diners. “It has to be cooked well, the ingredients need to be fresh, the service has to work, the space has to be conducive to eating, relaxing and entertaining; but not necessary for the story to be understood.”
The veteran chef quickly whips up a Latin phrase, “De gustibus non disputandum est” which roughly translates to “you can’t dispute taste.”
Food is subjective, and even Chef Akerkar agrees. Food revolves around the concept of nostalgia and it usually triggers a memory from the past. He understands that a particular dish might not be liked by all. “Having strong likes and dislikes is fine,” he says. “I would rather somebody tell me point blank ‘I don’t like this’ and that is okay. I’ll try to understand why and give you something that you do like because you are clear about what your likes and dislikes are and can communicate that.” This statement immediately reminded us of the last scene of the 2022 horror/comedy film, The Menu, where Ralph Fiennes’ character of the chef makes a classic cheeseburger for Anna Taylor-Joy’s character who specially asks for a burger with her preferences.
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But Chef Akerkar’s food at Ode evoked a nostalgic emotion for us. When I went for a tasting last month, their burnt cucumber with kiwi salsa and peanut thecha instantly reminded me of the dry peanut chutney I grew up eating at home.
The art of detachment
In the last four decades, Chef Akerkar has had many projects and restaurants under his belt and several have since shuttered. And just like any relationship, we imagine a sense of attachment with each restaurant. I wondered how a serial restaurateur detaches himself after the closing of their restaurant and start a new one. “There’s a difference in cuisine, the level of restaurant such as fine dining, casual or anything else, there’s a difference in the style of operation and service,” he explains. “So, the only thing constant,” he adds, “is my approach to the restaurant.”
The ultimate goal he strives to achieve, irrespective of the type or cuisine of a restaurant is people coming to him and saying they had a good time and a great meal. “I don’t take myself seriously, I take what I do seriously,” he says. “So I ensure that my staff has a good time because I still want to have fun and I live for fun.”
Dreaming up new restaurants
Through the course of the conversation, it’s evident that Chef Akerkar has seen it all and despite his wealth of experience has his head on his shoulders. Despite being known for his European cooking, he questions why culinary schools in India teach students about wine and French food. “Why doesn’t the IIHM [Indian Institute of Hotel Management] in Mumbai not specialise in nuanced Maharashtrian food?” he asks.
I chat some more with him, asking him about what he likes to eat, and he promptly says eggs. “I’m a big big egg person. I love eggs,” he quips. But, he says he doesn’t shy away from street food either. “My favourite is chaat. There was a guy on my road whose father used to stand and then his son took over. I grew up eating sev puri and bhel puri there.”
Finally, I ask him who inspires him to cook as passionately as he does and he responds, “It has to be Michael Romano.” Romano was the chef at Union Square Café in New York where Chef Akerkar also worked and thus knew him for many years. “The way he approached his cooking, his restaurant and his people management was all just fantastic! He’s very serious about what he did but never took himself seriously and was an intense practitioner of his craft.” He also adds that his 93-year-old mother’s love for life inspires him, “especially how she leads a more busy social life than I do.”
Chef Akerkar also revealed that him and his team are in the process of starting two new restaurants this year. Over the next few years, he aims to open multiple outlets of the same brand. “I’d like to open and own restaurants in a couple of other places in the country and at some point, I think I’ll put my feet up a little bit,” he concludes.