That phenomenon called Priyank Sukheja
Anoothi Vishal meets Delhi’s – indeed, India’s– most prolific “secret” restaurateur, Priyank Sukhija, after a gap of 14 years and unravels his journey, plans and business model
He may just be the proverbial elephant in the room. Every one knows of him in Delhi’s restaurateuring circuits, few talk of him.
He is seen partying at his own restaurants in the Page 3 press but never written about “seriously” by the food press. And it is more than likely that you may have gone to his restaurants—after all, he does have about 15 brands in Delhi alone, and more in the making—but you wouldn’t know that they are owned by the same guy; except, of course, if you paid close enough attention to the menu and figured that the reasonably comfortable pastas, burgers and thin-crust pizzas you were chomping on came from the same stable, so to say.
But whether or not you agree with Priyank Sukhija and his way of doing business, you can’t ignore him. I first encountered Sukhija in 2001, as a cub reporter for the Indian Express.
He was then a 21-year- old, setting up RPM at Malcha Marg, above his restaurant Lazeez Affaire that he had started a few years ago with capital borrowed from his lawyer father and recipes from his mother. RPM was one of those first few standalone “evening-out” places in Delhi that offered everyone a chance to sip a drink and perhaps shake a leg— outside the Five-Star fixtures of MKOP, Ghungroo, Ricks and so on.
But it was really Lazeez Affaire and its phirni that had stayed on in my mind, even though I never visited the restaurant again and never met Sukhija, as he began his restaurateuring career, went off into “property”, and came back with a bang about 4 years ago—as the Hauz Khas Village man, where almost any restaurant was/is owned by him.
The Hauz Khas Village phenomenon may be past its sell-by date. It’s an enclave overrun with traffic, wannabe crowds and middlish restaurants. But Sukhija as a phenomenon is still raring to go. Connaught Place is clearly his new district of choice, with not just existing restaurants but at least five-six more to come up this year at least.
When I speak to him, at The Project, the erstwhile Park Baluchi, inside Deer Park, Hauz Khas Village— his newest project, where now a large open bar, natural environs, thumping music, a surprisingly good pumpkin ravioli and comfort pasta and pizza dominate, with a sprinkling of Indian (aside from a couple of old Park Baluchi popular dishes, those like Sukhija’s own recipe for butter chicken, dal makhni and the like have been added)—Sukhija is gung-ho not just about the new venture but of several others that are going to come up “in two weeks” and soon after.
This breathless pace is par for the course, it would seem. If The Project took about 3 months to come up (given its minimal décor), all of Sukhija’s new projects take about 6 months to be whipped into shape. The caveat: He seems to be working on at least 5-6 of them at a go! He could well be a one-man restaurant factory.
In more ways than one, then, Sukhija reminds me of the Bollywood hitmakers of the 1980s. Like David Dhawan or Subhash Ghai and their spate of big-money spinners, Sukhija is strictly catering to the pop space, where he has a huge following, and is doing big numbers, both in terms of the restaurants he makes and revenues.
Yet like those 1980s hitmakers, does he feel a lack of critical acclaim, ever? I ask. Surprisingly candid, Sukhija lays bare his plans, how he does want to focus on critical acclaim now after the mass entertainment (but wants both), and also on the big monies he earns, spends, and how…
Q. You do so many restaurants, but they are really the same format, don’t you think? And why do your menus seem similar?
A. See, I operate in the casual dining space. That is what sells the most in India. And I do like doing global cuisine menus. So, yes, at every restaurant that I do, there tends to be about 30-35 per cent of dishes that are repeated because however much you may try to do other things, you will still want to have those pastas, burgers etc that the customers want.
But you should really see my new restaurant Lutyen’s Cocktail House, opposite Le Meridien. That is a dream project, where we have gone all out. It is modern European cuisine, and we have done the best crockery and cutlery, cocktails with all in-house infused alcohol… Chef Anuj, who worked at Olive, is the chef here and I took him out to all the best places like Le Cirque, Akira Back, Sevilla and at the Palladium Hotel in Mumbai and we have redone some of those kind of dishes. I have also sent him for training at Andre in Singapore (amongst the World’s 50 Best Restaurants in the San Pellegrino sponsored list)…
Q. So there seems to be this move away to more sophisticated formats now?
A. Yes, but we will also continue to do all the other things…In the new specialised segment, are doing a place in CP, with a specialised Pan Asian menu… Sunil is the chef, he is ex-Yauatcha. We are doing a new cocktail-only bar (W by Warehouse), where you will not get any straight drinks. And we are doing a really, really interesting space called Hybrid, next to next week, at Tolstoy Road, which is a café-restaurant-night-club and also is a co-working place.
Q. How will that be different from Social?
A. Oh, it will be very different. In the day time, it will be a co-working space, comfort dining and cheap alcohol. From 8-10, everything will change, the lighting, uniforms of the staff, table-cloths will come on, and it will become an Italian restaurant. And then post 10.30 pm, the DJ will take over with just a small tapas menu.
Q. You have so many brands, did you never want to consolidate and take the existing ones forward?
A. I am a creative guy. I like creating new restaurants. Replicating the same thing does not give me the same high. But we have taken Flying Saucer to Pune, where it is very successful. We will take some others like Boombox and OTB to Pune and Mumbai.
Q. Do you own all your brands? Explain your business model?
A. I started Lazeez Affaire in 1998 with Rs 90 lakh investment borrowed from my father (the average standalone restaurant in those days cost Rs 30-40 lakh, I point out. Sukhija invested a lot in interiors.). After that day, I have not borrowed any money from any one. The company is totally debt free. After One Café Bar in Saket (in 2008), I started taking partners. I socialise a lot and found a lot of people asking me to set up restaurants with them.
My partners invest about 80 per cent of the money, I invest only 20 per cent, but the concept, chefs, execution is all mine.
So I have either a 50:50 stake or the controlling stake in all my ventures and we also sign an MOU, where I own the brand. For instance, Fork You and Fork You 2 don’t have the same owners…
Q. But why would someone want to do this? Invest more and then have you as an equal or bigger partner and give you the brand?
A. Because of my success rate and ROIs. I have an 80 per cent success rate with my restaurants. The only exception is the Zizo people. The chef is so good and I am so convinced about their food that it is the only time I have invested 50 per cent in a new venture I will do with them. We will share the investment and the brand but they paid me $ 100,000 on top of that.
Q. What according to you are the keys to building a successful restaurant
A. 1. Location 2. Understanding of guests 3. Right marketing. 4 And of course the food. If your product is crappy it will tank, like that place in Khan Market… (an Indian restaurant which failed)…
Q. So if you thought it was not a good idea, why did you do it?
A. Just to experiment…because I wanted to do an Indian restaurant in Khan Market.
Q. What kind of marketing do you do? You never seem to get talked about in the media?
A. I never invest in personal PR. But we have possibly the biggest marketing spends in the industry. For this (The Project), we have a budget of Rs 70 lakh that we will finish in 4 months. I just had a party for 1200 people and it was a huge success. We will do 3-4 other such parties. We are also very active on the social media. I myself have a database of 5000 people on my FaceBook, the Project page already has 23,000 likes, these are all people who are not socialites who don’t pay. They are my actual customers.
Q. The one project you are most excited about
A. Lights, Camera, Action. It is a quintessential Bollywood bar in HKV, it will come up in a week, and you just just have to see the interiors!
We walk off to do precisely that…
The bar-crawl through SOBO’s poshest
By Miss Marmalade
Disclaimer: Advance apologies for excessive use of ‘air quotes’. Reader discretion is advised.
Every now and then, one has to prove that one is ‘happily’ single. And to do that, one has to do ‘single’ things. Go to a nightclub and dance till the ankles hurt because one is wearing heels after a year. Get drunk and stare at an ex-boyfriend’s Facebook profile picture and laugh because he now looks older than you, and cry because he is holidaying in Crete and you are stuck with shoddy company. Buy clothes that make you look ‘hotter’ when there’s no chance in hell that you’ll succeed.
See the thing is, being single is a lot of work. You're dealing with bad dates that should end before they begin, good dates that won't go anywhere because you're simply unfortunate, and the worst - mediocre dates because you are inching towards 'fine! I'll settle this time'. Plus, you’re constantly suspecting other singles who want to 'de-single' you. Which is why, the most important thing you can do is take a holiday with another single friend, just so you can leave all the shenanigans of romance behind for a change. I did the last one with absolute joy. Actually I’ve done all of the above, but the last one is the least painful.
My Dilliwali friend – let’s call her DF - needed a break too. She didn’t decide that. I did. So I ‘arm twisted’ her to come to Mumbai with me. “Arrey, we will eat and get fat. Drink and get dirty,” I told her. My sales pitch, no matter how sleazy, worked!
Checking into a posh hotel, complete with an absolutely useless bowl of terrarium in the room – actually I stared at it for a really long time and wondered of its purpose in life – and divine soft towels, we planned our ‘gastronomical’ vacay.
First stop was this lovely little joint in Bandra. In fact it is so little, that eavesdropping is almost customary. No one will frown at you if you overhear your neighbouring table talking about their friend’s bizarre romantic escapades. I love eavesdropping – it makes me feel human. I know so much about so many people that I don’t know, that I could start something called ‘wikipeople’.
DF and I gushed over a raw papaya salad for a while, and only because everything else we ate after that was so ‘meh’ that she and I began talking about another restaurant instead. Apparently, it’s rude. The crispy fried pork is the reason I need dentures. And what’s with people adding capsicum to things all the time? It’s like ‘when in doubt, add capsicum’. And there was no daaru to help us forget that afternoon either. But there was no way we were going to let our holiday be ruined by over-fried food.
Comfortably tucked under our blankets in the hotel room later in the afternoon, we decided to that we could do better than that. And better we did.
Bar hopping is always a solution to emotional problems. And you could be a teetotaller too. Who cares? Just walk into a hip bar, order the quintessential lemon soda because most bars in this country consider the simply syrup to be the key ingredient of a mocktail, and watch people. Also eat. Eat so much that you need to be sent home in a taxi later.
But DF and I had ‘posh’ plans.
Bar #1: An evening in a classy new bar means blow-dried hair and lots of lipstick. DF and I looked rather dapper, even if I say so myself, as we made the bartender change her one cocktail only about three times. They simple wouldn’t get it right. I on the other hand couldn’t decide between a whisky and a Bloody Mary, and therefore I had both. Now I love popcorn - how delightfully plebeian you’d think – and can eat them even when it’s flavoured with exotic spices. But some of the other appetisers were more complicated than my last relationship. Now here’s the thing – I love experimenting with food. But I never did well at chemistry. And when it comes to art, I prefer stories, not abstract ‘colour blocking on canvas’ that sells for millions. But a lot of the food, while it tasted good – good textures, flavours, and even portioned right – went wayyyy over my head when it came to the complexity of the presentation. Probably because I was a little too tipsy to notice the little nuances, and we really had to get to the next bar.
Bar #2: Here, my dear friends, ‘haleem’ was on the menu. Now, unless you absolutely trust the haleem maker, you must never eat it after midnight. It’s not written anywhere, but someone ought to. That haleem was the worst I have ever had. And not because it was bad, but because it tasted of, guess what, NOTHING. My cocktail was equally blah, for the lack of a more appropriate term. So I let both of them ‘age’ on the table. DF and another friend, who’d joined us by then, were much nicer to their drinks. The three of us then tottered out in the lovely rainy night of Mumbai – never wear a white dress when it’s raining – because Sia sang Never Give Up. It goes something like this: “But I won't never give up, no, never give up, no, no. No, I won't never give up, no, never give up, no, no.” You get the drift right?
Bar #3: WHY? Why would you have a cocktail menu where the drinks have more description under their names than one can read? And why would these cocktails taste like a bad film where the lead actors should have never been paired together? Something like a Kareena Kapoor-Akshay Kumar flick. This is when selfies come to the rescue. Take enough photos of yourself so that the trauma of having to drink something more complex than the Cold War is alleviated.
Tottering outside at a godforsaken hour, we went back to our hotel room, feeling so delightfully single.
We also switched to diet soda the following day, and ate a cheese platter and stir-fried crabs – like posh people – at a lovely restaurant at one of Mumbai’s suburban business districts. That’s when DF and I realised that many restaurants don’t want you to pay for what you eat. We tried all sorts of gestures – except the obvious one – to ask for the bill. But no, these blokes were completely unwilling to oblige. Ideally, I would have walked off, but we aren’t in college anymore. Why is the service industry in this country as efficient as our country’s civic workers?
We also decided not to eat like that again. I don’t know about DF but my whole enthusiasm towards “let’s eat and get fat” had gone a bit far. And now I am munching on carrots and celery sticks and wondering what to wear to rather weird date tonight. More on that later…
(Single and ready to mingle in restaurants, Miss Marmalade, our new humour columnist, is highly discerning when it comes to both food and people)
In which Miss Marmalade makes toast of a youthful breakfast/pub/who cares place
By Miss Marmalade
There are a few places in town one should not even think of going to after one has crossed 30. I only wish that this thought had come to me before, and not after, I was already at a place that I should not have thought of going to, now that I am way on the wrong side of 30. This sentence ought to confuse you as much as it confused me when I wrote it. If it hasn’t, you have achieved inner peace. Congratulations.
Now ideally it would require a cranelift to get me out of the house on a Sunday. I keep the day for my domestic chores, and they are sacrosanct. For instance, not making the bed; ordering in coffee when it takes me only five minutes or so to make a mug; watering both my disgruntled plants and going back to bed; skipping breakfast; ordering lunch; binge-watching murder related things on the internet. I don’t always do these alone; there’s always another equally committed soul around to share these tasks.
But last Sunday was different. Firstly because I was going to check out a place everyone was talking about – mostly for its ambience – and secondly, I had made the plan four days earlier, and was threatened of dire consequences if I cancelled. Some of you might know how that feels. This joint’s other brothers exude a cool and funky vibe. And I wanted to be cool. The drinks are mostly rubbish, and the food makes little sense to me. Except for their cheese chilli toast. But it’s a place where you can hang out at without having to worry about your clothes. Plus the beer is cheap, and I have cheap friends.
So there I was, with my ultra-intelligent and ultra-single friend at this seriously pretty restaurant. Or is a café? Or a pub? Oh, who gives a damn. It was eleven in the morning, which typically would still be Saturday night for me. But I had promised. I also realised that once in a while one has to be mature enough to make exceptions. Plus the thought of bacon, scrambled eggs, crisp toast (I am quite allergic to gluten) with jam, and other delicious and forbidden things were as tempting as Tom Hiddleston. I got to the restaraurant/café/pub (GAH!) as fast as my Uber perennially-on-the-phone-driver could take me.
Dear chef, revenge is a dish best served cold. Not breakfast. Unless I order yoghurt with various exotic fruits and berries and seeds, or cereal with cold milk, or something similar.
Toast cannot be cold.
Scrambled eggs cannot be served at room temperature.
Bacon cannot be cold. Most definitely not. No way Jose!
But you chose the one day I lugged myself out of the house to remind me that I had reached my threshold for BS five years ago. And I truly am way on the wrong side of 32. They didn’t warn you about us at culinary school, did they?
Having said that, I have to give it to them for making hash browns the way I like it, because I don’t like hash browns. And the baked beans came out of a tin (hurrah!), and the scrambled eggs hadn’t yet begun to turn rubbery because the eggs were feeling a little slow that day, and probably also because bacon said: “Hey, it’s my turn to taste like cardboard today!”
The toast looked toasted, but tasted like it was done the previous afternoon. And they forgot the butter, and when they eventually did remember (after I reminded them twice), they gave the butter and jam in the same little dipping bowl. Together.
“This is a place for the youngsters. They don’t care if a tiny drop of jam touches the butter. Don’t be a punctilious b****,” my other self kept reminding me. My friend was blissfully unaware of this ‘breakfast’ that was sitting on the table. He’s the kind you can talk to about politics and art for hours – and I don’t know much about either. This was the only time the chewy bacon came handy. Stuff your face with it and no one cares to know about your political affiliations. He was sipping on cappuccino that, and I kid you not, comes in a goblet like thing whose handle is literally near the base. “The centre of gravity of this thing is all wrong,” he says to me. But I was in no position to respond. My mouth was stuffed with bacon that I had already been chewing for the last hour.
We managed to stay there for an hour and a half – chewy bacon, smoke breaks, waiting for that darn butter for the toast – and got out. I needed a seriously calorific chocolate éclair later from a place near my house to recover from the trauma.
(Single and ready to mingle in restaurants, Miss Marmalade, our humour columnist, is highly discerning when it comes to food and people)
In a no holds barred piece, chef Floyd Cardoz tells us where to find the best Indian food in the US; and why he thinks restaurant in the “West” generally do a better job than Indian restaurants in India!
By Floyd Cardoz
When I moved to the US in 1988, the only good Indian food you could eat out was the dosa. I didn’t see any of the Maharashtrian or Goan Catholic food I had grown up on. It’s ironic that over the years the expression of Indian food in NYC only became all the more bastardised. It was the same saag paneer and chicken tikka masala, and theone-pot curries that were being adapted to fit many dishes. And that practice continues even today.
It’s probably one of the reasons why I never wanted to start an Indian restaurant back then.
There were a few exceptions though. The erstwhile Raga by The Taj group, at Rockerfeller Centre had incredible food, for instance. It’s not that the chefs and cooks who came to work in the US in the first place didn’t know anything about Indian food – they were knowledgeable - but replacing them was arduous. And then immigrants, who were primarily famers and truck drivers started to work at the restaurants. Most of them had never cooked before, and the game of Chinese Whispers with recipes began. That led to guests who had practically no clue about about good Indian food. A wide gap developed between those who loved the cuisine, and those who didn’t. And therefore were probably more haters.
In 1997, Danny (Meyer) asked me to join hands with him to open the Indian restaurantTabla. It was an opportunity for me to introduce a new perspective to the cuisine, and to familiarize people with the flavours of India – one that was not really Indian per se, but had an Indian soul. We began to give Americans the food they hadn’t eaten before - Patrani Machhi for instance - and not the 6th Street (also known as Little India) versions. And these dishes were presented in a way Americans could connect with. We sourced local ingredients, and not ingredients only from India.
In fact, what I am doing today is sourcing farmers in the United States who are willing to grown Indian ingredients in the seasons they are supposed to be grown in the US – squashes and greens for example.
When Tabla closed in 2011, I thought someone would take over the work I had started and continue to cook food that was user friendly, but nothing happened. Smaller places came and went, and we reached status quo. Indian food went back to its good old place, and no one was willing to take a chance. But the most interesting part is that American chefs were all the while travelling to India to explore our amazing cuisine.
Americans are adventurous, and they are willing to try. Of course there are still those who go back for the curry and kebab, but a lot of them are now eating new dishes not seen in the West - fish reachado, sorpotol, pao and choriz for instance – things they’ve never seen anywhere else.
To me, modern Indian food (and I use the term loosely) is all about looking at food differently. Really old recipes that you pull out, ones that people haven’t really seen, and execute it with ingredients from that region, and serve it in a non-traditional way. For instance, you should be able to eat multiple small plates, such as a pakoda, balchao, and kebab, so that you can try more dishes. Traditional Indian food was not like that in the US – it was all about big dishes.
There are quite a few chefs here that are doing a good job with the cuisine today. There’s Vishwesh Bhatt of Snackbar at Oxford, Mississippi; Anita Jaisinghani of Pondicheri in New York, Asha Gomez (owner of Spice to Table, and Third Space) from Atlanta, and Srijith Gopinathan at Taj Campton Place, and Vikram Vij in Vancouver – all these guys are doing great things with Indian food.
Now if you look at Indian food back in India – I find that the chefs in the West do a much better job. There are of course a few chefs here who are doing good work too. They bring the knowledge and passion on to the table – something that’s extremely important. But restaurants in the West believe food should first speak to the soul of the guest, instead of trying to shock them. Very few chefs in India get the fact that it’s important to consider all the important elements in a dish. Chefs in the US are much better at balancing all the right flavours.
Restaurants in India use a lot of smoke and mirrors; it’s almost Bollywood-isation of the cuisine. But chefs who are successful connect with the soul, and it takes a lot for them to break down the barriers and say, “I have the guts to do things differently because I believe in them”. That’s what we wanted to do with Bombay Canteen in Mumbai. Our vision was simple; serve food we had grown up on, and source local ingredients. That’s what makes restaurants special.
Over time Americans have come to understand that Indian food is not just about flavour but also about health benefits. Take the turmeric drink for instance; it’s quite the rage here.My journey in this business has been a big learning curve. Today I am unafraid to present what I want to, and I don’t have to explain myself to anyone.
And to get there, passion is key, at least nine out of 10 times. You just have to cook from a place within your soul.
Floyd Cardoz, the celebrated Indian-American Chef, is the Culinary Director and Partner at The Bombay Canteen, Bombay. He is also Chef –Owner of the recently opened modern Indian restaurant ‘Paowalla’, in NYC. Winner of Top Chef Masters Season 3 in 2012, Floyd is also the author of two cookbooks, One Spice Two Spice and Flavorwalla. A four-time James Beard Award nominee,Floyd regularly works with Share our Strength, City Harvest, C-CAP: Careers through Culinary Arts Program, and Young Scientists Foundation.