Taking the cake
Riyaaz Amlani is on a unique business path—buying into smaller, individualistic restaurant brands to fund their and his growth
By Anoothi Vishal
The strains of “Happy Birthday” waft out of the airy Bandra apartment even before you ring the doorbell. Inside, Riyaaz Amlani, arguably the most important man in India’s restaurant business, is celebrating his grandmother’s birthday. Surrounding Amlani is his immediate family; on the table sits his two-and-half year old Khayaal along with a huge chocolate cake. It’s a picture of simple domesticity that instantly brings a smile to your face, making you forget the complex business dynamics of the outside world.
The relaxed Sunday notwithstanding, Amlani, right now, is in the midst of what’s going to be the Indian restaurant industry’s most thrilling, high-powered deal ever — if it comes through. Word is out that L Catterton, the world’s largest consumer-focused investment firm is looking to buy a majority stake in Impresario, Amlani’s company. (L Catterton was formed last year after a coming together of American private equity firm Catterton and LVMH’s PE arm, L Capital, and has more than $12 billion in assets globally). An impressive valuation of Rs 600 crore is being considered for Impresario, The Economic Times reported last week, and while Amlani is to continue as a minority partner with a 20-25 per cent stake in his business, the investment fund may look at acquiring as much as 60-75 per cent. “We are still in talks, nothing has been finalised or signed as yet,” Amlani says.
For now, the cake has been cut and eaten. As the birthday celebration winds down, I am led into a study that used to be the child’s nursery for a long tete-a-tete with a man who has come such a long way from starting his business by pooling in Rs 5 lakh each with two other friends.
Even a decade ago, when I had first met Amlani for a similar tete-a-tete, he had been a successful Mumbai restaurant though nowhere as influential as now. Mocha, his chain of cafes with conversation (and hookah) had already taken off, and he was taking his first tentative steps towards more substantial dining.
Smoke House, his restaurant, had just opened in Delhi then with unconventional European-style food the butter chicken capital was not used to. We had gingerly tried a chicken in an “inventive” simla mirch sauce. Amlani had shared his recipe for Maggi-keema that I had thought noteworthy enough to jot down and there had been accounts of his biking trips. The restaurateur had been quite the society biker boy; his luxury bike parked outside the restaurant instantly grabbing the attention of Gen x and y customers.
“They are all gone, now. I have become so domesticated,” Amlani grins but he’s just being understated. As the CEO of Impresario, that operates uber-pop brands such as Social, Smoke House Deli and Mocha, and president of the increasingly proactive lobbying group, the National Restaurant Association of India (NRAI), Amlani clearly has a lot riding on him. “My life has been taken over by whatsapp groups”, he quips. Trying to run his business and aid others run theirs in an increasingly tough environ is a potholed ride. However, there’s a new turn in the road.
Food and fund
Slink and Bardot, in a small fishing village in Worli, where the Koli community still stays and plies its trade, has been one of the quietest restaurant launches in Mumbai this year. It is also the city’s most exciting. A sort of a hidden lounge inside an old home, it evokes an era of mixed cultures. There are prints of flowers and foliage on the walls, a Frida Kahlo meets Pondicherry artiness, mirrors and lamps and vaguely art-deco aesthetic. All come together to give a space of undeniable warmth and charm.
The food is modern French. Small plates only—chicken liver parfait, pork rillettes, glazed parsnip paired with mango, olive oil ice cream on a plate of tomato and mozzarella tarts; all ingredients are locally sourced. There’s no coq au vin, no French onion soup (though that may be nice in winters), no pretence, only a chatty manager in the Canadian Nick Harrison and a competent chef in Alexis Gielbaum.
Gielbaum and Harrison are the perfect team. One looks after the backend and is quiet (the“Slink”in Slink and Bardot), the other, at the front, is effervescent and in your face (“Bardot”)! The two used to run A D Singh’s Le Bistrou Du Parc in Delhi before Singh and his partner in that business Naina de Bois-Juzan exited.
Gielbaum and Harrison wanted to get into business themselves but were on the look for a partner. Enter, Amlani. Slink and Bardot, the result, is a 50:50 venture between Amlani and the duo. While Amlani set the tone and look and feel of the restaurant-lounge (areas he says are his strengths), its day-to-day running and food are his partners’ domain. That’s going to be the blueprint for his next few ventures too.
Even as L Catterton looks to investing in his business, Amlani’s focus in the next 2-3years is going to be not just growing 100 Socials (his most recognisable, mid-market brand. There are 17, pan-India, as of now) but to build and operate a collective of individualistic “mood restaurants”, as he calls them.
“People have great ideas. But if you want to open a restaurant today, half the time goes in liasing with the police, health, municipality. Then, there are mistakes people with less experience make, which can be fatal to their business. I want to give them the benefit of my learnings,” Amlani says. There is a clear division of labour for these collaborations. “Eighty per cent of the processes in any restaurant are the same. We will take care of these. The partners can be free to focus on details and product,” he says.
The next two years are also going to see Impresario make interesting acquisitions. “There are noted brands with just one-two outlets in Mumbai and Delhi. We are looking to invest in them. I am creating a sort of fund for restaurants,” says Amlani.
Present excitement notwithstanding, in the last two years, the investment climate for restaurants, once considered a booming sector, has become gloomier in India. Since exits are difficult, investors are no longer interested. The sector is dogged by ridiculous regulation and lacks infrastructural support. Brands with a potential to grow to even Rs 100 crore businesses are small fry and not interesting to investors. Amlani wants to create a fund for these bands, in turn growing his own company’s value. “We are in talks with two-three brands. There’ll be some acquisitions this year,” he adds.
Considering brands are easy to create but difficult to sustain, a big restaurant company can only focus on 2-3, beyond that you start sacrificing the soul of your restaurant, Amlani feels. Collaborations with chefs and upcoming brands will take care of growth ambitions while partners keep the “soul” intact.
“Mood” restaurants—casual spaces lending themselves to different moods of patrons through the day—are what Amlani is bullish on at the moment. Though the market for eating out has expanded considerably and diners are evolving, fine-dining, or “needy restaurants that demand reverence for their food”, as Amlani puts it at one point in the conversation, don’t have many takers as yet. “That may happen in the future, but today, there are very few chefs like a Vikramjit Roy or Manu Chandra and Manish Mehrotra or Gaggan who can pull it off,” he analyses.
In 2011, Amlani burnt his hand dabbling in this sort of needy gastronomy. Smoke House Room (different from Smoke House) atop Delhi’s Crescent Mall was ahead of its time. It was pretty and pricey, with the likes of chicken pate in Ferrero Rocher wrappers, inside light bulbs! Chef Gresham Fernandes, executive chef for Impresario, had created attention-grabbing degustation menus. The restaurant didn’t work. “Everything was cutting edge. The food, crockery and cutlery, furniture… It was a catherdral to my ego, the restaurant I built for myself,” says Amlani candidly.
He lost Rs 10-12 crore in that project, 7 to build it, 5 to keep it afloat for two years because he just couldn’t bear to shut it. “Then, I realised, why was I trying to jump through hoops for an audience that either didn’t exist or didn’t care,” he adds. Amlani’s other investors in other projects too backed out around the same time but he had to keep going.
From these debris came a lesson that resulted in Social, a brand for millennials. “Social was the opposite of Smoke House Room. We had mismatched crockery, we peeled off layers from design, took out lampshades and plaster, and I decided to see how I can sell anda bhurji!” Amlani’s target was the millennial, self-confident in his Indianness, who didn’t want foreignness, fakeness or frills.
As a part-time shoe salesman with Metro in Mumbai, when he was 15-years-old, Amlani had learnt that products that worked in Colaba didn’t work in Sion. Now, the idea was to build a “location neutral” restaurant to appeal to the maximum number of people. Social does exactly that.
In 1992, during the Bombay riots, Amlani, then in school, came face to face with his attackers. They were boys who used to play cricket with him every day in a wada in Byculla, where he lived. “I knew them well, they knew us and yet they were bent on taking our lives. I saw their eyes and realised that the real anger was not about religion but class,” he recalls.
It is possible to argue that class tensions between the haves and have-nots (or those who perceive themselves as disenfranchised) is driving our Age of Anger, as Pankaj Mishra says in his new book. Whatever it is, restaurants in India increasingly find themselves in the thick of this tension.
Regressive policies aside, the last few months have seen a squeeze from rulings, advisories and policies raining down on the beleaguered industry. Each time something like the highway liquor ban, portion control, the politics of licensing, or high GST rates play up, Amlani, as president of the NRAI, finds himself in the eye of the storm. “I have lobbied and lobbied but frankly am at my wits end,” he says. Part of the problem, we agree, is that restaurants are perceived as a rich man’s pastime rather than an industry and thus become soft targets.
This perception is unfair because restaurants can be so much more—a country’s soft power can be exported through its food culture. Then, there’s the workforce employed by the businesses but beyond that, there’re intangibles. “The ease of using a city’s public spaces, including restaurants, is what contributes to a sense of belonging,” Amlani points out.
Sitting at Slink and Bardot, chatting with strangers, sharing plates, changes us too– makes us part of Mumbai’s larger cosmopolitan soul. If just for an evening.
(The article was originally published in the Economic Times on Sunday)
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.