Cook 'n' serve the world

Kavitha Srinivasa | Updated on March 29, 2012

Mr Giovanni Federico, owner of Mumbai eatery Don Giovanni

Mr R.C. Willson of Tuscana Pizzeria and Greek restaurant Kryptos in Chennai

Meet the expat chefs who left their five-star jobs to set up own restaurants in India.

As the evening progressed, Toscano, an Italian restaurant in Bangalore's upmarket UB City, bustled with activity. Chef and co-owner Jean Michel Jasserand softly instructed his staff before settling down in a corner.

Jasserand represents a breed of expat chefs whose tryst with India began when five-star hotels hired them for their skills and global expertise. But they didn't stop at that. Staying back in India, they decided to be their own boss as they learnt to negotiate with local vendors and morphed into restaurateurs serving global epicurean cuisine.

Along the way, they uncovered more pleasant surprises than they dared to hope for.

“We thought our restaurant might just attract expats. Now 70 per cent of our clients are Indians,” says Jasserand, whose Indian odyssey began in 2002 at The Leela Palace Bangalore. For him, India brought the promise of a new market, culture and people. “Bangalore was opening up. Leela gave me exposure and taught me man management,” he says, describing his four-year stint at the hotel.

He teamed with Goutham Balasubramanian, a former colleague at the hotel, and started Toscano — a trattoria-style restaurant-pizzeria-wine bar — in July 2008. He was all too aware of the challenges in store. “Having your own restaurant means complete hands-on involvement, which makes it different from a hotel chain,” he says.

Leaving the comfort of a steady, five-star hotel job was a risk too for the 40-something Frenchman. “I gave myself two years; if it didn't work, I could always return to a five-star job,” he smiles. Obviously, there was no looking back. He began with an Italian restaurant because of the familiarity enjoyed locally by the cuisine. This year, Toscano will open a third outlet in the city.

Italian cuisine seemingly has a winning way with desi taste buds. Thin-crust pizzas are as acceptable as the wine-and-cheese culture, as also the rice staples such as risottos with their generous sprinkling of herbs and vegetables, all of which have stepped up demand for this cuisine.

“Since the last 20 years, Italian food and its simplicity has practically crept into every corner of the world. With its links with the wonder fat olive oil and people starting to positively change their diets for the better, it looks like this trend is probably going to stay,” reasons Shaun Kenworthy, Kolkata-based chef and restaurant consultant. Following close behind in popularity is the cuisine from the rest of the Mediterranean, thanks to its simplicity, freshness and novelty of spices.

Chef R.C. Willson, or Willi as he's known, knows this better than most, having witnessed it first-hand during his stint at Chennai's The Park Hotel. “I realised there was potential in this city in terms of the different cuisines available, as the options were very few. I wanted to offer Chennai something simple and classic, which people would enjoy,” says Willi. He blends an entrepreneurial streak with doses of talent.

The end result was Tuscana Pizzeria, an award-winning Italian pizzeria, where Chennaites chomp their way through its thin-crust wood fired pizzas, focaccia, pasta and risotto.

As Willi whetted the market, he teamed with service industry veteran Vipin Sachdev and started Kryptos, the Greek Cypriot restaurant offering Mediterranean cuisine. “It's a fusion of foods and flavours. We present a taste of the Greek with a little bit of the East, with kebabs, souvlakis, gyros, aubergines, cheeses and olive oils,” says the New Zealander.

Though the Chennai palate wasn't really accustomed to Greek fare, Kryptos, with its interactive kitchen, has managed to attract a steady stream of diners who try out the cuisine before getting bowled over. As guests soak in the aroma, the chef brings professional etiquette to the platter. He chats with them and creates a comfort zone before throwing open a menu of mezze. The result: once conservative Chennai tastes are eagerly surrendering to the flavours of souvlaki, fasolada and gigandes plaki.

Expat chefs bring relatively new skill-sets to India. Like a delicatessen that retails an eclectic choice of breads, cheeses and cold cuts. Moreover, it's seemingly easier to source ingredients for Italian cuisine. After all, cherry tomatoes, broccoli, garlic, mushrooms and basil have much in common with Indian restaurants too.

Little wonder then that Mumbai-based Chef Giovanni Federico began growing a vegetable garden on the terrace of his Juhu restaurant, Don Giovanni. At 76, Giovanni feels more at home in India than any other place, as he has spent one third of his life here, dishing up Italian meals with passion. The regulars at Don Giovanni cherish the ravioli. It is said that until Chef Giovanni gets the right consistency, a sizeable amount of dough goes into waste. “I just had to make sure that the preparation of the food, especially pasta and risotto, was as per Italian cooking — that is, al dente!,” says the fastidious Italian, who initially managed Little Italy, also in Juhu, before establishing his own eatery. What keeps him ticking is the fact that he is doing what he enjoys most — cooking. Every day he monitors the ingredients and, if necessary, refreshes cooking processes with his staff. “I do lunch at the restaurant; every day there's a different dish to make sure it is as it should be, without Indianising any dish,” he says.

Meanwhile, the tide strongly favours the international standalone restaurant with a business plan for India. “Over the next 10 years, American- and British-Indians will come to India as expats, NRIs and PIO cardholders. Some of them are bound to want to have a shot at opening their own restaurants. This is really in the most premature stage at the moment, but is bound to explode anytime in the near future,” says Kenworthy.

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Published on March 29, 2012
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