Although Indians pride themselves on being excellent hosts and a table groaning with a home-cooked meal is a sign of hospitality, times are changing. With nuclear families, double-income-no-kids (DINKS), Westernisation of habits and palates, the Indian restaurant business is booming like never before. Chefs are the new celebrities and restaurant owners are mini stars in their own right.
Given this scenario, Secret Sauce, co-authored by Priya Bala and Jayanth Narayan, offers a compelling and interesting read on exactly how some of these household names became the kind of legends they are today. Restaurants are very much a part of the fabric of the socio-cultural landscape of the country. Some of the ones featured in this book are household names not only in their respective cities but across the country.
They evoke strong emotions across generations as seminal moments such as a first date to a graduation party or other such landmark events are routinely celebrated at these places.
What makes the book absorbing is the clever mix of stories and personalities the authors have curated. Not sticking to only one region or genre (new-age whiz kids or only the old and established brands) makes each chapter unique and each journey distinctly different.
The book criss-crosses the length and breadth of India from Chennai to Chandni Chowk and Chowringhee Lane to Colaba.Famous names such as Koshy’s and MTR in Bengaluru to Flurys, Peter Cat and Mocambo in Kolkata are represented in this book whilst the stories of Mumbai’s Britannia Cafe and Leopold (having survived the 26/11 terror attack) make for interesting read.
Additionally, it showcases many dishes that have become part of our vocabulary. The authors throw light on popular creations, like the Chicken Manchurian born in Nelson Wangs, China Garden and Chennai’s Chicken 65 that was created at Buhari, another restaurant featured in the book.
The trials and tribulations of Adyar Ananda Bhavan’s founder, K. Thirupati Raja for example, who ran away from his home in 1938, at the age of 10, to escape the humble sweet-maker who according to this story “clawed his way up in life, often coming precariously close to being broken by the sharp vicissitudes of fortune, before he could establish a business that began to yield returns and assure him a settled life” is a fascinating journey from a single sweet stall to 100 odd outlets.
Today, the brand boasts of revenues of around `600 crore and the tale lays bare the necessary ingredients that go into becoming a successful restauranteur hard work, perseverance and passion for the craft.
The book steers clear of the five star restaurants and focusses on entrepreneurs instead. The only two hotel restaurants to be featured are ITC’s Bukhara and Taj’s Karavalli in Bengaluru where chef Naren Thimmiah has steered the ship for almost 25 years using the same recipes and traditions and refusing to tweak classics, unlike others who feel compelled to modernise to be relevant.
Oscillating between old-timers and young Turks breaks the monotony that might have set in when chronicling the lives of 40 restauranteurs who all basically do the same thing for a living.
The book dwells on another integral part of the business finance. It throws light on how times have changed, with new-age restauranteurs relying on private equity firms for expansion and valuations from the financial markets versus the older generations who relied on straightforward bank loans, money lenders and the pawning of family jewellery to set shop.
Amongst the new breed of restauranteurs, we find a pronounced difference in approach. Here, it is a business as much as a passion with a well-planned marketing and financial strategy in place unlike the old-timers who often just lived and dreamt of food without much understanding of branding and financial elements.
A marked change from the old guard such as Paragon Kerala’s largest restaurant where owner, Sumesh Govind, avers, “I will not take PE funds and hand over control or grow at a pace I am not comfortable with.”
But the business-like approach is clearly visible in the chapter on Hard Rock and Shiro brands where two businessmen an investment banker Jay Singh and Sanjay Mahtani teamed up to start a company, JSM Corporation, to launch the Hard Rock Cafe brand to India. To bring good food and drinks together in an informal atmosphere was their USP and the brand huge success.
Their speedy expansion was, courtesy funding from private equity much like Riyaaz Amlani of Impresario whose iconic Social is set to grow from 15 outlets to a 100 by 2022 with an additional round of fundraising after already having mopped up a substantial amount in previous rounds.
These examples clearly show the reader how dramatically the restaurant business has changed in this country and just how the younger breed of businessmen are viewing the industry as a pure commercial venture.
The mixed background of the authors Jayanth Narayanan, an engineer from BITS Pilani and an MBA holder from XLRI and a restauranteur from Bengaluru, combined with the journalistic skills of lifestyle and food writer Priya Bala helps balance the technical aspect from the pure food related narrative.
Whilst the stories of grit and disappointment of these dynamic entrepreneurs offer a unique insight into what it takes to succeed in this fickle and highly competitive industry, the authors haven’t devoted too much space to the cuisine and style of cooking that each of these restaurants specialises in. Perhaps this was deliberate so as not to dilute from the essence of the book, which is the story of the restauranteur and his brand. Although personally, I might have enjoyed each chapter just that little bit more a few more nuggets of information, maybe some interesting trivia on the food.
Yet, all said and done, Secret Sauce is a must read for aspiring restauranteurs, foodies and those who enjoy reading profiles of successful entrepreneurs.
Fareeda Kanga is a senior lifestyle and features journalist with a special interest in culinary and travel writing...