#DSSCPowerPackers is back! Every year we peek through Stevie’s monocle to curate our selection of the top of the pops folks in the Delhi culinary milieu. With many a scratch-outs, surprise additions, and ink stains on our hands, the annual list is prepared with much care and scrutiny. Those who made it – thank you for the acceptance speeches, those who didn’t – don’t lose heart, our monocle is ever-observant and if you keep working at it you may just find yourself to be our Power Packers 2017 Edition.
You’ve met the first set of DSSC hand-picked Power Packers – a group of men who’ve revolutionised F&B with never-before-seen concepts and don’t shy away from breaking barriers in the industry. Here we continue with Part II of DSSC Power Packers Men’s Edition 2016.
Vaibhav Singh made Delhi sit up and take notice with a first of its kind bar in the country- Perch Wine & Coffee Bar. “It was a sheer requirement,” he says about the genesis of Perch, “somewhere in this country we weren’t giving an interesting subject like coffee the attention it deserved, it was just another hot beverage. Its nuances were not being offered to the consumers, so we got a little geeky there and decided to introduce people to the subtleties of coffee.” Talking about the other half of this bar, this jazz enthusiast adds, “At the same time wine was intimidating to most people, the idea was to make it more accessible and not restricted to fine dining places or five star hotels.”
With a stellar body of work behind him, we ask why he maintains a low profile despite being in a paradoxical flamboyant business, “I still think of myself as a bartender or a waiter, I’ve been lucky to reach here by myself while most people in F&B are launched with the help of a support system and capital backing. Being approachable & personal in hospitality is essential to me – perhaps a handicap as I don’t see myself running an empire!” With almost 17 years in the industry, the dapper Power Packer tells us about his journey so far, “The industry has evolved tremendously, the patrons travel & read a lot more, hence are more aware and open to experimentation. The spending patterns have also changed, with people willing to pay specially for food experiences.”
He offers a new take on the recent wary-of-social-media-reviews wave, “The fault lies with the restaurant if someone gives them a bad review, if a guest visits us it’s our duty to take feedback & improve, and close the cycle at the point where the customer was unhappy. If someone leaves with a bitter experience, they’re bound to talk about it.” As for the consumers, he urges them to, “Go out for what cuisines & drinks you enjoy and not simply because XYZ is an ‘It’ place.”
As always, we shoot the trademark DSSC rapid fire at our Power Packers before they fly away to save the world with more top tipples & bites:
Q. Your go-to tipple?
A. I’m yet to start drinking, never done it all my life! Though I’ve tried alcohol and love whiskeys, someday I shall start.
Q. If not working in the F&B industry, what would you be doing?
A. Probably movie or TV production.
Q. Last day on earth- wine or coffee, what would be your last drink?
A. Coffee Sangria!
Q. One current food trend that you believe is overrated?
A. The so-called interpretation of modern Indian food. We’re a bit too late & trying too hard.
Arjun Sagar Gupta
Adding music to our lives is Arjun Sagar Gupta, the man behind Piano Man Jazz Club– who single handedly waged war on Delhi’s audience culture – and won, might we add! With the club successfully enthusing an art performance-centric culture in the city, his restaurant & bakery- the Dirty Apron and Cake Away, he’s certainly had a lot on his plate. Sharing the incredible feeling of months of hard work culminating in a restaurant opening, he says, “After the Jazz club opened last year, I remember how after the opening night I wanted some time to myself, so I requested my father’s driver for his bike to drive home alone and he took my car. At 4 am, I must’ve been a funny sight in my three-piece suit on an Activa, smoking a cigar, driving home!”
When you put your heart & soul into something like that, it’s gratifying when, “Someone walks up to you every night and says, “Thank you, we needed this”, all the endless hours of work, stress, dealing with crap and struggle make sense.” Talking about the turnaround in audience culture, he tells us that it’s been surprisingly super! “A lot of musicians tell us they have started expecting similar respect at other venues, which is amazing!” But as with any journey, there are downs as there are ups, speaking about the challenges he’s faced as a restaurateur he says, “Convoluted laws & regulations and dealing with people with archaic mindsets is a rough sea to navigate through. Though I’ve met some splendid souls along the way, who have my back for however long, the flip side is finding the right people at all levels of the organisation, who take pride in their work and want to do it right.” Unwavering in his passion for the jazz club, Arjun is known to stop service during performances, and the patrons have taken to it rather kindly he says, “Yes, some people used to get pissed off and leave, but it’s okay. This is one major tool for re-sensitisation and filtering out the audience. It’s also, genuinely, the most beautiful part of the night. The artists and the people who get it absolutely love it!” With that tune set on the capital’s lips, he promises to get the city just as close to Dirty Apron and Cake Away in the coming year.
Q. Your favourite band?
A. You can’t ask me this, there are too many! But my favorite musician is Art Tatum.
Q. Your favourite restaurant in the city, other than Dirty Apron?
A. I barely go out anymore, but its cuisine related. Desi- Have More, Karims, Swagath. Phoreign- Kylin Premier.
Q. And the favourite bar in the city, other than the Jazz Club?
Q. One word of advice for those looking to set foot in the F&B business?
A. Tread light, start small and focus on your product instead of trying to appeal to everyone. Location and cost control are always the critical functions, I’m still learning how to get those right!
Killing it with kitsch, Chef Pujan Sarkar has completely changed the cocktail culture in Delhi with Ek Bar, “Though European and Asian cuisines have taken the food scene by storm, for me, at the end of the day I can’t stay away from my mother cuisine for long. I grew up seeing my mother whip up some amazing recipes, that along with my passion for Indian fare and the culinary techniques I learnt from across the world gave way to a contemporary regional modern Indian bar.”
The concept of an artisanal bar serving seasonal cocktails didn’t come easy, “We researched and travelled all over India for about a year to get to know various ingredients and come up with cocktails,” he says. For Pujan it’s all about food sans fuss, “Ingredient is the star. Fancy plating is good, but ultimately it is about the taste, which should be amazing even if someone bites in with their eyes closed.” As he makes all his syrups, shrubs & mixes from scratch and stays miles away from readymade-mixes, this refreshingly humble chef tells us how he channels passion in the competitive industry, “I believe I’m an artist and it’s essential to translate my passion into my food and drinks. However, if I want to revolutionise F&B simply my passion won’t get me far, I need to understand my customer’s needs too and reach a fair mid point between the two. Part passionate chef and part good businessman is my go-to concoction.”
Q. One current food trend you wish would die already?
A. Gimmicky dishes and drinks.
Q. What’s the one aspect of this industry that you love?
A. I can work in my bar & kitchen all day, my wife never bothers me! I’m blessed to do what I love for a living.
Q. Last day on earth-one restaurant you’ll visit?
A. Cafe Bahar in Hyderabad, for their Biryani.
This private gent who prefers to keep things to himself talks about how he’s been quietly causing a culinary storm in Delhi by monkeying around with his smashing ventures, The Fatty Bao and Monkey Bar. “Our team tries to find a happy mix of food trends and consumer wants to ensure viability. We take care to create a product mix of our strengths, each city’s requirements, and the feasibility & longevity of a concept,” he says about the magic mix that makes his F&B escapades what they are.
This gent who could live off cheese and chips believes there is no set formula to running a successful restaurant or bar since the nature of this business is completely dynamic and unpredictable. Having worked with the crème de la crème hospitality brands across the world, this Liverpool fan feels budding food-preneurs should sift out the outside glamour of the industry and build a solid concept whose foundation is built on the tenets of sustainability, right pricing and a stellar core team to help drive it forward. Whilst his team have been turning the industry on its head by marrying innovation with commercial success, he worries about the herd mentality in the capital and encourages diners to be more experimental and adventurous.
While the industry continues to be synonymous with exuberance and loves to make noise, this Cordon-Bleu graduate prefers to be on the reserved side of things, “I let my work do that talking, while not social media savvy I am pretty transparent. In this high-spirited business maybe there is scope for a shy person – I suppose it gives me a certain edge!” The city’s definitely loving this edge and eagerly looking for him to get Toast & Tonic to Delhi as he promises!
Q. Last day on earth – what’s the one restaurant you’d visit?
A. Bourke Street Bakery in Sydney.
Q. Your go-to tipple?
A. Gin & tonic.
Q. One ingredient you wish you could use in everything?
A. Lime for beverages and my soy sauce obsession for food.
Leaving a settled life in Australia to pursue his passion of becoming a food entrepreneur, Bal came to India in 2012 with a well-defined vision, “The timing for a cafe like Di Ghent was just right in terms of economy, food industry experimenting more, and the need for a cultural, community connect in the city”. Unlike the usual pomp and show, he’s taken a rather unhurried approach to expanding his cafe and delivery service, InnerChef, “It was a humbler concept, without the glamour factor, but I believe a business model should be adaptive and innovative to stand the test of time. Also, I saw a lot of people entering F&B for the wrong reasons, and 90% of startups failing; add to that working in India for the first time – I wanted to take my time and figure out the right way forward.”
From working with a service apartments company, Quest Apartments, down under and entering Delhi’s food scene with zero experience in the field, he’s come a long way, “I wanted to create an edgy and minimalistic environment, harnessing the space energy concept which emits a positivity. So once you close the doors, there’s a sense of calm and the vibe of being at a quaint place in Europe. It was important to me to not have a crowded cafe, as that makes it impossible to create an experience for the consumer- which is why I choose our current location.” With this offbeat cafe serving some ace coffee & breakfasts, we can’t wait for him to surprise us with his next project, “Something related to food+design. These are the two things that we don’t take out time to cherish in India. I being a rebel at heart cannot do the average stuff and seek fresh concepts, inculcating design with food will help us express our individuality in a novel way.” The man may have only touched base four years back, but he knows how to tap into Delhi’s soul!
Q. Favourite comfort food?
A. A well made vegetarian burger.
Q. Your top three food destinations?
A. Netherlands, Melbourne, and New York.
Q. What’s your favourite thing on the Di Ghent menu?
A. Belfort pasta.
Q. Your favourite type of coffee?
A. Di Lorenzo, it’s an Australian-Italian blend.
Growing up across Hong Kong, Canada, and London Vidur had always been surrounded by great food, which in turn influenced him to enter F&B and change the rules of the game one venture at a time. Along with gourmet adventures, it’s football, squash, and tennis that keeps this food & sports enthusiast going. Starting off with Circa 1193 in 2009, he’s since then built a legion of pop-ups in the city, coupled with his restaurant Tanddav. Not one to fret over the business side of things, he works really instinctively. “In the two years of our pop-ups I haven’t looked at the numbers even once. I prefer to create a personal experience and put my stamp on whatever I do, working with the boutique model, I don’t aspire to have a chain of restaurants ever.”
Being in this space for eight years, he tells us how it’s grown over the years, “The chef-centric culture is beginning to take stage now, which is great; social media has helped create a lot of hype around restaurants and that helps but at the same time it has people with inadequate experience critiquing the nuances of food that they most likely don’t even understand.” That being said, “The people have become more experimental, however the business are still quite fragmented and territorial. Though the industry is evolving, it’s at a rate slower than what I’d like.” Speaking of his latest outing, “Tanddav is the first menu that I’ve completely planned solo. Shiv, who’s been a friend for 20 years, is the one who got me on board for this and manages the marketing side of things; it’s been really fun and we’ve received a great response until now.” Another PCO pop-up and more across the country next year, plus a curated catering undertaking is on the cards, he shares. Not one to hold back from taking the road less travelled, we’re sure this Power Packer will have Delhi rapt with attention for a long time to come.
Q. Your go-to hangover cure?
Q. Favourite restaurant, other than Tanddav?
Q. Your comfort food?
A. Grilled Salmon.
Q. One word of warning for those looking to set foot in the F&B business?
A. Be careful, it’s a difficult market. Also, keep reinventing.
Stirred listening to the life plot lines of these game changers, we knew how we’d like to show our appreciation and made an offer to them individually: “If DSSC were to invest Rs 10 crores in you, how would you use those funds?” Here’s what they had to say:
Vaibhav: I’d like to open a few more happy, fun places. You’ll see a new side of me- slightly more edgy & colourful- I’ll send over the business plans! Also, well-curated boutique mens wear is something I’d be interested in.
Arjun: Retire my restaurant debt and open the next jazz club. I am in fact looking for exactly that amount in the short run! We are also in the process of designing some tech based solutions for the music industry and entering the performance arts supply chain at different points- artist management, community support system, discovery etc.- these are also avenues where the monies could be used, for people that don’t have brick and mortar appetites.
Pujan: I will call chefs from all over India and hold a charity cookout for the underprivileged.
Nakul: I’d like to open a quaint cafe, on the lines of Bourke Street Bakery, and at a relatively secluded location.
Bal: I’ll build on my existing brands, Di Ghent and InnerChef; and start work on the new food & design concept.
Vidur: I’d love to host fun secret dinners in cool spaces outside restaurants!
Meet the other Six Power Packers here.
Photography for DSSC: Arshdeep Kaur
Location Courtesy: Blue Tokai Coffee Roasters