AD Singh: The Restaurant Czar Who’s Cooking Up A Storm Across India

AD Singh just added another cracker of a restaurant to the capital’s culinary milieu, making it a Happy New Year indeed! From kitchen to kitsch, Lady Baga brings the fun & relaxed Goan beach shack right in the heart of Delhi (Connaught Place). As Delhi goes Gaga over Lady Baga, we get the whizzing restaurateur to settle for some downtime over Mulled Tea & Sungta Maria (Chef’s special prawn toasties) and get talking about what goes behind becoming the culinary czar of India.

“I stumbled into entrepreneurship,” AD says, from engineering at Lafayette (Pennsylvania, US), to TCS and Cadbury’s, to social work with NGOs before the outset into the food industry, this chance meeting certainly turned out to be one of the best things to happen to India’s F&B scene. In 1990, a 30-year-old AD set out with Just Desserts, a coffee & desserts jazz café in Mumbai. Fast forward to two decades later, he continues to champion the cause of casual dining, one restaurant at a time.

Talking about his latest venture, Lady Baga, AD shares what made him get an authentic Goan beach shack to our landlocked city, “Our secret assessment is that a good story around regional Indian food, with many layers, that is well told, is the way forward. For some years we felt that a big explosion not just in India but all over the world is going to be about the new story of Indian food. So when we were looking for the next story that’ll click, I realised I love Goa, I proposed to my wife there, I got married there, and have so many happy memories in that city that I thought of a Goan shack for the capital and that’s how Lady Baga came about.”

A perpetual finger on the food trends’ pulse and his innate ability to sense what the patrons want has helped AD conceptualise several dynamic spaces over the years. The 90s saw him develop various never-seen-before ideas with The Ripon Club, Jazz By The Bay, the Latin Bar Copa Cabaana, international cafe-style setting serving coastal food at Soul Kadi, Soul Fry and Soul Fry Casa, and the leisure spot The Bowling Company. Most of these were pioneers in their genre and you see versions of these concepts across the country now! Having revamped Central Mumbai’s image into a sophisticated entertainment hub, AD launched the iconic Olive Bar and Kitchen in 2000, which was followed by the Maximum City’s first floating bar, Suzie Wong.

As Olive won hearts in Mumbai, AD took the first step outside the city and gifted Delhi its own Olive Bar and Kitchen and Bangalore the Olive Beach over the course of next five years. The following decade saw him steering the foodscape in the metros towards great food, good company, and laughter rolled into a cosy dining experience. Tracking trends like no one else in the industry, he builds brands mirroring the mood of the diner, “The audience was moving towards more comfortable, casual, unpretentious, approachable spaces which are very affordable. So we took the deliberate decision to move away from casual fine dining like Olive into more casual and relaxed dining. We created brands at different price points, all the while maintaining good quality – which I feel defines us”. With that new focus, the Olive umbrella opened up further to set up Monkey Bar, Guppy By Ai, Olive Bistro, SodaBottleOpenerWala, The Local, Ek Bar, and The Fatty Bao over the next four years, serving millennials the fun, quirky & fast paced spaces they were looking for.

Enter year five and Delhi’s rocking to Lady Baga’s beach-beats in 2017.

AD is one of the few people in the industry who has successfully built many Chef-driven models such as Monkey Bar with Chef Manu and Chetan Rampal and Ek Bar with Chef Pujan. He talks about what prompted this decision, “With every business keeping your best people is one of the hardest things. Five years back, me and my Board were discussing the need to retain our best people who were being wooed away by entrepreneurs with big pay cheques. Our company was packed with talented people and we wanted them to partner with us rather than working for someone else. Unfortunately we lost one good chef, Chef Saby, but we put it together in time to keep gems like Chetan & Manu with us.”

Diners across the country can’t get enough of what AD Singh is feeding them, and he has no intention of pacing down anytime soon. With the ambitious vision to grow from the current 30 outlets to 100 outlets by 2022, he says, “We’ve got brands in the top sweet spots – continental, Indian, Chinese, and the pub space. We’re looking to tweaking and refreshing these and moving forward, even to tier II and tier III cities.” From a price range of Rs. 1,500 pax at Olive Bar and Kitchen to Rs. 700 pax at the newer establishments, they’re looking to host millennials across cities who look for fun and affordable experiences, “In my opinion, our strength lies in the casual dining scene and we’re constantly looking to improve & refine that to make the Olive brands bigger and better.”

On that happy note of seeing more of Olive brands across more cities we (reluctantly) take our feet off the restaurant’s sand filled terrace-cum-beach, but not before having AD surf the DSSC signature rapid fire,

Q. One piece of advice for young entrepreneurs starting out in the industry?

A. Please take the advice of seasoned professionals, take a partnership or franchise for your first venture, don’t spend too much money – the customers don’t care much about that!

Q. Your favourite bar in Delhi?

A. I get excited by spaces with character, for example, at the Golf Club (Qutub) they have a little Swiss chalet kind of a hut which I love. Currently, I’m excited about the Piano Man Jazz Club, because I’m really into jazz and I like what they’re doing.

Q. Your go-to comfort food?

A. The Udon Noodle Soup at Guppy by Ai was my comfort lunch food almost everyday.  My current favourite is my Chef’s version of the Goan Pot curry with the Goan sausage pulao at Lady Baga.

Q. Most intriguing food experience till date?

A. 15 years ago, I tried the tasting menu at Tetsuya, Sydney for the first time. Their Japanese fare was very interesting to me at that point of time.

Q. One current food trend you wish would end pronto?

A. Fusion food.

This conversation is a part of the DSSC Secret Conversation Series, where we get candid with the ace folks of the industry who map its course one stroke at a time.