I also hadn’t really spent time pricing the food items out. So if I sold $1,000, I’d realize I hadn’t made any money because $400 were food costs plus labour and overhead, so I wasn’t as smart as a businessman right off the bat. But I learned my way quickly, to be smarter and inch the prices just a little from $6 to $6.25 for chicken curry or from $7 to $7.50 for lamb.
The most important part was that people needed to taste my food. Once they tasted my food, they didn’t mind paying fifty cents extra. Then we had one very positive review by a food writer. That was a turning point in the sense that it brought people in. After that, it was my job to capture them. People started talking about the uniqueness of the cuisine and the dishes Meeru and I had created, because she had already come into the picture by then.
When did Meeru come in?
I opened the restaurant in September 1994 and Meeru and I got married in December. She’s of Indian descent, but brought up in the United States. Even though she had no culinary background, she picked it up with my help and put her own spin on things. She had that taste of what I was trying to do, that modern Indian style of cooking. She and I both felt the same way – that we needed to do something different and unique. All those things just fell into place.
How did you grow into a bigger success?
As the accolades came, we got a little busier. Then the landlord started giving me a hard time because the smells of my Indian food bothered him. I couldn’t do anything about it. Indian food does smell. When you roast ginger, onions and garlic, it has an aroma. So we found another location nearby – a licensed restaurant that had gone belly up – where I could have a proper hood and ventilation and moved there in 1996.
The relocation was going to cost me $50,000 so I kept the first one running almost until the last minute. I borrowed the money from the contractor, a nice guy who used to come in. He offered to build it and let me pay him back slowly. So I took the risk. We haven’t looked back since.
Why did you become a chef?
I wanted to be a chef ever since I was a child. My grandfather loved to drink a couple of scotches at night and I loved to eat, so he would joke with me that when I grew up, he and I should open up a restaurant together, because then I could cook and he could drink for free in the bar. So I wanted to be a chef to please my grandfather because I loved him dearly. It was always in the back of my mind to be a chef.
What was the biggest lesson from school in Austria?
It was just the fundamentals of cooking that I was learning. I still needed to go to a proper hotel or job to get my own experience. Yes, I knew how to make béchamel and the root stock sauces but the practicality of making them in a different kitchen was tough. After school was finished, you had to work three or four months in kitchens, and those practicums were very tough on a 20-year-old guy. You were basically slave labour for them. They could make you work so many hours. It beat you to the point where you’d just become resilient towards things. That was one of my biggest learning points. It was immersion into the real kitchen and teaching you that the life ahead of you is going to be hard.
What makes someone a good chef?
Passion for food and for being in the kitchen; not being afraid to try out different things. It’s somebody who believes in great flavours and is able to translate that. A home cook – a mother that makes delicious food – is as important a chef as an executive chef who works in the kitchen. It’s just a different scale. A good chef cooks from the heart.