Priya Bala and restaurateur Jayanath Narayanan have recently launched a book – Secret Sauce, where they explore the Indian restaurant sphere, especially the vintage diners. They both find the secret behind their survival.
Back in 1926, a Swiss couple, Joseph and Freida Flurys, started a tea room in Park Street. According to lore, it was fashioned on the Sprungli Café of Zurich. Kolkata, then, was a melting pot of both expats and sophisticated Bengalis for whom the tea room became a “fixture on the Park Street lifestyle.” By 2016, it had opened up 17 new outlets and taken to e-commerce to stay abreast. That year, Flurys was expecting to sell one lakh pounds of cake, double that of the previous year.
Journalist Priya Bala and restaurauter Jayanath Narayanan play narrator of some fascinating stories from the Indian restaurant sphere in their latest book Secret Sauce, which showcases some iconic restaurants. The idea for their second book came to them while researching for the first Start Up Your Restaurant.
“We interviewed some of the country’s most successful restaurateurs for pointers on how to succeed in this business. We also looked closely at India’s most enduring restaurants. It then occurred to us that here were all these captivating stories of legendary restaurants waiting to be told. A little more research and we found there was hardly any documentation of their incredible journeys, save the odd, patchy Wiki page. We had to tell these stories, we decided. It would also be our contribution to recording the history of the Indian restaurant industry,” they said.
The duo met when Bala, who was working for a newspaper in Bengaluru, reviewed Narayanan’s restaurants. They started writing together when he contacted her about converting his food blog into a book.
“I had quit my job after a long stint and was, frankly, a bit directionless in the professional realm. One day, during my limbo phase, I received a call from him and he said he was looking for a professional writer to collaborate with for a book project,” said Bala. Narayanan added that his first restaurant, Café Aarogya, a health food restaurant, was critically acclaimed but a commercial failure. “After that I was very frustrated to see so many restaurants open and shut, all the while repeating the same mistakes. So I started sharing my wisdom on a blog (www.restobizindia.com). After two years, a cousin, who had dabbled in publishing, suggested converting the blog into a book and also recommended that I partner with someone from the trade. The first person I reached out to was Priya and she said yes,” he said. To begin with, he was an accidental engineer, who switched careers the moment he had the means to start a restaurant.
The current book focusses more about the restaurant business than the food, though the food is the core and that makes the stories all the more interesting. “Priya focusses on the food, while I look at the restaurants from a business perspective,” said Narayanan.
In Secret Sauce, the duo has written about the emotions displayed by the owners of the top restaurants, some of which include Bukhara, Adyar Anand Bhavan, Flurys and Koshy’s. “We wanted the reader to feel the emotions of the owners, not see the data on Excel sheet. We have got enough feedback that the book feels like a gripping collection of 40 short stories,” said Bala.
Apart from focussing on large metro cities, they have also featured several restaurants from smaller cities like LMB in Jaipur, Kesar da Dhaba in Amritsar, Paragon in Calicut, Rendezvous in Pondicherry, Glenary’s in Darjeeling, which they said had some of the most engaging stories.
“Secret Sauce is just the first step towards realising our ambition to document the restaurant business in India — including the fantastic street food we have in this country. We hope to cover every nook and corner of India and document every noteworthy restaurant business, big and small, out there,” they added.
In times of flux, older restaurants which don’t own the property face tough times like the Britannia & Co. in Mumbai which shut down because they couldn’t afford the rentals in Ballard Estate after their 99-year lease ended. Family-owned restaurants, which own the premises, face challenges in making sure the legacy is continued.
And then there are smart ones that appreciate their inheritance and do everything to protect and build on it. “For instance, how many people visit Amritsar and skip going to Kesar da Dhaba?” the authors asked.
Older restaurants face tough competition from young and trendy ones but they continue to draw customers with their vintage charm. “In Bengaluru, where we are both based, there is Vidyarthi Bhavan, which began as a student café in 1943. Even today, you have to wait in queue for the famous dosa. So, the really good older restaurants have an unmistakeable appeal and they will go on,” the authors added.
Writer: Asmita Sarkar
Courtesy: The Pioneer