From the stand-alone ‘Under The Over’ to ‘Indigo’, his flagship restaurant in Colaba in the late 1990s, to the two-year-old ‘Qualia’ in Lower Parel, restaurateur and chef Rahul Akerkar has spent over two decades in the restaurant business. He talks to us about his fond memories, current challenges, and comfort food. By Adila Matra
How was running a restaurant in the 1990s versus now?
For one, I was 30 years younger, inexperienced, but full of energy and endless possibilities. My approach was to throw caution to the wind; I’m more measured and cautious now. The industry has changed too. It was all about starred-hotel restaurants back then, until first Under The Over, and later, Indigo challenged the status quo. It’s all about stand-alone and chef-driven restaurants now. The diners have evolved too—they’re more discerning and demanding. They want to experience the world and try new cuisines but are reluctant to pay for it. It’s ironic because the same Indian diner is willing to drop €300 (INR 26,686) on a meal overseas.
What sets Qualia apart?
Qualia has a wonderful energy that embraces you the minute you walk in, with all the stages of food production visible to the diner. We also offer a curbside cafe dining experience on our wide, private sidewalk. In a sense we’re cuisine-agnostic, embracing the western Mediterranean and Indian techniques and flavours, mimicking my Indian and European-American heritage.
From biochemical engineering to pre-medicine, you’ve tried your hand at many things. How did chef Rahul Akerkar end up in F&B?
Happenstance really. During the summer of my senior year at Franklin & Marshall College, I spent too many nights drinking martinis at the bar of a small French restaurant called Jethro’s in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. By the end of the summer, I was broke and asked the owner for a job. I started as a dishwasher and learned to cook along the way. Then I had a falling out with my PhD advisor at Columbia and dropped out of academia. I did several things after that but the only constant was working in restaurants.
The pandemic has hampered fine dining. How important is it to innovate?
We’re a people-driven, brick-and-mortar industry. Without people, we have no restaurant experience. Two-thirds of your space is your dining room. What do you do with it when you either can’t have diners or find that diners no longer want to sit there? Innovate to do deliveries or takeaways? Yes, it generates some cash flow, but it cannot make up for the consumption of food and alcohol by dine-in customers.
One dish/experience that stands out from your time at Indigo?
Our lobster bisque and lobster risotto were the only dishes that stayed on our menu throughout the 15 years I was with the company. They were drop-dead delicious! I’d learned that bisque working with Anne Rosenzweig in her restaurant, Vanessa, in the early 1980s in New York. The fish dishes I cooked with sauces inspired by my Aji’s cooking were favourites too.
What is on chef Rahul Akerkar’s travel bucket list?
Japan. I love their cuisine, culture, history, aesthetics, work ethics, and spirituality.
Follow Chef Rahul Akerkar on Instagram.
Editor’s Note: Keeping the current situation of the pandemic in mind, T+L India recommends every reader to stay safe, and take all government-regulated precautions in case travel at this time is absolutely necessary. Please follow our stories on COVID-19 for all the latest travel guidelines.