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Chef Rahul Akerkar's table of love

The chef traces his journey from working in the US in the nineties to creating ‘The Best Damn Tarte Tatin’ at his newest restaurant, named Ode, in Mumbai

A selection of dishes at Ode, Mumbai.
A selection of dishes at Ode, Mumbai. (Photo by Sunhil Sippy)

For chef Rahul Akerkar, 2023 has been a year of new beginnings. He joined the Aditya Birla Group in February, turned 64 in April, and launched a new restaurant, named Ode, last week. The premium dining space, under the parent company Aditya Birla New Age Hospitality (ABNAH), is located in Mumbai’s Worli. The menu borrows from the three defining aspects of his cooking: the Maharashtrian influence of his father’s family, the European inheritance of his German mother and his training in the US as a chef in the nineties. These culminate into dishes like pork ribs with khandeshi masala mole, fenel pasta and a sublime apple tart served with pickled celery named, The Best Damn Tarte Tatin.

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In an interview with Lounge, Akerkar talks about his new restaurant, throwing grand feasts at home and his evolution as a chef. Edited excerpts:

Does Mumbai need yet another premium dining restaurant?
The food and beverage space has undergone a transformation. There was a time when mediocrity prevailed, people were rehashing the same concepts. In the last two years, chefs and restaurateurs have started to think deeply about what they want to serve diners (who became better cooks in the pandemic). The restaurant industry is now ready to step up their game. Look at what chefs are doing: Prateek Sadhu has packed up everything and gone to the hills, and you have people like Vanika Choudhary of Noon in Mumbai championing regional ingredients and farming communities. Apart from offering convivial dining, restaurants are slowly taking on a cerebral role too with menus that make you think. Chefs are coming into their own as craftspeople. There's been a great shift from trying to copy concepts from the West to creating a language of their own. There's a group of young chefs—I put myself in that category—who are looking inwards, and you see that in new restaurants.

Chef Rahul Akerkar at Ode.
Chef Rahul Akerkar at Ode. (Photo by Sunhil Sippy)

What aspect of ‘looking inwards’ has seeped into the restaurant?
We always had a full table at home. My parents loved to entertain, and the children were part of hosting people at home. Now, my wife and I have massive feasts at home during Diwali, Thanksgiving and Christmas. The table is laid out, and there are guests through the day. We call it our table of love. At the restaurant, we are trying to replicate the same essence. For instance, there's a large community table when you can sit and mingle with other guests.

Name two dishes from Ode that reflect your signature approach as a chef?
The fall-off-bone pork ribs come with a kandeshi kala masala mole. It's a spice blend from the hinterland of Maharashtra, near Madhya Pradesh, and is used to make mutton. We combine that with chocolate for a mole, which results in pretty amazing flavours. There’s a burnt cucumber dish with different textures and shades of the ingredient. It is served with a peanut thecha that's a garlic masala stuffed in a vada pav. I can't say that every dish has hints of India or uses local ingredients. I don’t cook to make each dish different or to stand out from the crowd. For me, it’s crucial for the flavours and texture to work well in perfect harmony.

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You have been a chef for 40 years. How has your cooking evolved?It's got simpler over the years. As I've grown older, I am drawn to cleaner tastes. I'm not saying that my food is simplistic, because there are layers to it. At Ode, you will notice, there is a hero ingredient which is not doused in sauces or cooked to death. There is a certain freshness and lightness to it all.

There is a rising awareness about mental health of restaurant staff. Have you changed how you treat your team?
There was a time where I could have easily been at an a*****e chef to work for. My children hate cooking with me, because they say I am too strict in the kitchen. I have mellowed over the years, and prefer mentoring now. In fact, one of the things that I'm really proud of at Ode is that 30% of our staff comprises women. The space, just as most modern restaurants, has a sort of open kitchen, and diners can see the food being prepared. It compels chefs to work mindfully, and avoid screaming at one other. Also, they get to see how diners react to their food, and it’s a form of instant feedback.

Pork ribs with Khandeshi masala mole at Ode.
Pork ribs with Khandeshi masala mole at Ode.

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