It’s been a busy few months for Rahul Akerkar. The chef-restaurateur has teamed up with the Aditya Birla Group, in collaboration with the hospitality arm of the company, Aditya Birla New Age (ABNA). As creative director and director of cuisine, Akerkar will be responsible for developing the firm’s culinary vision. ABNA also operates Jolie’s in Mumbai, which is a members-only club.
For starters, this will involve rolling out restaurant chains in the premium casual dining space, one that the company is betting big on. Starting with Mumbai, which is expected to see the first launch in the coming quarter, the company is firming up plans to grow this space, going forward. While not much has been disclosed yet, the Mumbai restaurant will focus on fare rooted in European-style techniques, clean, bold flavours and live fire cooking.
In fact, it’s been quite the journey for the veteran chef, since launching deGustibus Hospitality in 1996, which launched the landmark standalone restaurant, Indigo (back in 1999), housed in a charming colonial bungalow in South Mumbai. Considered ahead of its time and the flagbearer of experiential dining in India, the restaurant served fine dine European fare in a chic setting. It shuttered in 2018. deGustibus also runs the restaurant chain Indigo Deli.
After parting ways with deGustibus and taking a hiatus, Akerkar came back with Qualia in 2019– a modern, fine dining restaurant that was technique driven and sensorial. Pickling and fermentation were a big spotlight here. The COVID-19 pandemic came with its own set of challenges though, ultimately forcing Qualia to shutter, which Akerkar himself admits became unsustainable to run.
Now, it’s a fresh, new chapter for the restaurateur as he teams up with ABNA.
We chatted with the maverick chef about his culinary adventures, his inspiration, authoring a book and future plans. Edited excerpts:
What’s been keeping you busy since Qualia?
After we shut Qualia owing to the pandemic, my family and I moved to Goa with the intention of making that our base. However, once a chef always a chef—a new restaurant needed life. The idea was to set up another small restaurant/café in Goa. We even signed a space in North Goa and began development of the concept. Around the same time, I began discussing potential partnerships and synergies with the Aditya Birla Group. Things just fell in place since then.
People have been waiting for your next restaurant announcement. What can diners expect this time around?
My forte has always been creative, elevated, unfussy dining with attention to detail. For this restaurant, it means we need to serve creative, well-made and honest fare, in a warm space, that’s conducive to convivial dining. A casual but chic, fun but not fine-dining eatery—without intimidating the diner.
I was raised by parents of mixed Maharashtrian/Indian and European/American heritage and our food at home was an equal confluence of culinary traditions. Over the years I’ve come to embrace that. I also love cooking over wood and charcoal and will continue to do so here, from a kitchen that is totally open to the dining room. The overall concept is a bit of dining as theatre—earlier, people used to go out for dinner and a show, but now dinner is the show.
Do you believe this is where most of the growth will be centred? Is fine dining in India not as sustainable anymore?
Fine dining in the true sense of haute cuisine and three-Michelin-star experiences, has never really existed in India, but the milieu in which F&B exists in India isn’t conducive to that over-the-top dining experience. There have been several attempts and a few have come close. Over the last many years, we’ve seen a mushrooming of the mid-level café, restaurant, bistro, deli/diner-style of eatery, all serving pretty much the same menu but packaged differently. I believe the discerning Indian diner is evolving rapidly, ready to step up and experiment with newer and more nuanced dining experiences.
What are your views on GenZ diners? How are they different from millennials?
Gen Z are born into the world shaped and formed by technology. Hence, as diners they expect speed and agility but also experiences that they can talk about and gram about.
Can you tell us a little about how this collaboration will be structured?
ABNA’s vision is to build world class F&B brands. I'm looking forward to working together with the team in being able to contribute and help shape a part of this vision.
Will the focus primarily be on European cooking styles at the restaurant? When is the earliest roll out?
Not necessarily, but I use it as a loosely defined moniker for Western cuisine—more specifically, foods from around the Mediterranean. What it’s not defining is any food that’s traditionally Oriental or Southeast Asian-influenced. The first restaurant is scheduled to open in South Mumbai.
What are some recent travels, books or food experiences that have inspired you?
I’ve been pretty dormant travel-wise these past few years, but I have been busy internalising, reflecting and honing my cuisine. I have authored a book which is being published by HarperCollins later this year. It’s a tell-all, a memoir if you will, set against the backdrop of the evolution of the food scene in India, with anecdotes of my culinary journey. It also includes my favourite recipes. Working on that through the pandemic, putting finger to keyboard, really forced me to think long and hard about what I was doing and why.
We saw a lot of restaurants shutter owing to the pandemic and trying to stay afloat amid financial struggles. Qualia was one of them. What are some lessons you've learned from this experience?
You need to be lean and nimble enough to pivot with the changing business environment, and also stay relevant and viable.
What are your future plans?
For now, it’s exciting times ahead as we open our new restaurant. Carpe diem and definitely staying healthy.