It is fascinating to know how various people strayed into the food business. And even more fascinating to figure out that how they were inveigled in and the strength of their bond with the business has little correlation. But I am getting ahead of myself.
Gurgaon, also called Millennium City, is a haven for small eateries that serve flavourful food, go easy on the grease and are easy on the pocket. With double income families being the norm, time is a precious commodity, and after a tiring day in the office with a long (and infuriating) commute, no householder is in the mood to cook an entire meal, so any Gurgaon restaurateur who has an efficient delivery service is in the position of laughing all the way to the bank.
There are mainly two or three kinds of restaurants in Gurgaon. One is the small eatery with usually under 25 seats, of which Bernardo’s, Fat Butterfly, Curry Singh and Kitchen of Awadh are examples. The other is the loud, in your face resto-bar exemplified by the Sector 29 brigade. And the third is the Japanese and Korean restaurants, karaoke bars and bakeries meant only for members of a particular community. It probably sounds less than inclusive, but I respect places like Raifu Tel, Daikichi and Kuuraku because, against all odds, they cater to a well-defined customer base. Of course there are other restaurants that do both good food and considerable volumes of alcohol, like China Club and Prankster, but they are sadly not the norm.
To come back to Kitchen of Awadh, the owner, Kamal Kumar Veer, strayed into the food business partly by mistake and partly by happenstance. He loved to cook as a means to distract himself from a particularly high-pressure job that was supremely unrewarding, and where he got to see the worst side of human nature. So, the day that he decided to kick his job, opening a small take-away outlet was a natural corollary. He envisaged that he would run the business and other people would manage the kitchen. But, fate had other plans. Fortunately.
Kitchen of Awadh started up in a South Delhi location, and it served the food of Lucknow, his home, but Veer found, to his dismay, that cooks (all from that city, to maintain authenticity) would fly out of the door at the slightest excuse, the most favoured one being ‘my uncle is not well’. Veer is nothing if not tenacious and he kept haring off to Lucknow in search of replacements. Until one day, the only remaining ustad – a gent of advancing age – who had not fled, advised him to learn the recipes of the taftans, qormas, kebabs and biryanis himself, so that there would not be so much disparity between the troupe that moved through his kitchen with such alacrity and him. Veer thought it an excellent idea and started learning the art and science of preparing biryani from the ustad.
The next two years were spent in search of teachers and that, in itself, proved to be as ephemeral as a mirage, because everybody, to a man – or woman – was only interested in concealing the real recipe to someone who was not even of their faith, or someone who could become their competitor in business. Finally, this feisty young man had mastered a few recipes. He says that know-how and technique are the most important aspects and the ingredients are not nearly as daunting as they are made out to be: figures like 53 for the number of spices that go into the making of one spice mix or another are just smokescreens. He says that those spice mixes are available to any customer who goes to that particular store and asks for it by name! So much for being ‘family secrets’.
The secret of the success of Kitchen of Awadh is the alchemy between cook Kamal and graphic artist cum manager Smita Raghani Veer. One cooks; the other mans the till and looks into the interiors: simple, no fuss, yet comfortable and well-lit. Consistency is remarkably high, but the couple never take a day off and Veer procures the mutton himself, making sure that he is given the right kind of fat for the kebabs.
The Veers run their eatery in Supermart I much like a couple in France would: fanatic attention to detail and delegating nothing at all. That way, whatever success they achieve, is theirs to keep.