CHEF ON THE GO

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With his third restaurant Dhaba by Aangan just opened, Sumit Malhotra is gobbling up the hospitality business turning each into a gourmet pilgrimage.
When Sumit Malhotra took a special journey to India to explore and experience its many famous roadside eateries commonly known as the dhaba, it was with a purpose. He wanted to offer Melburnians a glimpse into India’s history and culture and introduce the fulsome flavours that dhabas embody. And he has managed to do that. Quite impressively. Dhaba by Aangan located at Keilor is symbolic of the many dhabas that dot the highways across India.
But this is not Sumit’s first venture. He started the trail blazing Aangan at Footscray in 2004, and in 2015 he opened Aangan at Derrimut. The third, Dhaba by Aangan, opened a month back making him quite the champion of Indian food in Melbourne. “I have laid to rest the misconception in every Indian mind that when you open one restaurant, the first or the second one lags behind. I proved that wrong. Both Footscray and Derrimut has thankfully had no drop in sales,” he smiles.
A chef and a successful entrepreneur, Sumit knew what he wanted and remained focussed on his goals. Food was his primary obsession growing up in Jaipur. It was in the lanes and bylanes of the pink city that his fascination for food began absorbing the styles of the kulcha seller to the chaat papri maker to the tandoori chicken wallah. These men dished out the tastiest of food with recipes drawn from memory. For Malhotra, now a celebrated chef, the people behind these foods was as much a fascination as their end products in the way they used ingredients, colours and techniques and cooked everything in the open. What he also did was replicate their styles in his own kitchen at home but was often chided by his mother who told him that a boy’s place was not in the kitchen.
Undeterred, Sumit pursued his studies in hotel management, a decision supported by his father. After enrolling in the expensive Merit Swiss Asian School of Hotel Management in Ooty, where he recalls being very “focussed on kitchen practical classes”, he went on to work in some of the best hotels in the industry.
Australia provided a whole lot of new opportunities. When he arrived in 2002, he discovered that there was ignorance on the part of restaurant owners about the kitchen. “They treated the kitchen as one area where no investment is required. But if the food will not move from the kitchen, where will the revenues come from? For quality food too you need quality ingredients.” The scenario was so discouraging that he went about setting up a restaurant where people could experience quality and authentic Indian cuisines. Thus was born Aangan at Footscray in 2004.
Aangan’s success prompted him to set up another branch at Derrimut in October 2014. It was an acquisition that came with a lot of thought and the result of one-and-half years of planning and a million dollar investment. The restaurant comprises three major sections which can operate independently and suited for different needs. Its Bollywood Lounge is definitely one of its kinds and perhaps the most coveted spot.
With the bar already set high by his own standards, Sumit’s third foray Dhaba by Aangan is yet another milestone. It is a contemporary expression of everything rustic about India and is already attracting attention for its food, décor and uniqueness. No one leaves the place without a few selfies or photographs.
The idea behind Dhaba by Aangan came from one of his customers in Derrimut, says Sumit. The customer was not pleased that he was being served in ethnic steel glasses and remarked it was akin to sitting in a dhaba. It got Sumit thinking that he could in fact work towards giving people something really close to their culture. So he worked towards giving the real dhaba experience putting in six months of thought and execution. “I wondered what I would like to see and created what I wanted to see.”
The design aesthetics really stands out. As you enter Dhaba by Aangan, it indeed looks like a village with all its trappings – with the rustic chandeliers, nimbu-mirchi, charpoys (light bedsteads used in India, consisting of a web of rope or tape netting), pickle jars, film posters, tyres, lamps and colourful streamers adorned on the walls and elsewhere. The truck art elements are a delightful add. An original piece of a truck with the most prominent signs “Horn OK Please” adds to the authenticity. Because dhabas in India are located at highways, they are most frequented by truck drivers whose slogans at the back of their vehicles are a source of great humour. Other popular ones such as “Use dipper at night” and “buri nazar wale tera muh kaala” (you with the evil eye, may your face be black) also find their spot at Dhaba. The vibrant interior pulls off colour and engaging posters with Punjabi adages adding to the fervour and spirit of merrymaking. All the elements are held together with the undeniably catchy filmy numbers playing in the background.
Sumit says he got most of the artefacts from India including the thick ropes that divide the seating segments to create the right look and feel. He had no architects or designers to help him; he was just driven by his passion to replicate the dhaba. So the place is a creation of his own vision. It helped that he had a Punjabi builder whose background bound him to his vision and he kept implementing whatever was told to him with accuracy. The result is that even local Australian patrons get excited seeing the charpoy, laughs Sumit. Further, during the weekends he has kept a person who can explain the décor and tell the stories behind every artefact.
The menu is simple like in most dhabas and it comprises the ubiquitous items usually served there – such as kaali dal, sarson ka saag, kukad chicken. But Dhaba has a signature item dahi ka kebab which, assures Sumit, is something that you won’t find anywhere in Melbourne. A starter, it is prepared by drying the moisture out of the yoghurt, which is then spiced up and batter fried. It is one of the most difficult dishes where a lot of technique is used in binding sans the use of any thickening agent. The rajma and kadhi are weekend Dhaba specials.
The reason why dhaba food finds a place in our heart, explains Sumit, is because it involves an altogether different kind of cooking. “It is a rustic kind of cooking. We don’t use blenders or mixies, everything is done manually and freshly made. Back in India, most dhabas don’t have refrigeration system so whatever is cooked for the day is consumed in its entirety. Even the masalas are hand grinded and there is no provision for storage. Lastly the main step is the tadka or tempering which is done just before serving.”
This also explains why Dhaba has limited menu. “It’s a menu on rotation, so every month there is a different menu. But if there is a seasonal vegetable we will keep it.”
The cutting chai is another noteworthy aspect, where tea is served in glasses instead of cups just like in the streets of India. And cutting chai refers to half glass of tea.
Indeed Sumit has not left any stone unturned with details. The Chilled Beer section or bar also boasts of cocktails designed by the chef himself with names that reek of typical desi (country) taste. Take the Gulabo made with freshly ground rose petals, lime juice, rose syrup, sprite and vodka, or the Santri an orange flavoured gin using freshly squeezed orange juice, or Basanti which is a mix of crush lime mint, lemon, whisky and soda. “I know what flavour goes well so I made them. You start visualising things when you keep on thinking about one thing and when you start focussing, you know what goes into it,” he explains.
Modern and rustic at once, Dhaba is an exciting project for Sumit. “It was my dream project to develop an ethnic restaurant,” he reflects. No wonder it took him six months to execute even though the restaurant was ready to run from day one of his buying the place. “I had to transform it completely. I had no clue what reaction I would get from people after so much investment because it is located in one corner. My winning point is I didn’t want to make it busy right from day one. That gives my staff enough time to learn and unlearn things and we are also not pushing for takeaways aggressively now.”
After a long and difficult journey, Sumit, it seems, is gobbling up the hospitality business. With Dhaba he has tapped into unexplored territory in the Indian food business here in Melbourne. Hospitality is in his blood. He works seven days and oversees the operations of his three restaurants through his phone sitting in one of the restaurants. At the moment he is happy nurturing his new baby Dhaba.
Asked what worked for him, Sumit says he was always determined to give his 100 percent in everything. “I have never thought of any result or awards. I kept on doing what I wanted to do and asked my workers the same level of commitment. This is a labour intensive market and you need the support of people because you cannot run it on your own. I started with two people, now I have 75 people working with me. That means I am also managing the problems of 75 people,” he laughs.
He also gives credit to his own continuous efforts even during the discouraging periods he had. “I tell my staff when there is such a period that is the time when you have to put more effort. And when there is a good time you keep on doing the same thing, you cannot relax, the moment you start relaxing, the problems start coming,” he says adding, “I don’t think only about myself. When you take a team you have to lead and think for each and everyone in the team.”
Sumit has turned his passion into success and learnt his business through and through. However, his phone does not stop ringing.
By Indira Laisram