With five restaurants under his belt, Sumit Malhotra is making sure that you can savour the memory of your favourite dishes at his chain of enterprise – Aangan

Guided by his passion for Indian food, Sumit Malhotra, the swaggering chef behind the popular Aangan chain of restaurants is today a chefpreneur, who with his new restaurant Aangan at Clayton is clearly building up his food empire.

Aangan at Clayton is Sumit’s fifth venture. It marks his foray into the south eastern suburbs from the western suburbs which was his domain. “The idea behind this was simple,” he says in his unique modest style. “As our community is growing, we wanted to cater to areas where there is a thick populace of Indians. In fact, we were mulling on the idea for the past three-four years but for some reason we were not able to find the right spot. The moment I found one, I decided it was time to give Clayton a taste of Indian cuisines.”

For the western suburbs in Melbourne, Aangan has been a name to reckon with in Indian food. Aangan at Footscray was opened more than 15 years ago. Sumit, a chef with over 25 years in the hospitality industry, knew what to offer. But he was the reluctant celebrity chef who preferred to remain behind the scenes serving up delicious Indian food that was a hit not just among Indian patrons but among the general Australian public too.

Aangan at Clayton was opened in early July. With its 250-plus seating capacity, it has got to a busy start already. Not surprising for those who know Sumit and his eager enthusiasm for food. He has managed to create the marketspace for Indian cuisines beginning with Aangan at Footscray, and later expanding to Derrimut, Bundoora, Shepparton and now Clayton.

“When we talk about Aangan, it is really about space for family and friends to relax and enjoy good food and have a good time,” reflects Sumit, adding, “We want to create an ambience and we needed that space and location to provide that – which we found at Clayton.”

For many years, people didn’t know the face behind Aangan but through his hard work in the kitchen, Sumit managed to create a curiosity in the minds of people. His Indo-Chinese food and other staples such as butter chicken, dal makhni and rogan josh are winners.

However, while these staples retain their popularity, Sumit is constantly developing newer food ideas as he believes that Indian food is fast evolving not just worldwide but in India too. “In the past 25 years that I have been in this industry, Indian cuisines are undergoing dramatic changes and more changes are yet to come. Indian cuisine is no more Indian, it is adapting to other cultures from all over the world and it will definitely grow with time.” And it is this fusion that he is working on.

It is a shift that has been long time in the making. That is why Sumit stays clued to the changing times. “I spend a few hours every day studying food trends, learning new things and improving my techniques.” That is reflected in his food and the way his restaurants are expanding and taking a shape on Melbourne’s broad culinary map.

Sumit’s ambition is to keep his menu exciting all the time. “As an Indian we are spoilt for choice when it comes to food. Similarly, at Aangan you are spoilt for choice as you have food from every region of India,” he laughs pointing to the exhaustive menu he hands out. However, he cautions that authenticity does not just come with following a recipe but by having the right amount of spices and freshest of ingredients, say, doing away with canned or frozen ingredients for one.

Sumit, who studied at the expensive Merit Swiss Asian School of Hotel Management in Ooty in India, says he did not have a unique business plan when he started his own restaurant business in Melbourne 15 years ago. In fact, the only planning was “following my passion, working with spices that can deliver great taste, creating something new each time and learning things every day. It naturally became a business plan on its own”.

Sumit remains the major force behind his ventures with staff welfare on top of his mind. He believes that for any business to be successful one must have a strong and dedicated team – be it in dishwashing or managing front office or working in the kitchen. “To keep staff motivation high, we have a meeting every week where we discuss every issue and take collective decisions.”

Also one of his business efficiencies is adopting technology. Having worked in commercial kitchen in India too, he realises how labour-intensive Indian cooking is. To reduce the work load he had been looking at different technologies and now through them has been able to bring it down by more than 50 per cent. Aangan’s central food facility at Derrimut is, in fact, a new concept in Indian restaurant. The facility also trains chefs, conducts research on menus and presentation and studies trends of food around the world particularly in India and London. And there is no compromise to quality and standards, avers Sumit.

Sumit traces his culinary journey to his roots in the lanes and bylanes of Jaipur, his home town where his love for food began. From the kulcha seller to the chaat papri maker to the tandoori chicken wallah, the people behind these foods was as much a fascination for Sumit as their end products in the way they used ingredients, colours and techniques and cooked everything in the open. They would shape his future.

Today, he realises that it is not just cooking of food which is involved in the opening of a restaurant but management of the kitchen that can make or break the business. “The management of kitchen is complex and not a simple formula that will work everywhere. Every restaurant has different unique kitchen set up and based on that we have to create a management. It is the flow of work which determines the quality and speed of the kitchen. And I think that is very important.”

In all his ventures, every complaint is taken seriously. “We have a complaint register in all restaurants which is stored in our systems. All the complaints are discussed with the concerned departments and addressed on the same day. We strive for 100 per cent success but in this business where staff come and go, they tend to make mistakes but we keep improving, it is an ongoing process.”

Having made Aangan almost a household name for most Indians in Melbourne, Sumit has a larger vision and mission. He rues Uber Eats is high on pizzas and pastas and would like Indian food to be the next choice for every Australian. “It would be great to see Indian food highly regarded, it would be great to see a cultural shift where Indian cuisines are the preferred choice next to pastas and pizzas.”

For the moment, Sumit does not believe in competition to his business and if there is a competitor it would be someone he can learn from. “Inspiration is a much better word for me,” he says. He has been inspired by people from all walks of life – from Gordan Ramsey to Narendra Modi to the puchka walla in the lanes of Jaipur. “They inspire me in different ways.”

True to form, Sumit says his only fuel is passion for food and the energy he gets working in the kitchen. He has seen the rewards through the love and support of people and patrons over the years.

For those who want to get into the hospitality industry, Sumit says one can get into it without experience but has a word of caution: get into it only if you are ready to sacrifice your personal life and are ready for some serious hard work.

Sumit moves with restraint for what lies ahead. He wants to be stable and make sure his foundation is strong. He also does not want the “successful” tag because he believes success is an ongoing journey, not the destination. It is somewhat ironic that a man who shies away from being called successful has today emerged as an ambassador for Indian food given that Aangan is a name most people in Melbourne have heard of. Cheers to that!

Aangan at Clayton is open 7 nights from 5pm to 10pm and for lunch on Saturdays and Sundays from 12:00pm to 3.00pm.
Located at: 370 Clayton Rd, Clayton VIC 3168, Tel: 8526 8685