The Legacy of Food

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Father-son teams are not a thing of the past. Melbourne’s restaurant business sees the torch being passed as the next generation inherits the traits of the family. The success is often based on family values as we discover in the story of the Bajajs, the Gandhoks and the Tyagis.

Prem & Pankaj Bajaj of Flora Indian restaurant:

Prem Bajaj dropped out of school after class nine to help his father and brother look after his big family comprising his parents and seven siblings. Growing up in Patalia, Punjab, life has been a series of hard work for this wrestler-cum-restaurateur. His son Pankaj acknowledges his ‘workaholic’ father and knew the day they undertook a business venture together that it was not going to be easy living up to his father’s benchmark of hard work. “Sometimes a father-son team could make or break a relationship but I am lucky it has worked really well for us,” says Pankaj. “We understand the space, the equation and adjusted well.” Their venture, Flora, in the heart of the city is truly their labour of love.

Arriving in Australia in the 1990s, like most immigrant success stories, the Bajajs started from scratch eking out a living in the asparagus plantation areas. During the harvest season, Prem recalls taking his family with him. “It was a kind of outing and camping,” he says as they caught up with other migrants from Punjab. He then started driving a taxi and a tractor later which fetched him good money, enough to dabble in new ventures.

One evening, dining with his friend at a busy Indian restaurant in the city, it came to their notice that the restaurant was up for sale. Bajaj wondered who in his right mind would want to sell such a busy place and so uniquely located. They met the owner that same night. “I came to eat but bought the restaurant instead.”

Pakaj, then 17, recalls being on a holiday in India when his father called him to ask if he was interested in joining the business as he could not do it alone.  He had just finished his Year 12. “I said why not. At the end of the day we are doing this for the family, for each other. I didn’t know what it entailed at that time though,” says Pankaj.

He got right under the wings of the outgoing owners for 10 months, learning the trade, bonding with the chefs and understanding the business.  In between he enrolled at the William Angliss Institute for a degree in business management and hospitality.

With the volume of customers increasing in the past few years, Flora has increased its capacity from 70 seats to 140. That is double the figure. It has been more than seven years now since Flora changed hands and under the leadership of Prem and Pankaj, business is more than usual.

As presenters of Indian food in busy Melbourne, the duo says they work hard at controlling the quality of their food. So their Masala Dosa is always piping hot, their Chole Bhature so authentic, Samosas so right in the sizes – that they have packed mornings, afternoons or nights. Of course the array of food is wide and it is as customer Lindsay says, “so worth the money”.

“We try to keep our food wholesome and not too commercial but make it like home cooked food without excess oil, fat, or spices. We try to keep it basic,” says Prem, a fitness freak himself who hits the gym regularly, adding, “While our menu is standard with a bit of change every now, we do have seasonal curries. It is Okra Masala a lot during the winters.”

At the end of the day, there are many pillars of success, one of which is the staff, whose hard work they duly acknowledge.

Pankaj says they have come a long way since the time they started. “In the beginning it was a bit difficult to adjust,” he says, explaining, “You are so used to seeing your father at home with that respect and a bit of fear and then you start seeing him at the workplace where the dynamics of the relationship change a bit. It’s an equal partnership and it has taken time for us to both adjust, for him to lose a bit of the father figure and for me to lose a bit of the son figure. At the moment we know each other back to back, we trust each other completely.”

“It has been a big learning curve working together with my father who obviously has a wealth of experience in him, says Pankaj. “I value my parents’ opinion much more these days. You realise the sacrifices they made for you.”  And of course there are more pros than cons working with your father, he adds. “There is always that support around you and you don’t have to worry about medical leaves or holidays.”

On his part, Prem considers himself lucky that his son is as hardworking as him but credits his daughters with the same attributes. “If a father is hardworking, the children emulate him. It is the wish of every father that they move ahead of him in life. I am blessed to have a son supporting me in my endeavour.” Asked if they fight sometimes, he laughs saying, “Yes I do, he does not.”  Sometimes they are told they do not look like father and son at which Pankaj is quick to add, “I don’t if I should take that as a compliment.” There’s is a bonding that only a father and son can understand and cherish!

 

Karan & Shivraj Gandhok of Tandoori Junction:

Karan Gandhok had a dream since the age of 10 and tailored his life around that dream to become a restaurateur. Along the way he also beat the odds such as cancer. He even took part in ABC’s historical reality TV series Outback House in 2004-2005 where he played the part of an Indian hawker. “As honest as a Sikh” a line from that series is also how he defines himself. In the eyes of his son Shivraj, he is a figure larger than life. Very few guesses why. Today Shivraj, 18, helps his father in the business but admits he has big shoes to fill.

Karan was studying in Delhi and all of 17, when his father who was working in Iraq decided to migrate with the whole family to Australia when the Iran-Iraq war broke out in the early 80s. But Karan had decided in India itself that he did not want to be a part of the family construction business because he was interested in the business of food. “So you won’t study but sell chole bhature?” his mom had reacted then. After arriving in Australia, he studied hospitality at the William Angliss Institute. “They had 900 applications out of which only 46 were selected. I was probably the only turbaned individual, the first Sikh there. During 1981-82, Australia was a different landscape,” he says.

Life was not a bed of roses at the start. “But that inculcated a lot of good disciplining,” he says, adding, “When I went to catering college, I was told I could get admission if I had 1000 hours in the industry unlike now where you complete two years, get experience and get a certificate.” So Karan started working straight away seven days a week – pushing trolleys at shopping centres by day and working at restaurants by night.

In 1983 he bought his first restaurant dealing in French cuisines. Unfortunately that one didn’t do very well and he closed it down in 1986. “It was still a learning curve for us. In retrospect, it was too early.” After that he took a break, went to India for a few months and recharged his batteries. He reopened Tandoori Junction in December 1987, one of a few Indian restaurants at that time. He also forayed into catering. There has been no looking back since.

His restaurant has got rave reviews for his food and service and bagged a couple of awards over the years. But he is not hankering after awards. He is passionate about his cuisines and innovations at the kitchen. “My name is Karan which means I am the child of Surya Devta (Sun God). If I can spread some of his rays, that is good enough for me,” is how he sees his work. So he measures his success by his passion. “Not everybody can become a doctor, an engineer or an accountant. You got to have the passion and attitude to whatever you pursue.”

However, he is sure about one thing when it comes to his children. “While it is good to have your children work with you, at the same time they need the corporate experience. So by all means help in the family business but go get a job and experience the outside world as well,” is his advice. “Then they will come to know what office politics is, what intra personal relationship is and so on, things which you will not learn in your father’s business because you will always have a certain clout.”

His son Shivraj seems to have taken his word at true value. Although Shivraj has been helping his father since the age of 14, he is also at university studying marketing. “I would like to be a part of the corporate world,” he says. But having grown up in the hospitality industry, he got a job as a waiter at the Atlantic Group in Docklands, in the process gathering as much outside experience as he can to contribute to his family business. “So things I learnt there, that I would have never thought about, I now apply in my father’s business too,” he says. For instance, if they have a function to cater to, he is able to split the task. “I take care of one half and dad takes care of the other half.”

Shivraj says there is a perfect balance in the relationship where they are like two best friends working. “If need be he asks for my input and vice versa. Then we discuss, think and come to a conclusion where we are both happy with.”

Working with his father begins with a lot of respect for the man and the organisation for Shivraj. “Everyone knows Tandoori Junction and everyone knows Karan. Not a day goes past when someone says ‘Oh you are Karan’s son’. That’s the only downside. I have big shoes to fill and I hope I can someday do my father proud.” For Karan, the enthusiasm in his children is heart-warming.  He cites his own father who once said “some of the dreams we are going to fulfil through our kids. So things we could not achieve we want them to achieve it”.

Sunil & Shantanu Tyagi of The Indian Star: Growing up in a big joint family under the wings of a very dynamic father, a landlord and a special magistrate in the plains of Uttar Pradesh, Sunil Tyagi had a privileged life. But a tsunami like flood near the Ganges in the 1950s wiped away acres of land and cattle in a flash. “Overnight my family lost everything but we didn’t lose our spirits,” says Sunil. Suddenly the family had to make decisions and chart out careers to survive.  He wanted to study medicine and fulfil his father’s dream but modestly admits to sitting for the entrance exams many times, each time without success. But it was the 1960s and the hotel industry was coming up in India. Egged on by his father’s friend a doctor based in the US, who was visiting them at that time, he found himself at the Oberoi Intercontinental training to become a chef. Of course it was a decision that his grandfather, a politician, would not have been very pleased with, says Sunil. But endowed with a creative mind, he found himself immersed in the properties of the coriander or the cumin, studying the chemistry of food, and rubbing shoulders with some of the best chefs that India has produced. For this old school chef, cooking is not something you learn overnight. For his son, Shantanu, his father’s passion has rubbed off on him. After eight years of accountancy and life in the corporate finance world, he is now devoted full time at The Indian Star. But first, more on the father.

The Oberoi proved to be the toughest learning ground. Coming from a strict vegetarian family not familiar with even the smell of an egg, Sunil had to cut and chop meat. Add to it, the trainers, who were not very literate, resented the boys from the privileged backgrounds and pushed them hard. But he decided to put his heart and soul into the industry working 13-14 hours at a stretch.  “When the teachers saw the desire in us to learn they used to go slow. Stay another two hours, we will teach you something else, they would say. We were greedy to learn and they were greedy for labour.”

But some of his great teachers such as Imtiaz, Lala Hansraj, Ismail took cooking to a different level and exposed him to the best traditions of food beginning from Mughlai. They came out with genuine recipes that became famous such as the Bukhara leg of lamb. Sunil believes a teacher does not want to die taking his art with him; he wants his name as well and so is always seeking his best disciple. “But learning is not for everybody, if you have the desire, you can learn anything and that is another art.”

So when he arrived in Australia he was part of the factor that gave Melbourne a handful of best Indian award-winning restaurants in the 1980s. Since 2000, Sunil has been running The Indian Star at Mondee Ponds. “The beauty of this restaurant is everything here is original. Our mind and soul does not allow otherwise. No matter if the restaurant is empty (though it is always full) we still have our own traditional fixed recipes.”

Sunil sees the advantage of his son joining him. “He (Shantanu) incorporates new ideas moving with the times some of which I am not aware of. One plus 10 equals 11, so that is also another form of support,” he says but adds, “This is a tough industry; there are lots of ups and downs and lot of hide and seek which over time children have to know. I am proud of my son and he knows a lot of things about the industry and he grew with me in this environment.”

Shantanu who has always been helping his father decided to turn full time three years ago after he realised his hunger and passion for accountancy was waning. He was working for eight years in the field after finishing his degree but the stress and pressure and the long hours involved impacted his family business. “I would finish work at 7, then come to the restaurant at 7:30 and find so many small issues creeping up. Then I thought it’s no point sacrificing the business for my work. I always loved the restaurant.” He says his father never forced him to join the business and let him do his own thing for many years. He has just enrolled in hospitality at William Angliss to get a formal degree.

The way work is divided is, “My father takes home the cash, I pump it all out from the kitchen,” he laughs. But on a serious note, he says there is never an issue, “it is a great partnership where we are both making sure that the standard and quality of the food is the same, the bills paid, the suppliers and staff happy and, of course, the customer is treated like a king”. He also works in other restaurants part time and studies the issues that other businesses are having and trying to avoid it in his.

For the Tyagis, the restaurant expresses “a culture based on grace, ritual and colour.” At the basic level, their mutual respect, love and support shows ample culture.

The Solo Players

Atul Khore of Masala Craft:

Atul Khore’s parents, both teachers, harboured the dreams any normal Indian parents do about their children. So he set off to study engineering in Goa but for some reason he did not fit in. Within a few months he was packing his bags to go back home to Pune. Once home, he decided to follow his heart and was enrolled in a three-year diploma in hotel management at Bharati Vidyapeeth in Pune. He passed out in 1996. Since then, Khore has embraced the world of hospitality and cooking travelling the world, exploring cuisines and whipping appetites. In the process, he has amassed a wealth of experience.

His journey into the world of culinary arts is now a twenty-year old story. “The growth of a chef is a step by step process,” he says. After working at various places in India he went to Germany in 2003 and then to Dubai working with the famous Jashan restaurant which had its operations at the airport and at the upmarket Sheikh Zayed Road. But Khore’s trip round the world would soon culminate in Australia where he worked with the Langham hotel and Hilton on the Park before finally opening his restaurant Masala Craft at Thornbury.

Today Masala Craft is the result of Khore’s wide experiences. He says constant learning and R&D is at the core of what makes a good chef. While he has friends who have inherited empires from their parents, he is a self-made man. Asked if he wants either of his two children to follow his footsteps, he says it is too early to foretell. He is proud of his elder daughter Mahi, now six-and-half years, who is showing promising signs of being a good swimmer and a good tennis player. Her teachers have remarked on her excellent performance given her age and Khore is optimistic she will be in the limelight soon. Ideally, he would like her or her brother to carry on what he has started but he will give his kids the choices to make their own decision when the time is right. Khore is happy creating his own legacy.

Sumit Malhotra of Aangan: Sumit Malhotra’s fascination for food began in the lanes and bylanes of Jaipur, his hometown. From the kulcha seller to the chaat papri maker to the tandoori chicken wallah, these men dished out the tastiest of food. He would go home and try and replicate whatever he saw on the streets. But being a boy, he was often chided by his mother for being in the kitchen. So when his family members went to sleep Malhotra would practice his culinary skills in the silence of the night. There was no Google then and his recipes were all 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. They would also shape his future.

After passing out from the Merit Swiss Asian School of Hotel Management in Ooty, he started working at the Hyatt, where he made a mark. According to Malhotra, all chefs the world over rely on four tastes – sweet, sour, bitter and salty. “You have to play around with these tastes and then start understanding textures – soft, grainy etc. So we learn about taste, texture and presentation.”

Inspired by the idea of a foreign degree, he came to Australia and enrolled at the William Angliss Institute. But unhappy with the way some kitchen experiences at a few Indian restaurants where he worked, he set up Aangan, his trailblazer restaurant at Footscray.

“My only aim is to make Indian cuisine the first choice of all Australians. It will be the growth of a community as a whole,” he says.

Of his five-year old son Mehul, he wants him to do whatever he desires when he comes of age. “It is also good for children to go out of the protection of the parents to learn more. It is always good for them to fight their way out, accumulate worldly experiences and then perhaps join the family business armed with their own wisdom,” he believes. “Make your mark outside, prove yourself and then come,” is the ideal advice he has.

Ashwani Kumar of Shiraaz @ Geelong: In 1995, a young boy from Ludhiana arrived on the shores of Melbourne to study engineering. Just 19 and eager to explore life overseas, the opportunities too threw themselves before him. Like all students he started part time work joining his uncle’s restaurant business. Before he realised he had been with him for ten years. He had graduated from a kitchen hand to a chef. The engineering career was pushed to the periphery and a new calling beckoned him.

He also started working in other Indian restaurants such as Bhoj and at a takeaway joint at a food court in the CBD for six years during the day. In the process acquiring more and more skills and “that is how I became a master of Indian food,” smiles Ashwani. He recalls the early years being very tough but one has to go with the flow and become a part of the rhythm knowing when to start and when to finish, he says. But in all these, he realised one thing: that he was experiencing a renewed love for Indian food.

But apart from facing the kitchen heat, Ashwani was also caught by the entrepreneurial bug. He started a cleaning business, an idea he got after working as the supervisor for cleaning at the Hilton hotel. So when he bought Jai Ho restaurant in Richmond in 2009 and a year later Shiraaz in Geelong, he had to give up one of the restaurants due to his many commitments. He kept Shiraaz, which is now known for its delectable menu of fresh ingredients and prides in its passion for quality and presentation. Ashwani is happy that currently Shiraaz@ Geelong is at No 11 under TripAdvisor, a travel website that gives the ratings based on customer reviews.

Blessed with two boys who he would love to see following his footsteps, Ashwani feels the younger one shows an inclination for it. “I don’t think the elder one has much interest,” he laughs. It’s a hard business but what is life without its challenges, he thinks.

 

By Indira Laisram