Rohit Khattar has a good ear for accents

[ad_1]

Modern Indian dining caught on by breaking the mould of butter-chicken-naan and introducing the pleasure of plated meals, chef menus and gourmet ingredients. While raita spiced with wasabi may not be an oddity now, it was 15 years ago. At that time, one of the chief driving forces behind the re-imagining of Indian food was restaurateur Rohit Khattar, with chef Manish Mehrotra executing it to perfection. Khattar launched the iconic Indian Accent in Delhi in 2009 and Mehrotra’s blue cheese naan, wasabi raita and daulat ki chaat have become legendary.

It inspired many others—The Bombay Canteen, Masque, Avartana and The Monkey Bar, to name a few—which interpreted Indian food distilled through nostalgia, regional dishes and a contemporary approach strung together with impeccable service. Mehrotra’s protégé, chef Himanshu Saini, now heads the kitchen at the two Michelin-starred Trèsind in Dubai. For several years in a row, Indian Accent, which has a cult following, has secured the top spot in restaurant awards like the Times Food Guide, Condé Nast Traveller Top Restaurant Awards and Living Foodz Epicurean Guild Awards.

Khattar, 60, now has two hospitality ventures: Old World Hospitality (OWH), the parent company of Chor Bizarre in Delhi and The All American Diner in Maharashtra’s Lavasa; and Ekatra Hospitality Ventures (EHV), the parent company of Comorin in Delhi, Hosa in Goa, Koloman in New York, Indian Accent gourmet catering and the restaurant Indian Accent in Delhi, New York—and now Mumbai.

I met the affable Khattar in the fag end of July, a week before Indian Accent opened in Mumbai. Khattar is known to be elusive and avoids the media. I was surprised when he reserved two hours for the interview“at the behest of the restaurant’s PR team” and began by saying: “Tell me about yourself first.” Caught off-guard, I began talking about my life chronologically. He followed suit: He was born in 1963 in Srinagar, spent the first eight years in “magical Kashmir” and moved to Delhi in 1972. Khattar studied at the Delhi Public School and later joined the Institute of Hotel Management (IHM) in the city.

While at the IHM, he started applying to colleges in the US and got through to the hospitality school at Michigan State University, in 1983. In the US, he polished his hospitality skills and discovered concepts that inspired him. For example, the first eatery Khattar visited upon landing in Michigan was Moxy’s Diner, which felt like “walking into Pop Tate’s in Archie Comics”. In 1999, this inspiration translated into The All American Diner at the India Habitat Centre (IHC), complete with a jukebox, seats upholstered in red and old American memorabilia.

He also interned at Hilton Hotels. From there, he joined WR Grace as a management trainee in Washington, DC, worked in their Mexican restaurant, and then managed their fine-dining space. He was drawn to F&B more than checking people into rooms.

In 1986, he returned to India “with a head full of ideas”. At that time, places like Thank God It’s Friday (TGIF) were the rage in the US. He was attracted to the nostalgia-infused interiors and wanted to adopt this concept. He joined his mother, Vijay Lakshmi Khattar, at the family-owned Broadway Hotel in old Delhi and began to renovate the property as the concept stewed. In giving his idea some direction, an old friend of the family, the legendary designer Rajeev Sethi, had a role to play. When Khattar’s mother told Sethi her son was a bit of a kabadiwalla (scrap collector) and couldn’t throw anything away, Sethi suggested the concept of Chor Bazaar. “I was like, what a great idea. But (all of 22) I tried to be clever, added a twist and called it Chor Bizarre. Later on, I regret not having trademarked the name ‘Chor Bazaar’,” says Khattar.

He, along with his wife, Rashmi, scrounged antique bazaars to bring back unique finds for his very first restaurant, which opened in 1990 with principal capital of 14 lakh. Till this day, his wife has the last word on design and has worked on every concept created by Khattar in the last three decades.

With this restaurant, Khattar started being noticed as a promising restaurateur in Delhi. But he had bigger ambitions. In the 1990s, he did what his grandfather, Tirath Ram Amla, had done in the mid-1950s—bid for a promising place. His grandfather got the property to establish Broadway Hotel in the 1950s for 49,000; Khattar bagged the contract to run the hospitality facilities at the then developing IHC in Delhi in 1992. He bid 4 crore, much higher than the established larger hotel companies. IHC was a new concept at the time—a cultural space that also housed offices and restaurants.

The year 1997 was a seminal one for Khattar. At the IHC, he managed a Members Club with 58 guest rooms, 20 meeting rooms and opened six restaurants: The All American Diner, Delhi ‘O’ Delhi, the English-style pub Past Times, Lite House, the pan-Asian Oriental Octopus and a food court, Eatopia—continuing till 2021. He had another significant opening in 1997—Chor Bizarre in London. The London-based Kashmiri broadcaster, Mahendra Kaul, was a family friend and asked Khattar to look at Gaylord in Mayfair where he (Kaul) was a partner.

Chor Bizarre in London, says Khattar, was the first international branch of a restaurant group from India after the Taj. With these two projects, Khattar gained iconic status.

“After Habitat, I thought we should start expanding. But I realised that replicating concepts and creating a chain (of restaurants) wasn’t my thing. Maybe it didn’t make smart business sense, because I could have had 40-50 Chor Bizarres by now, and in terms of valuation, that would have been great. But I found it boring; the idea was to create something new each time,” he says.

In 2008, he managed a conference and cultural centre, similar to the IHC, called Epicentre in Gurugram, Haryana. In the same year, he leased The Manor Hotel in Delhi’s New Friends Colony—a boutique hotel with 14 rooms and a restaurant that had fallen on bad times. He couldn’t quite figure out what to start there. At first, he launched a branch of the Mediterranean restaurant from Epicentre named Drift.

“It was so-so. I wanted an Indian restaurant. I already knew the name; it would be called Indian Accent.” The idea was seeded when he was exposed to the dining scene in London where Indian dishes were plated like French food at premium places, instead of being served in handis and small baltis.

Khattar knew his new project would have plated Indian food and he needed a head chef. Manish Mehrotra, who was with Khattar’s Oriental Octopus, was keen to run the kitchen. “I knew how gifted he was. So, he and I travelled all over, ate in many restaurants, and hit upon the angle that it’s going to be authentic Indian food, using international ingredients—blue cheese, wasabi and summer truffles—presented like European dishes.” When it opened in 2009 at The Manor Hotel, it remained mostly empty. Mehrotra was so disappointed he resigned. It was 2009, a year after the economic crisis, and Khattar asked the chef to wait it out.

By 2010, they were running full. The idea had finally caught on. Business magnate Anand Mahindra was so impressed he asked Khattar to take the concept abroad and offered to be an investor. Mahindra has been an ally for decades, and it all started with Khattar’s grandfather, who opened cinemas, hotels and a Mahindra dealership in Srinagar and Delhi. “That’s how the families got to know each other. My grandfather was a great relationship builder, as is my mother, which has led to enduring relationships through my life too, like the one with Anand, who I regard as my mentor and elder brother,” says Khattar.

The one lasting value that the young Khattar picked up from his grandfather was khatirdaari(hospitality). It translated into the name of his first company, Old World Hospitality—Puraane Zamaane ki Khatir. It also reflects in Khattar’s penchant for collecting all things old. He loves Art Deco—a prominent design feature at the Indian Accent in Mumbai—antiques and memorabilia, like film posters (he has thousands). The love for films led to Mahindra backing Khattar’s ambition to start a film company (Cinestaan Film Company) to produce and distribute films. But he has put it on hold “while focusing 100% on growing the restaurant business—with a new place opening every three months.”

 

Rapid fire with Rohit Khattar

Rapid fire with Rohit Khattar

In 2011, Khattar carved out another company, EHV International, with Mahindra and three other investors who too are friends. He refuses to share numbers but says he is happy that his restaurants are more profitable than restaurant chains four times the size.

In 2016, Indian Accent opened in the Big Apple to rave reviews. In 2018, EHV opened the bar-cum-restaurant Comorin in Gurugram, conceived by Khattar’s son, Rishiv.

“Currently, it’s our most successful restaurant. We feed about 600 people a day in a 120-seater space and there are offers to open Comorin everywhere, even more than Indian Accent.” In 2022, Rishiv also started the French-Austrian restaurant Koloman in New York that received a coveted three stars from The New York Times shortly after opening. In the same year, Khattar launched Hosa, a casual modern south Indian restaurant in Siolim, Goa.

There have been heartbreaks along the way. During the covid-19 crisis, while the New York landlord made the restaurant rent-free, the lease in London had an upwards-only rent increase clause. “It was sensible to close down Indian Accent in London,” says Khattar, sounding pragmatic. But there are others in the pipeline. “In New York, we are working on our third. By next year, we would have opened six more restaurants in various cities.”

At this point in the interview, he requests me to “give credit to everyone who has made it happen. I stand tall on the shoulders of a battalion of people who make OWH and EHV what they are and unfortunately chefs and restaurateurs get undue credit as opposed to the back room boys”. He relies heavily on Nitin Mathur, the COO of EHV, and Vikas Bhasin, director development, who delivers the ready restaurants to Mathur to operate.

Barring daughter Tarika, who is pursuing her Phd in history from Cambridge, all other family members are part of Khattar’s “incredible support system”, including his sister Rohini Kapur, who did the interiors of Hosa. Now, Khattar says, he is focusing on his first love, restaurants with more vigour than he did two decades ago.

It has been about a month since Indian Accent launched in Mumbai. Earlier this week, I tried to reserve a table for two for dinner; none were available till 25 September. I have lived in Mumbai for 20 years and not once did I have to wait beyond four days. There is no dearth of fine-dining here but Indian Accent has the city hungry for more.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *