Taste of Kerala comes home from London
By Jackie Pinto | Published: 08th September 2013 12:00 AM |
You might wonder what all the fuss is about when you first hear about Rasa. A very successful chain of seven restaurants in London specializing in food from God’s Own Country Kerala and launching its first Indian outlet in Bangalore owned by Das Shreedharan, a self made millionaire.
So what exactly makes Shreedharan special and why do billionaires, some of Hollywood’s finest and celebrity chefs like Anthony Bourdain, Madhur Jaffrey and Jaimie Oliver rave about his menus?
When you meet the mild mannered man behind the Rasa chain, as he puts the finishing touches to his Bangalore restaurant, watch his eyes light up with passion, his voice quiver with emotion, you know that this is no ordinary food entrepreneur. All the trappings of success—the fancy flat on Baker Street, wheels and celebs on his speed dial have not ostensibly changed the man whose life story could inspire books and films.
Born in a village in Kerala, his father and grandfather ran a humble tea shop. He would rise early every morning, help in the chores, pick vegetables from their backyard and watch his mum turn them into delightful dishes while his dad and grandad would ready things for the stream of customers who would come in through the day. “They would spend many happy hours in our humble chaikadai, ‘nourishing their bodies and souls’. That was where I imbibed the true spirit of hospitality and the secret of my success although I didn’t know it then,” he smiles.
Now 47 , Shreedharan left home at the age of 19—naive, ill equipped to deal with the real world but determined to expand his horizons beyond his family’s simple tea shop and much to the dismay of his mother Susheela.
“I hopped onto a train to Delhi with very little money and no safety net. I felt lucky to have landed a job at a tea shop called the Madras Hotel at Connaught Place.” The irony was not lost on him as he struggled to serve his customers, mainly pilots at the nearby airport in exchange for food and a bed to sleep in. And no salary. Shreedharan gradually worked his way to better positions finally making his way to London “to become an accountant”. But hospitality and food were clearly in his stars and he moonlighted at one of the ‘clubs’ run for British people who had a faint nostalgic memory of Indian food.
“Curry houses as they are called were an abomination,” he shudders. “Indian food was invariably served up as greasy, messy slop. Mostly dished up by Bangaldeshi immigrants.Something an Englishman might fancy only after he has had one pint too many. It was never perceived or treated with the respect it deserved.” Hard work saw him rise to Restaurant Manager in London, quite an achievement at 25, but overnight he found himself out of a job when the owner married a Thai lady and made it a Thai restaurant complete with Thai staff. “I pounded the pavements looking for work, willing to even wait on tables, but couldn’t find anything. A Pakistani butcher directed me to a little dive, a restaurant supposedly serving Indian food but on the verge of closure. It was run by a West Indian couple.” Shreedharan convinced the owners to let him turn the place around. He changed the name to Rasa, introduced his mother’s recipes and got locals to appreciate the fine nuances of vegetarian food from Kerala.The rest is history.
“I now aim to create a whole village in Kerala which recreates the traditional way people lived, in a simpler, more honest time. We will showcase revered cooking techniques which produces food tasting of the earth, sea, pure spices and a whole lot of love,” he smiles.
Rasa uses organic ingredients sourced from his farm as well as from local growers. He has delicacies on his menu like payasam made from bamboo seeds extracted by tribals once every 12 years, delicious home made pickles and classic food served in style, sometimes with a clever modern twist.