The ‘accident’al chef
Chef Chalapathi Rao is a brand of his own. From feeding VIPs to setting up his own venture, he sure has come a long way.
HYDERABAD: Chef Chalapathi Rao is a brand of his own. From feeding VIPs to setting up his own venture, he sure has come a long way. He shares how his love for food convinced the medical enthusiast in him to switch paths. Excerpts:
Did you grow up wanting to be a chef?
Not at all, I wanted to be a doctor! But my love for food grew at different stages. You could say it was ‘accidental’. When I was around 10 years old, my mother met with an accident and was bed-ridden for a few months. My father, siblings and I took care of the household work and that’s when I realised I loved cooking. Years later, I visited my uncle over the summer, his friend was a chef and I learnt it is a real profession people consider. Even after that, I wasn’t sure. I gave a national entrance exam to get into a professional institute in Chennai, and went for the interview in casuals. That’s usually not how you see hotel management students -- they’re all well dressed. Despite it all, I got through, I joined my class 15 days later. But once I got to college, I enjoyed cooking so much, I never turned back.
Take us through your journey to setting up your own restaurant.
After college, I got decent work. In my career spanning more than 25 years now, I travelled with ITC for over 20 years, had been a custodian as well as Master Chef of the Dakshin brand — while employed with them. The decision to move out and start something of my own was purely personal. My friends and I wanted to start something of our own in Hyderabad and that’s how Simply South came to be in 2014.
How did you conceptualise Simply South?
When my friends and I conducted a survey, with all due respect to hotels claiming to be South Indian, we found that only the first two pages of their menu had authentic dishes from the South — the pages after that are Chinese, Mughlai and other cuisines. I don’t blame them, it is a restaurant’s choice to cater to different people and they have to do what they need to. Since South Indian cuisine was my forte, it wasn’t a hard decision to start Simply South. We have South Indian staples from all the five States — Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala. We don’t even use paneer in our dishes, that’s how strict we are about curating an authentic South Indian menu.
What are some of the most memorable moments in your career?
There have been very sweet moments. I was able to cater to VIPs — from the late Prince Philip to various heads of States and Indian premiers and their entourage — directly or indirectly. Being one of the judges for MasterChef Telugu, too, was a great experience. Although, I had to do some juggling and multitasking with Simply South reopening around the same time. But, nothing brings me greater joy than seeing three generations of a family sitting together at a table enjoying the food I prepare or a youngster tasting the food and telling me that it reminds them of their grandmother’s food. There is no bigger compliment than that!
You shut operations for more than a year but came back stronger. How tough was that fight?
The first and second waves of Covid hit us hard. For the first few months of Covid, the staff was all confused and in two minds whether to stay or go back to their hometowns. We had to let them go and so, shut shop. For a year, we had a contract to cater to the nursing staff of a chain of hospitals. We had enough time to refurbish the restaurant, while keeping most of the elements of Simply South. It has been doing well and the entire team deserves credit for that.
What’s cooking these days?
Well, we were supposed to go global, but Covid played spoilsport. We’re working on a lot of interesting things, but it’s early to let the cat out! Personally, there’s a lot I want to do — from curating more dishes out of millets to experimenting with healthy, fresh and seasonal foods, let’s see where that goes.