As we started our conversation with Uttam Tripathy of Potli—an Indian restaurant in London—we were reminded of the film Cheeni Kum. Remember, how the movie starts off with the fiercely proud owner of an Indian restaurant, Amitabh Bachchan, boasting of his knowledge about Hyderabadi Zafrani Pulao? Uttam’s passion for serving authentic and impeccably-cooked Indian dishes to the westerners called for the comparison. In fact, The Week voted it as one of the 24 best Indian restaurants in London in 2017. The 40-year-old native of Odisha’s Sambalpur district is on a mission to popularise Indian market cuisine in the West.
Until 1995, Uttam had no clue about the hotel or food industry. It was luck by chance that he cleared his interview for an integrated course in Hotel Management at Kolkata’s Taratala to become a part of the Indian Institute of Hotel Management. As he puts it himself, ‘out of nowhere’ he was selected for the institute’s Chennai campus. And, that’s how he set on a voyage of good food. “No one had ever opted for hotel management in my family of engineers and professors. But, I have enjoyed being with people,” he says.
Setting up Potli wasn’t an overnight affair. He faced a fair share of struggle before striking the right note. With memories of Sambalpur etched in his mind, he left for Delhi to realise his dreams. His associations with some of the reputed hotels in the national capital helped him learn the tricks of the trade. However, his insatiable hunger for entrepreneurship took him to London in 2004.
“I faced a tough time for more than a year, when I first came to London. People who brought me to the city didn’t keep their words. Soon, I had no job,” Uttam recollects. Fortunately, he bumped into a client, who hired him for launching a bar-cum-Indian restaurant in north-west London. He transformed a dying old English pub into a swanky yet traditional Indian bar, Blue Ginger.
“I wasn’t happy deep inside working for others. With nothing in hand, I quit my job in 2010. Along with a friend I was knocking on the doors of investors and banks to secure investment for my project. Everyone rejected us. Finally, I met a bank manager, who approved the loan,” he shared.It took another six to seven months for the duo to refurbish the place and finally Potli was launched on August 15, 2011.
He never looked back since. The restaurant was rated one of the top Indian restaurants in London by Tatler in 2013. Potli’s dal makhani was named as one of the top 5 Indian dishes by Hardens. It hosted several celebrities, including Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik in 2011. At Potli, Uttam had tried to popularise the commercial Indian dishes, sold at marketplaces. The concept was inspired by the famed biryani brand of Hyderabad, Paradise; Tunde Kababi of Lucknow; Alkauser of Delhi and of course, the quintessential Indian dhabas. But, what motivated Uttam to start an Indian restaurant to tickle the taste buds of Britons? The entrepreneur with a typical Indian facial morphology took a deep breath before he answered that. Much to his surprise, he says that he discovered that the Indian restaurants in London weren’t selling genuine dishes. They had, as he claims, either Anglicised or transformed the dishes into something very hot and spicy to give Europeans a ‘high’ after a few shots of tequila on a Saturday date night. “Indian food was considered to be the cheapest in the country. The pocket-friendly chicken Madras, balti chicken, chicken tikka masala and vindaloo defined Indian cuisine, thanks to the curry houses here. But, none of these were truly Indian,” he adds.
For instance, the vindaloo, which is primarily a tangy Goan pork delicacy, was being cooked with chicken, prawns or lamb. The word vindaloo originated from vinegar and garlic. However, the curry houses there had apparently turned it into the hottest dish, served with unidimensional heat of red chili powder. It wasn’t a challenge for Uttam to introduce the cuisine in London, home to over 10,000 Indian restaurants. The real challenge was to bust the myth surrounding it.
In fact, Uttam has come a long way from when an English couple left Potli for not finding balti chicken in its menu to serving pani puri, vegetable chops, shammi kebab and a lot more Indian stuff to the westerners. And much like Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge’s Amrish Puri, Uttam sticks to his Indian side. “I was inspired by the way my grandmother would cook for 40 to 50 people alone,” he chuckles.