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‘Every new restaurant is like a new-born baby’
Tête à tête

When Anjan Chatterjee opened his Mainland China restaurant in Calcutta’s Gurusaday Road in 2000, people called him crazy. It was way out from the city’s main food hub, Park Street, the retail revolution was nowhere on the horizon, and Calcutta was generally dismissed as a graveyard for anything new.

But Chatterjee knows which bets to take and how to make them pay. The Calcutta eatery, his second Mainland China after the one in Mumbai, went on to become a huge hit. Eight years on, he presides over an ever-expanding chain of standalone restaurants in cities like Mumbai, Delhi, Calcutta, Chennai, Pune, Chandigarh, Hyderabad, Bhubaneswar and Guwahati. At last count, his restaurants numbered 43, including 21 outlets of Mainland China, eight of Oh! Calcutta, six Sigrees and five Machaans. And oh, yes, that’s not counting what he calls his food-on-the-go “mall brands” — Flame and Grill, Just Biryani, Mostly Kebabs, and a chain of Bengali sweet shops in Mumbai called Sweet Bengal.

It’s enough to make you pause for breath. Chatterjee, though, isn’t given to too many pauses. Frenetically peripatetic — based in Mumbai, he travels continually to oversee his restaurants — and fiendishly energetic, the 49-year-old restaurateur is in Calcutta for a day to put the finishing touches to a new project — a Goa-themed lounge called The Shack, which will open at Mani Square mall shortly. But in between, he has nipped across to Maniktala wholesale market to check on the quality of the supplies, looked at a property for another restaurant, cooked an experimental Doi Chingri which is his own concoction, and gone in search of an arcane achaar to zing up a new meat dish which he plans to call Martaban Gosht.

We meet at his latest venture — Mainland China Private Dining (think Mainland China with the swish factor taken a few notches higher) on the Eastern Metropolitan Bypass. Dressed in a casual, 90s style full-sleeved white Tee with horizontal blue stripes, Chatterjee comes across as a genial but hard-nosed professional who knows exactly what makes his business tick. He can give you the lowdown on every wholesale market in Calcutta — even the ones you didn’t know existed. And he can crack you up with a wicked mimicry of the crass Bengali who drops his ‘r’s and “thinks entrepreneurship is all about being a ‘pomotar’ (real estate promoter) or a ‘podiusar’ (film producer).” But most of all, he’ll talk animatedly about what he loves best: food and the business of serving it to people.

“To me every new restaurant is like a new-born baby which needs to be tended and nurtured,” says Chatterjee. He is pitching this latest addition to his burgeoning brood of eateries as an exclusive fine dining outlet specialising in Chinese nouvelle cuisine dishes like stir-fried prawns with wasabi mayo, or mock Beijing duck (faux duck) with sweet bean sauce. “All our restaurants are concept-oriented,” he says with pride.

What’s remarkable is that whether it’s his Chinese restaurants or his Oh! Calcutta brand of Kolkata cuisine, or whether it’s Sigree’s north Indian fare, his “concepts” seem to have nailed the gastronomic zeitgeist of the Indian urban upper middle classes who are ready to splash some cash on eating quality food in comfort and style.

“I believe god is in the details,” says Chatterjee. “I have a very good reporting system but in this business you have to be hands-on all the time.” And indeed, from the colour of the place mats to the design of the buffet serving dishes, nothing escapes Chatterjee’s attention. He even smells the napkins at times to make sure that they smell fresh and have been washed to perfection. “I always tell my people that you have no right to spoil anyone’s evening or afternoon, least of all when he or she is paying for it. So we try to do everything to get it right.”

That’s probably why Speciality Restaurants, the holding company for all his restaurant brands, is now a thriving Rs 175 crore business which is looking to hit a turnover of Rs 200 crore by next year. Chatterjee diluted 20 per cent of the company’s stock to a US entity last year to get the funds for further expansion and consolidation. If all goes well, and “inshallah, the global economy recovers,” he says, there are plans to launch an IPO in a few years’ time.“My goal is to set up an Indian institution in fine dining which is world class,” says Chatterjee.

Though he is chasing global dreams today, Chatterjee did not set out to be an entrepreneur. Coming from an educated, salaried background — his father was a research scientist with the Government of India — he started out as another entrant in the job market. Always interested in food, he got a degree from the Institute of Hotel Management (IHM), Calcutta, and joined the Taj group in Mumbai as a trainee in the early 1980s.

But he tired of the job soon after and switched to marketing. For a while he worked with ABP Ltd (the group to which this paper belongs) in Mumbai and attended evening classes for a degree in marketing. “By then I knew that I wanted to strike out on my own,” says Chatterjee, who launched his own ad agency, Situations Advertising, in 1986.

Busy as he was in growing his ad agency — it is a flourishing concern even today — the passion for food remained. “My wife Suchhanda and I used to cook dinners for friends. I am a ghoti (from West Bengal), but she is a kaathh Bangaal (a true blue East Bengali), and so a better cook than me, and both of us used to hold fish festivals at home.” Their friends were so impressed that they started pushing them to open a restaurant.

Enthused, the Chatterjees found a small place in Mahim and thus was born Only Fish in 1992. “It was a tremendous success,” he recalls, smiling. “We often cooked ourselves. We were serving bhetki, ilish, pabda, flying them in from Calcutta. That’s because the fish in Mumbai was rubbish,” sniffs Chatterjee, who, like every discerning fish-fed Bengali, is ruthlessly particular about the quality and variety of the fish on his plate. In fact, to this day, all the fish in his restaurants are flown from Calcutta.

Chatterjee enjoyed the experience of running a restaurant so much that by 1994 he decided to get into the business in right earnest. “I saw a huge need for quality standalone restaurants,” he says. So he got together with some of his IHM buddies who were working at the Taj then and set up Speciality Restaurants. Mainland China came up in Mumbai the same year, Only Fish was reinvented as Oh! Calcutta in 1996, and Chatterjee has not looked back since.

Ask him the secret of his success and he replies, “100 per cent sincerity and commitment.” He handpicks his chefs — many of them from five star hotels. And he admits that he runs his restaurants with “military discipline”. “Look at the Chinese, it’s amazing how disciplined they are,” says Chatterjee, who visits China frequently to keep himself up-to-the- minute on contemporary Chinese cuisine.

If he has a business mantra, it’s a simple “customer is king.” His staff have strict instructions not to display any food snobbery whatsoever. “I believe in the dictum aap ruchi khana, par ruchi pahenna (you eat according to your taste, you dress according to others’ tastes). If a customer wants ketchup with his dish, you jolly well give it to him. It’s not your business to tell him this or that is not authentic. He has paid for his food, he has every right to eat it the way he wants to or to take it in a doggy pack if he so desires.”

Chatterjee can talk to you for hours about the way he runs his business, but he is really in his element when he is discussing food. “I think of food 24X7,” he grins. An out and out bheto Bangali — he confesses that he must have his machher jhol bhaat and posto every day — he waxes lyrical on the subject of ilish machh (“it’s the queen of all fish!”). He will explain exactly how he has tweaked the recipe for shorshe ilish by adding a hint of ground coconut to the mustard paste, and instruct you on the joys of a vodka tonic with a goodish twist of gandharaj lebu. “It’s heaven,” he says ecstatically.

For all his success, Chatterjee remains rooted to his middle class values. “If you make too much money your children may get spoilt. Which is why the biggest car we have is a Honda CRV.” That’s become a source of conflict between him and his 16-year-old son — his daughter, 20, studies in London now. “Our neighbour has five Mercs. So my son keeps telling me, ‘Dad, why can’t we get a beemer (BMW).’ I tell him, ‘Beta, you grow up and gift one to me.’ Really, I would be quite happy to just ride an Ambassador.”

Really?

“Of course! It’s a royal car, boss,” he exclaims. “It’s the car we grew up in!”

As we talk, someone comes in to take a look at the restaurant’s air conditioning. Chatterjee excuses himself and goes across to speak to him. It appears that one part of the restaurant isn’t cooling properly. It’s some hours to dinner yet and as always, Chatterjee wants to make sure that everything is perfect.

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