|Picture: Rashbehari Das
They’ve been dating for four years and finally, they’re engaged! Anjan Chatterjee, chief of the Speciality Group, and food consultant Shaun Kenworthy have big plans for Mezzuna. The first outlet opens in Pune this month with Calcutta up next. A t2 chat with Anjan...
How did the partnership happen?
We’ve been contemplating doing something together for ever! I have great respect for Shaun and I was a big fan of his restaurant The Blue Potato apart from his work at The Park. You may tell me that I am in Bombay, I’m exposed to the best of consultants, there are Italian and Mediterranean chefs… then why Shaun? Because I think he is a Bengali! Plus, professional evaluations apart, the chemistry is very important. I’m a team man — if I get wrong vibes, I cannot deal with the person. He may be the best chef on earth, I don’t care. Shaun has always tried to understand our space. He has admired our work, always been a good critic. I knew I had to have Shaun on board, even if he has less time!
Why the decision to open Mezzuna now?
The market was very bad in the last two years — like I say, kabhi haan, kabhi na! We had a tough time. Having said that, we are the only Indian restaurant company to have done what we have done today — no other peer in India in the last 100 years has gone public, scaling up a brand built by them. But I’m not saying this because of arrogance — I’m just saying it’s a difficult task. After 21 years of getting into the business, it was an important thing for me to do. It was a milestone for us. It was the way forward.
If we were to go ahead with Mezzuna in the last two years of turbulence, the investor would lose confidence saying, ‘Oh, this is a new brand, you’re going to bleed and not pay. Show me where your profits are.’ Today, we are 180 crore sitting on the books, debt-free in an environment when growth is going down in India. God has been kind so I can take risks. A new brand needs nurturing… I know because I’ve done it for Mainland China for 10-11 years… it has not happened just like that. Anek risk niyechhi.
Why the shift from formal dining to casual all-day bar and kitchen?
It has been on my mind for a long time that the age group of 18-24 eats less and drinks more… they are nocturnal animals. I have also seen the preferences of my 21-year-old son. Even the type of food the new generation eats is different. So Mezzuna is a bar and kitchen kind of thing, which is more casual, more relaxed, for the 18-24 age group that can go up to 35.
Why did we go in for Chinese years ago? Because after Indian, it was the most popular cuisine. Now, in India and all over the world, Italian and Mediterranean are the most popular cuisines. I know we’ve lost a little time in doing this but I feel a good product has no time.
It’s also extremely important that we are not a single brand. We’re like a Unilever that has Surf, Wheel, Rin and Lux. In 1991 when we started, the trend was… Mughlai hai, Chinese hai, yeh bhi hai and woh bhi hai. So we opened Only Fish in 1992, then Mainland China, then Sigree, then Oh! Calcuta. A company has to adapt — it cannot just stay where it is. You have to understand the Indian diaspora. In 1991-92, if I had opened a Mezzuna, I would’ve been thrown out. India had not evolved to that level.
Why did you decide to open in Pune first and not Calcutta?
It was more real estate driven. We had a free property in Pune and we didn’t have to pay rent. Secondly, getting an independent space in Calcutta, besides the malls, which are also taking time to come up, is difficult. A place in Park Street is difficult and we wanted a garden… the one in Pune has a huge outdoor space, almost 3,500sq ft, and Pune is an air-conditioned city in the evening. We already have five Mainland Chinas, one Oh! Calcutta in Pune and a Sweet Bengal opening too.
When does Mezzuna come to Calcutta?
In another five months. I can’t divulge the location but it’s a beautiful place! Hopefully before the Pujas.
“I was telling Anjan that the time’s come to do something western or at least something modern. Mezzuna is contemporary. It’s also the first time Speciality is doing not just a food-driven but also an alcohol-driven model. We expect an onslaught of people from Bombay to see what we’re doing. Especially because this is the first time Speciality is doing something out of the box and people are going to come from everywhere, so we have to have it right. And because we’re both so closely connected to Calcutta, that’s why even before the first Mezzuna opens in Pune, we’re talking about it in Calcutta! Menu-wise, it’s the Mediterranean-Italian belt. Don’t miss the freshly-brewed coffees! We didn’t want to do a buffet and we didn’t want to keep it expensive. The worst thing that can happen is someone walking away because the menu is too expensive.”
“We’ve tried to keep the menu as seamless as possible. Like the wafer-thin pizzas can be had as bar nibbles or as a starter before dinner,” says chef Somnath Bhattacharya, who is driving the new vertical.
His recommendations? “In the salads, you must have the Wine Poached Pear Salad with goat cheese and a red wine vinaigrette, and in the main course, the Citrus Grilled Chicken.”
Local ingredients have been incorporated too. For example, the Grilled King Fish has a kokum extract. Say hurrah for the desserts! “Everyone does a Molten Chocolate Cake with dark chocolate but we’ve done it with white chocolate and flavoured it with some gondhoraj lebu. The Spiced Rum Pate, made with Captain Morgan Original Spiced Rum, is also a winner,” says the chef whose careergraph includes four-years at Taj Bengal and chef de cuisine aboard Carnival Cruise Lines before he set up the Indigo delis. “The challenge is that being an all-day restaurant, you need back-end people round-the-clock. And of course, being a cut above the local players.”