Overcoming my customary disdain of vegetarian food, I agreed to meet Chef Venkatesh Bhat for lunch at South Indies, a restaurant that is his personal ode to South Indian vegetarian cuisine. I warn him over the phone that I don’t really care for veggies; he feigns distress, but promises (like a zillion worthies before him) to change my mind.
I walk into the restaurant at 1.30pm, to find it packed to the gills with lunching professionals and a couple of families. I stride smugly past the people waiting patiently on the wooden benches in the outdoor courtyard and ask to meet the chef. Barely a minute later, a man wearing a loose cotton shirt and trousers approaches me inquiringly. “Full restaurant, busy afternoon. No toque. No white coat. Can’t be the chef,” I think. “Wonder what he wants?”
“Hi, I’m Venkatesh,” he says. “Welcome.”
Venkatesh leads me upstairs, through a busy dining area, to a glassed-off lounge outfitted with chic sofas and a coffee table. It’s the perfect day for chilled watermelon juice, and that’s exactly what we get. As we settle in and get comfortable, I ask Venkatesh a question that’s been bothering me since I agreed to meet him – why would a talented cook, with a pedigree that includes the Taj Group of Hotels as well as the Leela Kempinski, throw it all away for a standalone South Indian vegetarian establishment?
South Indian Roots
“Well, the idea of lifting South Indian food out of the stand-up-and-eat darshini environment excited me. I come from the family that owns and runs the Dasaprakash chain of hotels all over South India. Food and hospitality are in my blood.” After deciding not to join the family business because he wanted to “know what it was really like to be an employee”, Venkatesh left home with not much more than his motorcycle and his basketball at the age of 19. He spent his early career years at the Taj Group of Hotels, and was part of a team that traveled through 300 villages collecting authentic recipes from various South Indian regions and communities. After a stint as Master Chef at the Leela Palace, Bangalore, he was approached by entrepreneur Vijay Abhimanyu with the concept of South Indies and was “impressed by the potential for the convergence of South Indian cuisine, fine dining, professional management and technology.”
Technology? Huh? Venkatesh lights up. “The whole of the restaurant is Wi-Fi enabled,” he enthuses. “And our waiters don’t write orders down, they use PDAs to communicate with the kitchen so they can be more available to our guests. We have a Private Dining Room downstairs that’s equipped with a drop-down LCD screen and can be used by companies for brainstorming sessions or meetings. Our kitchen inventory is linked to our supply system is linked to our cash counter is linked to our on-floor technology is linked to…” Whoa. Suddenly I’m hungry.
We stroll onto the upper verandah to begin our feast.