In conversation with London-based chef, restaurateur and inveterate rice-lover, Das Sreedharan.
Das Sreedharan went to London to study accountancy, but ended up opening the Rasa chain of restaurants and making his mark in global cuisine. Sreedharan, who appears frequently on British television, is the author of four popular cookbooks and the founder of a social enterprise venture called Rasa Institutions in the U.K. He has now trained his sights on home shores: Rasa Bangalore opened a few months ago, and a new project Rasa Gurukul, a centre for culinary excellence, is in the works. Excerpts from an interview with the chef-restaurateur-culinary impresario.
When did you first realise you wanted to work with food?
I was born in a teashop environment and watched the world of food through the eyes of a kid. My grandfather, Pappu Pillai, was a popular cook in the village and I wanted to be like him. It was the silent dream of a child; the revelation came years later when I went out into the world and saw how restaurants functioned everywhere.
Tell us about the setting up of the first Rasa restaurant. Was it an uphill task to set up the first Rasa restaurant or did you break even soon enough?
Rasa was and is a miracle. In 1993, I lost my job as a restaurant manager in London. A failed restaurant was up for sale and an elderly Jamaican couple gave me the opportunity to run it — not a favour, because they charged a high rent! I took up the challenge. Initial capital to get the restaurant ready was borrowed from friends. Luckily, I managed to fill the restaurant in the first week and break even in six months.
Is working with food easy if you have a passion for all things culinary?
Let me speak for myself. Food is god to me and my restaurant is a temple. The growth of the food industry in modern times has changed how we understood cooking and serving. Like with any art, one has to have passion, to want to serve people as well as enjoy oneself. Unfortunately, not everyone sees or experiences that beauty in this job, though opportunities abound in this profession.
The food industry seems to be going through a boom. So many restaurants in so many cities, so frequently.
What is happening in India today happened 30 years ago in the West. This boom, though, could have an adverse effect. With careful expansion and serious legislation, we could sustain the quality. I think both the consumer and the industry will have to work together, otherwise growth will swamp quality since many come with the sole aim of making money through food.
What are the downsides to your profession?
Nothing, personally. However, people get bored of cooking and serving, and that affects their craft. Unfortunately, we don’t have a tradition of teaching kids to be passionate about such an important art like cooking. We also need to develop more respect for people who cook and serve. Just like any business, catering has also been concentrating on excessive money-making and far-too-fast growth. People tend to cut corners to achieve this.
Tell us about your plans for classes at your farm.
At Rasa Gurukul, we intend to re-invent our culture by uniting nature with simple food making. With various training programmes, we will transform the future of around 20 orphans and needy kids every year. It will be a destination point for every individual who is looking for self-discovery and changing life for good.
What is your personal comfort food?
Rice with any south Indian dish will do it for me, every time!
What would be your ideal last meal?
My mother’s moru curry with sweet mangoes and red rice.
What would you like to see India eat?
I feel India should eat happily and healthily to sustain itself properly. People should think about the future of our world and how we can enhance agriculture. We need to be more educated about local traditional food and its importance in our communities. Since eating out is unavoidable today, one should choose well and make an effort to source food from the right places.
Where do you see yourself five years down the line?
I would love to see big changes in our country regarding food. Food has the amazing power to bind people, make them transcend most things. I would like to create a force of passionate young people who will take this industry forward, who will promote the power and goodness of Indian food around the world.