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The master of innovation shares how he keeps his food relevant for everyone.

The chainmail section partitions at Qualia is one of its architectural highlights. Rahul Akerkar, the brain behind the restaurant, grabs a section and gives it a shake. He points upwards to say, “These are serious dust traps!” As he settles down for the interview, one realizes that ‘eye for detail’ is not just a phrase for him but an everyday reality.

This also explains Akerkar’s food philosophy, which according to him has remained the same over the years: “We’ve been very conscious of what we put on the plate and how we put it on the plate. For me food has been a very cerebral process—we really think about what we want to do.”

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It all started when Akerkar came back to India in 1989 after his college and a 10-year stint in the food business in USA. “I came back knowing that I wanted to do something in the food space, but didn’t know how to go about it,” he reminisces. He describes himself as one of those with a vision but no means, a simple solution, the challenge was to start catering business from his home.

He then went on to open Just Desserts with AD Singh, where he oversaw the food and operations. His next project was Under The Over, in the early 90s it was a restaurant that focused on cooking global and eating local with menu featuring Tex Mex, Greek, Italian, Japanese, and more cuisines.

Through it all, Akerkar takes great pride in the fact that he stayed true to flavour. Despite his training being, “Jack of all trades and Master of none,” with fundamentally European style, he avoided Indianising flavours for the sake of the cash register ringing.

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Not that he didn’t falter, Akerkar is honest about his time at Protima Bedi’s Kuteeram Retreat in Bengaluru. “I realised I was getting complacent and felt I needed to redefine what I wanted to do and go for a food focused place,” he says. That’s how Indigo was born and the rest, as they say, is history.

After the sale of deGustibus he says realised that most new restaurants were focused on ticking boxes, “Everyone was doing the same thing and except for a handful of people, no one was really cooking,” Akerkar says matter-of-factly, “I think the F&B started pushing mediocrity and we embraced it.” This was something he was not comfortable with.

He shifted his focus on experiences he appreciated and was excited in creating. “I’ve always trusted my gut, always did what I felt like doing. I am my own harshest critic, if I am satisfied with what I am doing others will be too,” Akerkar says.

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The menu at Qualia is the result of this exact belief, along with experiments that Akerkar and his brilliant crew conducted. “I love chaat, it would be my death row meal,” he explains his love for sweet-sour and tangy flavours. That’s how the pickling experiments started. He wanted these pickles to add the brightness of acidity to his food and make the flavours pop. “Fruits and veggies as they either ferment or pickle develop a depth of flavours and so the dishes started to come together. As these pickles evolves and the food evolves,” he adds.

Akerkar also believes that the way we eat today is very different from what was in vogue in the 90s and the noughties. “It’s to do with lifestyle. But irrespective of the time, it should always evoke a memory or form the basis of a new memory. But if you’re eating only to sustain yourself, what’s the point!” 

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