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IN CONVERSATION WITH RESTAURATEUR RAJIV ANEJA

Jasmeen Dugal  (click here to know more about this blogger)

"The Restaurateur" is a compelling look behind the scenes of the nation's culinary corridor — from Michelin-starred restaurants to neighbourhood bistros — and celebrates the untold art of the restaurateurs. Having dined at some of the finest restaurants, I was sure that behind each of these successes is an equally dramatic story of how they got the recipe right and succeeded in creating landmark restaurants. 

 

My quest begins with Rara Avis: French oasis in the heart of New Delhi. That is where Jerome Cousin and Laurent Guiraud — in partnership with food lover and entrepreneur Rajiv Aneja — serve up a gastronomic experience that the duo describe as "food just like our grandmothers used to cook…” While the ambience is evocative of a French bistro, the terrace offers a magnificent view of a park with the cityscape beyond. What makes it interesting is that the restaurant opened at a time when the Indian palate had not ventured beyond Italian and Chinese cuisine. So what's the story? Rajiv Aneja shares their journey.

 

"While it's true that most Indians were having Italian and Chinese cuisines beyond Indian staples at the time we took the plunge of opening a French restaurant, we instinctively felt that the time had come for Indians to try different cuisines. After all, Indians were travelling overseas in larger numbers for tourism, business and studies — and they were gradually getting exposed to a variety of cuisines. The advent of food shows on television had also raised awareness and curiosity levels. With that thought in mind, we took the step towards living our dream.

 

Hailing from the corporate world with no background in hospitality, it took me a long time to venture in this profession even though it had always been at the back of my mind to enter the business of food and set up a restaurant of my own. Food and hospitality has always fascinated me so it was only a matter of time and connecting with the right people… People often ask me about the name "Rara Avis". It's a Latin name; literally translated, it would mean Rare Bird! The name is significant as it indicates something unique and different — we, as partners, are unique in our own ways and the food we serve too is unique and not the usual fare. Our core focus is to keep the cuisine authentic and not change the taste to suit any particular palate. It was important to us that guests try food the way it is made in France, the rustic and artisanal way. We did not want to bring in nouvelle cuisines or gimmicks! We were also keen that apart from food we would bring back, the concept should be old fashioned hospitality, wherein we do the service from our hearts — that is the way we are! The other two partners hail from the hospitality, with Laurent an owner of a very successful One Michelin Star restaurant and Jerome a third generation chef having learnt the art from his grandfather and father. I had the fortune of knowing them a long time and when we decided to open the restaurant it was the obvious choice to come together. I think we are fortunate that we have a great partnership. We see eye to eye on everything, respect each other and work very, very hard.

 

It is vital to stay fresh and relevant in the ever-changing restaurant world. We are constantly bringing in changes to our menu while keeping our signature dishes. We believe in keeping our food simple and honest. There are no pretensions. We also believe in diligent hours; there has to be passion  and drive for a certain kind of excellence so one of the partners is always on hand to interact with guests — this way we listen to them and get great feedback which we can use from time to time. Also, we like suggesting dishes based on guests’ palate and mood — it makes them more comfortable to try out food which may be alien to them! For example 'Escargot' and 'Foie Gras' is an acquired taste. However, we were surprised to witness many of our Indian guests were happy to try it and have now become regulars who would be disappointed if we did not have it in stock on a particular visit!! Dishes like 'Cheese Fondue' and 'Raclette' are hot favourites too! That said, it's a challenge for standalone restaurants like ours to source ingredients from overseas. We did try to work with local ingredients but things like Escargot and French cheese have to be sourced from abroad. While it's tough this is what our guests expect us to do and it's why they come back to us.

 

It's definitely a challenging business. Today, the guest is concerned about great food and service and is willing to go to bistros and casual dining places if they're assured of good food backed by prompt service—without burning a hole in the wallet! We've felt pressure since the time we opened the doors. Day to day responsibilities as a restaurant owner is maintaining consistency in our food and service standard. We don't like the expression 'it was an off day for them'. Guests should have a nice experience when they visit Rara Avis. It's a challenge to ensure that our guests not only have great food, wine and service but also ensure that someone we do not even know must go back happy!

 

This brings me to another thought. I have often wondered what sets the Indian restaurant industry apart from world food capitals. While there are few differences, the one that comes to mind immediately is the female work force. I find that the number of females in Indian restaurants, be it in the kitchen, management or as entrepreneurs, is very low. This could be due to social issues arising from the erratic working hours but certainly the industry could do with the female touch. It would be a welcome step! What else is missing? It's no secret that the industry is an ever changing one and owners must keep themselves appraised of new trends. The world of technology too is changing at a rapid pace and we all must gear ourselves to use technologies like mobile applications. Yet another area restaurants in India should focus on is healthy options — low calorie and gluten free menus.

 

Looking forward... it is on our mind to expand and take Rara Avis to various parts of the country. Bon Appetite!"
 

Rara Avis
The Team Of Rara Avis
 
Rara Avis
Signature Dishes
 
Rara Avis
The Cosy Ambience
 
20-JANUARY-2015
 
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