India's Most Experimental Restaurateur

India's Most Experimental Restaurateur

By Sanjena Sathian


Because Indian food is going way beyond naan and chicken tikka masala these days.

By Sanjena Sathian

Watching restaurateur Riyaaz Amlani taste food is like watching a king preside over his fiefdom. He sits comfortably at one end of a wide table, his hands folded over his stomach. He doesn’t crack much of a smile. Various chefs from one of his restaurant chains are bustling around the kitchen, testing out new recipes. They slide the dishes in front of him, each one carefully and decoratively plated. He tastes. The chefs wait expectantly. 

Praise doesn’t come easily. “There’s something missing,” Amlani says, after tasting a porridge-like dish with grilled tomatoes and green beans. He’s playing with a “healthy food” line for his popular Smoke House Deli restaurants — a risk in India, where gluten-free isn’t yet a hipster badge of pride. “Butter!” the chefs yell — that’s what’s missing. Amlani doesn’t disagree. But he wants this healthy thing to stick; he thinks he’s onto something. The dish goes back to the kitchen for another iteration. 

He’s a national figure.

— Antoine Lewis, restaurant critic

Amlani, 41, is not a chef himself but rather the managing director of Impresario Entertainment and Hospitality and one of India’s most prominent and experimental restaurateurs. Known for trying stuff others won’t, Amlani is the man behind a line of coffee shops called Mocha, which channel a Middle Eastern coffeehouse vibe; there’s also Smoke House and Salt Water Cafe, both of which are true to their Western-sounding names and sport menus that could comfortably be labeled New American. His latest venture is Social, a co-working-space-cum-food-and-drink-chain. At the Colaba location in Mumbai, there’s an indoors swing, and you can find remixed versions of classic Mumbai dishes and more Western fare. The vibe at each place varies, but they’re mostly populated by 20- and 30-somethings; younger people hit up Social, while professionals in middle management hang at Salt Water, says Mumbai restaurant critic Antoine Lewis. 

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Riyaaz Amlani is perhaps India’s most experimental restaurateur.

Source Pramod Thakur / Getty

“He’s a national figure,” Lewis says. “People really look at him as one of the top restaurateurs around the country who’s coming up with really, really innovative ideas — pretty pathbreaking.” Where Amlani and I are sitting is certainly new in India: Instead of bringing me to one of his restaurants, we’re at a funky warehouse, in what he calls a “jam room” for his chefs. Wine bottles line the walls, a vintage stove sits across the way. Amlani tells me he “needs a recipe to boil water. I’ve purposefully not learned how to cook so I’ll have no empathy.” He gestures royally to the scurrying chefs.

What he has learned is the business, through and through. It began with Mocha 15 years ago. He was entering a coffee-shop landscape where, he says, “everything was a Starbucks rip-off.” He wanted to evoke the feel of a Turkish living room. Amlani and two friends found space for the first shop, bought all the equipment and then realized they didn’t have money left for furniture. They raided their houses, found old sewing machines and refrigerators, and happened upon a successful ambience of a warm, welcoming, slightly untidy home. The first day was a mess — just one day before, Amlani fired the manager (“a raging alcoholic”) — and passers-by were tentative about entering. Fittingly, a small crew of European backpackers ventured in, and the others followed. Mocha boomed, and Amlani messed around more, even launching a raw food menu at Mocha Mojo, making rice out of root vegetables. The raw food failed, but the rest of the café worked out. “That was a big risk he took to be different,” says Lewis. 

“Caramel custard!” Amlani yells. Someone brings it over. “Is this from a box?” he asks. “Can we put in more … spice?” He turns back to me as everyone else returns to work. Chef Gresham Fernandes (whose title, he tells me, is “Big Bitch”) fiddles with the custard, replates it, raises his arms in triumph. Amlani tastes it. His light eyes flash. “Good work,” he says. He turns to me: “It’s all in the plating.” 

Trying new stuff makes for a nice hero story, but it hasn’t always worked. Fernandes mourns the failure of Smoke House Room, a fancy restaurant that attempted a seven- or eight-course progression. “It was about theater,” Amlani adds; it took a year and a half to build, and came equipped with jellyfish-slash-mushroom-inspired design. They designed a hunter-gatherer menu for vegetarians, employing 14 different kinds of mushrooms and meant to feel like a “walk in the forest.” “But people come to restaurants and want pasta, pizza …,” Fernandes says with a sigh. “People had different ideas of what a restaurant should be, and you can’t say no to your customer.” This, Amlani says, is a unique facet of India’s restaurant scene, adding, “It’s hard to take unsexy stuff like cauliflower” and build on that. He seems thoroughly fed up with Indians en masse: “People will say, ‘I can’t eat that, my servant eats that.’ ”

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Patrons at Mocha Coffee Shop and Restaurant in Chennai.

Source Hk Rajashekar / Getty

Having a number of projects going at once is an Amlani habit. As a kid, child of a Parsi mother who favored mango chutneys and garlic powder and a father who brought in biryani (a spicy rice dish), chicken and eggs, Amlani says he had “at least two to three scams going on at any given point.” As a teen, he took a job at a shoe shop after his father left his mother. “One day we had money, the next we didn’t,” he says simply. The job gave him confidence, and in college he decided to open his own shop. “Disaster,” he says. He picked a neighborhood where he felt he could corner the nice-shoe market, fancied up a shop and installed air conditioning. No one came in; the closed door, nice window display and A/C made people think it’d be too expensive. After Amlani started leaving the door open and the shop muggy, business tripled, and paid for his first semester of college.

Things grew after college; he grabbed an MBA and launched pool parlors, video game arcades and go-kart tracks. He developed skill as a businessman, first and foremost, and as a social impresario second. Food wasn’t inevitable, but it seemed the right combination of the two. I stay late at the kitchen, where Fernandes holds anti-restaurant-style pop-ups on occasion. People wander in and out, doodling on the whiteboard, hanging out, sampling the dishes. Amlani takes phone call after phone call in a corner of the room or outside, while the mingling of his making goes on.