Under my byline

‘I’m not really a gourmet’

Posted in Books, Profiles by Rrishi on 28 November 2009

Restaurateur-entrepreneur A D Singh is a regular on page 3s, but is not well known for all that. I met him for lunch and was pleasantly surprised

Before we’ve even sat down, at his favourite table in the corner, A D Singh has his hands on the book I’m carrying. It’s not his type, so he flips through quickly. I show him my favourite part: a fly, immaculately squashed between two pages. AD laughs, a long, slow stutter of a laugh. “Got caught reading, eh?”

Sure did. And so did AD, with less apocalyptic results. His twin brother and he are avid readers. “As kids, we used to walk around at birthday parties like this…” (He mimics holding a book up to his face.) “It’s fascinating. Your world keeps changing, and half the time we’d rather live in that world than our own reality.” The consequence? “We would read in cars, all the time, so we both got glasses really early.”

We’re sitting at the Olive in Mehrauli. Our table looks onto a leaf-dappled courtyard and it’s a pleasantly warm day. AD orders for us both — a panzanella, which is a summery Italian salad, to be followed by gnocchi, a pasta dish.

“Every night,” he continues, “especially when my wife [designer Sabina Singh] is not there and I get home to an empty house, which is about half the week, I read myself to sleep. Obviously, with LAP [his new members-only lounge in Delhi, in partnership with actor Arjun Rampal] opening, all that’s changed. Yesterday I looked at my watch at one point and it was 4:50. I said, ‘Guys, I’m out of here.’ LAP was still going on — I left.”

Recent favourite books include Alexander McCall Smith‘s Mma Ramotswe series and Ashok Banker‘s science-fantasyish retellings of the Ramayana. “I was just riveted,” AD says. “I thought it was a great way to take our mythology to a whole new audience.”

He’s a past master at bringing new products to new audiences. He was at the vanguard of the standalone boom in fine dining in India, starting with a coffee-and-desserts cafe and moving up the ladder to his current chain of restaurants in three cities — each one more or less different in menu and ambience.

“When I reached the stage in my life that I didn’t know where I was going,” says AD, now in his late 40s, “I left the corporate sector and joined an NGO. I enjoyed it very much and felt a great sense of ‘this is who I am’, but at that time they were paying me Rs 400-600, and I was turning 28. I was good with men, material, resources, integrity, leadership. But not only was the budget not there, there was the attitude that you have to give up everything. That’s not really what an NGO should be. An NGO should be professionally run, to professional standards, obviously with the highest integrity and deliverables.”

Things did change in the NGO world, but AD had moved on — to become an entrepreneur. “My first thought was, [it has to be] something to do with parties, and then I had a sweet tooth, and third, I lived in this place [Bandra in Mumbai] where I realised there was this market niche — to get these great desserts by the slice. So when I opened Just Desserts it was a first. It was a space of our times, a cool cafe where there were no cafes.”

Not only did AD insist on “a quality of F&B that you did not have outside a five-star”, he understood “positioning and statement”. “That’s why I brought in the concept of live jazz. I wasn’t a big jazz lover — it was a positioning. We hadn’t had live music for 20-30 years. So it worked at many levels.” With constant exposure, jazz grew to be “a big part” of AD’s life.

Likewise food. “I’m not really a gourmet,” AD says. “I didn’t know food but in the old days I started writing a weekly column for Metropolis on Sunday on new food, restaurants. That’s where I really started learning the business. When you’re press, chefs make time for you. I spent hours with some of the best chefs that we have. I still don’t have the tongue of a gourmet, but what I’m very good with is vision. I’m basically a dreamer.”

(Which explains why this avid reader wanders around with short story outlines forming in his head. He tells me one set in Goa. It certainly has potential. “Writing is damn hard work,” he says. “I’ve never really got down to it, and I don’t think I ever will.”)

Here comes the panzanella, tart and sunny. “Bon appetit,” says AD, fork already in motion. His eating is like his speaking, fluent yet deliberate. Five minutes on: “This is a variation [of panzanella] I like”. And later, about the gnocchi, with long pauses for judgement: “The gnocchi is perfect. The sauce might need a touch of salt. It’s good. Very good. Outstanding.”

He’s imperious with the waiters, without being condescending. “Boys. Boys,” he calls, gesturing for a napkin. And he doesn’t like interruption. Yet he responds, as to an equal, to callow questions from a diner at the next table about why there isn’t yet an Olive in Kolkata.

He also likes eating with his hands. This occasions a story: “I was looking for investors for a company. Some fund approached me, investment guys. So I had a meeting. It went on for an hour. I was tired and I had things on my mind, but it went quite well.” The funds came through quickly. Later AD was told why: at the mid-meeting buffet he ate with his hands. The investors’ doubts about this page-three personality — “how serious, how grounded are you” — immediately vanished.

Similarly, AD says, he won the space for his first Olive in Bandra because, unlike the other prospective tenants, AD had dreadlocks. The landlord later told him he thought “‘This guy obviously has a different headspace — he’s not the kind who’ll try to steal my property.'”

“It’s funny how these little things convince them right away,” AD says.

The little things count more now than ever now, as AD hones quality to meet the challenge of an influx of world-class chefs to India starting next year. It’s clear enough from his restaurants and his manner that he’s able to inspire a simultaneously welcoming and exacting spirit. That’s a strength, and a sign of class.

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