Flavor from the Soul
Shaped by influences in the U.S. and India, Rahul Akerkar ’81 redefines high-end dining in Mumbai
A tantalizing aroma of vegetables, lentil and curry hangs in the atrium of Franklin & Marshall’s Steinman College Center. It’s Spring Arts Weekend in April 1980, and students around campus are enjoying the musical groups and cultural activities that define the annual end-of-semester celebration. Seventy-five of them have trekked up to Steinman’s second floor to partake in a special Indian meal.
Their host is Rahul Akerkar ’81, a junior biology major from Mumbai. Guided by simple recipes he developed through small dinners for friends and professors—and the culinary knowledge he picked up watching his grandmother prepare extravagant meals on a wood-burning clay stove in India—the chef earns high marks. His “first restaurant,” he says, is a success.
More than 30 years later, thinking about the palate is central to Akerkar’s everyday life. He is the founder and managing director of a thriving restaurant company in Mumbai, including the award-winning Indigo, the first standalone high-end restaurant in the world’s fourth-most populous city. He’s now preparing to open a version of Indigo in Delhi, taking his modern European-style cuisine to another city for the first time.
Akerkar is constantly pushing to innovate and think “outside the box,” a trait he says he developed at F&M. The approach has led to a level of success beyond what he ever imagined. Some of Mumbai’s brightest stars are regular visitors to Indigo, and others around the world have followed suit. The Rolling Stones have dined there. So have actress Marisa Tomei, Chelsea Clinton, and former U.S. Commerce Secretary and White House Chief of Staff William M. Daley.
Prime Minister of the United Kingdom David Cameron had dinner at Indigo in February 2013 during a three-day visit to India. A few days later, the restaurant earned the No. 28 ranking at the San Pellegrino Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards in Singapore. “It was a magical week,” says Akerkar, who joined the ranks of Asia’s elite chefs in 2001 when he was featured in Asiaweek’s survey of “Kitchen Gods.”
Akerkar is on top of the restaurant world in India but still feels a strong connection to F&M and Lancaster, where he launched a three-decade culinary journey. There have been countless highlights along the way and also a few challenges, including a change of career plans after a falling out with his dissertation adviser at Columbia University. Through it all, the chef has remained true to a simple formula: flavor, hospitality and basics.
“Restaurants are an extension of my home,” he says. “I love feeding people, and doing it well.”
A Taste of Lancaster
As the son of a German-American mother and Indian father, Akerkar had a well-traveled childhood. He visited the United States on a regular basis, often spending summers in New York, home of his maternal grandparents. He says he knew nothing about F&M until learning about the College from the associate dean of New York University Medical School, an old college friend of his parents, who said F&M was an excellent pre-med school. Later, the College asked Andre Bernard ’79, a religious studies major doing a semester in India, to meet with Akerkar and speak about F&M.
“F&M approached me on a very personal level,” Akerkar says. “That sealed it.”
A self-described “science nerd,” Akerkar enrolled at the College for its science courses and pre-med track. But classes across the curriculum had an equally significant impact on him. “F&M really opened my eyes and taught me how to live a full life,” he says. “I took courses in anthropology, sociology, philosophy and religious studies. They also started modern dance around that time, and I think I was the first male to sign up for it. Those experiences changed the way I look at things. It gave me strength for out-of-the-box thinking.”
Outside the classroom, Akerkar was quietly developing a passion for cooking. He missed the food his family prepared back home, so he attempted to recreate its flavor in Lancaster. He had a general idea of how to cook by watching his mother and grandmother, who prepared eight-course, three-hour meals on weekends. The Orange Street Tea Shop in downtown Lancaster was his go-to place for spices; cooking was not difficult, he says, once he found the proper mix of spices.
Akerkar’s first culinary break came at Jethro’s Restaurant, a Lancaster establishment he frequented during the summer after his junior year. Then owned by F&M grads Ed Diller ’72 and D.J. Korns ’69, the restaurant had a reputation for outstanding martinis. “I loved their martinis,” Akerkar says. “When I ran out of money near the end of the summer, I told Ed, ‘If you want me to keep coming back, you’ll have to give me a job.’”
Diller took him up on it, and Akerkar went to work as a dishwasher. When a line cook was fired after stealing strip steaks, the F&M senior earned a position in the kitchen. Diller celebrated the restaurant’s third anniversary by allowing the budding chef to turn Jethro’s into an Indian establishment for an evening. The resulting dinner—titled “Currying with the Maharaja”—included Indian specialties kali daal (black bean soup cooked in ginger), dahi gosht (tender cubes of lamb) and aaloo gobi (seasoned potatoes and cauliflower). Akerkar played the sitar for his guests.
“Rahul is unflappable and fearless,” says Diller, who now operates the Gypsy Kitchen, a restaurant near F&M at Lancaster Theological Seminary. “He was fascinated by the whole cooking process, from deboning fish to everything else. He was extremely curious. I was amazed when I learned that he’s become such a big figure in India with so much success. But it’s not surprising.”
Akerkar intended to go to medical school but changed his mind after discovering biomedical engineering. He headed to Columbia University, where in the 1980s he earned a B.S. in chemical engineering and M.S. in biochemical engineering. But he soured on academia after having a disagreement with his dissertation adviser about his research. He was at a crossroads. “I was into real estate for a while, did some computer consulting work for an investment bank, and sold silver jewelry at flea markets in New York. I wasn’t like most of my friends, who by then had 2.5 kids and a house.”
Cooking remained the one constant in Akerkar’s life. He had worked at a variety of eateries while studying at Columbia, doing everything from flipping burgers to working in the kitchens of some of New York’s top fine-dining restaurants. For his next career move, he went home to cook.
“In hindsight, it was the best thing I ever did,” he says.
Akerkar moved to Mumbai in 1989 and launched a catering business out of his home. It was popular with locals, and so were his other restaurants, Just Desserts and Under The Over. He and his wife, Malini, co-founded deGustibus Hospitality Pvt. Ltd. in 1996 to operate their growing chain of successful establishments. Malini works on the company’s marketing and brand development, the look and feel of restaurants, and also serves as the in-house vegetarian critic, Akerkar says.
The current deGustibus lineup includes several Indigo Delicatessens, New York-inspired delis; Neel, a specialty Indian restaurant serving cuisine of old Muslim nobility; Moveable Feast, a catering company capable of servicing everything from small, elegant, sit-down dinners to “the big, fat Indian wedding” for many hundreds; and Tote on the Turf, a hub for gourmet banquets. The company employs more than 1,000 people.
Indigo remains the shiniest jewel in the crown. It garnered critical acclaim soon after opening in 1999 as it departed from the typical model of high-end dining in Mumbai, where fine-dining establishments had exclusively operated in association with five-star hotels. Indigo’s menu is based on Western cooking—“modern European,” Akerkar says—with local ingredients used as much as possible.
“Someone came into our kitchen one day and said, ‘There was great food cooked here. I can’t put my finger on it, but I loved it,’” Akerkar says. “That’s what it’s all about. We aim for balance on the palate, between soft and hard, sweet and sour. I live for someone telling me they had a great meal.”
Akerkar says he draws strength from his self-criticism and insecurity. “Maybe that’s what’s always kept me on my toes. I’m always thinking that perhaps people aren’t going to like what I’m doing. Food fulfills a very basic need and function, but it must take people somewhere, or invoke memories of something in their past. I hope I’m able to contribute to that.”
And he doesn’t mind if customers are a bit unconventional in their food habits, as he was as a college student—the chef was once known to enjoy potato wafers doused with ketchup.
“I can’t dispute taste,” he says, laughing. “There’s no right or wrong. Who am I to tell someone not to put Tabasco sauce on something if they want to? I don’t get steamed. I want people to enjoy their food.”
A New Link to F&M
In August 2013, Rahul and Malini Akerkar returned to the campus where the seeds for Indigo were planted. They brought along their daughter, Shaan ’17, who enrolled at F&M as a first-year student this academic year.
“I had such a great time at F&M that there’s no way I could imagine Shaan going anywhere else. Now I get to re-live F&M vicariously through her,” the chef says with a smile. “F&M allowed me to grow. It taught me how to think, not what to think. It represents an important and formative part of my life. I hope Shaan has the same experiences.”
One of Akerkar’s fondest memories happened during a final exam in a biology course with Professor Ira Feit in 1981. The exam took place during the launch of the first space shuttle, and Akerkar had followed the U.S. space program closely since he was a young boy.
“I went up to Professor Feit and asked if I could watch the launch in the College Center, where it was playing on television. He said ‘Go ahead, you’re on your honor. When you return, I’ll be here until you finish your exam.’ To have a professor like that was just amazing. Seeing that launch meant so much to me.”
He’s never forgotten the gesture. Now he’s creating new memories through engagement with the College, both in Mumbai and Lancaster. In April 2012 he hosted an F&M alumni gathering at Tote on the Turf coinciding with a visit to India by Penny Johnston, F&M’s director of international admission. He plans to return to campus regularly while his daughter works toward her degree.
Until then, he’ll continue creating memorable moments for others through his prosperous—and expanding—chain of restaurants.
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