REINVENTION THE RECIPE FOR CHEF’S SUCCESS
Creativity, consistency and culinary derring-do keep restaurateur’s Amaya brand ever-strong
Hemant Bhagwani made headlines last year for eliminating tips and raising wages for his staff. But as owner of the Amaya group of restaurants, he’s been a known quantity in Toronto’s food scene for years. Bhagwani’s latest endeavour is the Indian Street Food Company — a reincarnation of Amaya Indian Room, inspired by the work of railway station street vendors in his home country. It has taken a while for the restaurateur, educated in French cuisine in Switzerland, to stray from his fine dining background — he’s come a long way from opening his first restaurant in Sydney at 22 and seeing it tank. Known for his creative touch, Bhagwani has opened 18 restaurants in the past eight years, mastered the art of reinvention and ensured that his brand stays strong.
What made you decide to enter the restaurant industry in the first place? What made you decide to go to cooking school?
Like any other Indian kid, I wanted to be a cricket player. But career-wise, I don’t have a story where my mom was cooking and I went crazy about it and decided to become a chef. Growing up, in high school, I started loving food. I was eating outside at restaurants, and that’s where it all started. I wanted to get into it more instead of just seeing it from the outside. And then I started connecting with my home cooking. I’d always had a passion for food in terms of going out and enjoying a meal — I was fascinated with the five-star hotels in India, where you’d go and they’d treat you like a king.
Was there any resistance from your family?
My father’s an engineer, so he wanted me to become an engineer or a doctor, so he was like, “You want to become a cook? Are you crazy?” And before I left India, there was nobody in the family who’d gone abroad to study, so I was the first kid to leave. There was more resistance from my grandmother about why my parents were sending me out to study.
Why did the first restaurant fail, and what did you learn from that experience?
Well, I bought somebody else’s concept. I didn’t create it myself. It was Hakka Chinese . . . I opened a restaurant that wasn’t my forte, and it wasn’t what I wanted to do, but I was in a partnership, so I opened it.
What are the qualities someone needs to run a successful restaurant?
Number one is vision. There are a lot of people who open restaurants in the city ... It’s the most difficult kind of business to run, so you need a vision. Then you need to be able to put it in practice, and bring it out in operation, so second would be focus, and third is persistence with what you want to do, because there will be failures and times where you’ll want to shut everything and run away. Persistence will take you through to the next level.
What would you say is the most difficult part of running a restaurant?
Creativity. You need to be able to reinvent yourself — in any kind of business . . . Consistency is also difficult. Every day, you have to give your guests the same experience, the person who comes at 9:30 and the person who comes in at 6:30, so standardization is important. Making a good cocktail or cooking can be taught. It’s about training people in processes. But the most difficult part of running a restaurant is (creating a sense of) warmth and hospitality because that comes from passion. Until your staff has the passion you have, it won’t work.
How have things been working for you ever since you got rid of tips?
I do see my staff being a bit more cordial. Front of the house and back of the house, they’d always fight. The tips are evenly distributed now. Also, you know how when you want to go somewhere to eat at 9:30, the servers will usually rush you to order because the kitchen wants to go home? I see a change now that their salaries are pegged to sales of the restaurant, a majority of people being a lot more patient . . . Guests are at ease, and the staff are enjoying it a lot more.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Don’t ever think you’ve done enough. It’s never enough. I’d never planned in my life to have so many restaurants. There was never a plan.
What’s your vision for your restaurants?
It’s not so much about restaurants for me. I want to see the Indian culinary scene become a lot more mainstream, a lot more hot. I’m tired of seeing little restaurants just doing buffets. Even if you’re small, just do something cool with it . . . When I opened my first restaurant, I’d see the average age was 45, 40 and above probably for Indian restaurants. Now I see younger people starting to come and eat, which is good to see. So there is a change happening there.
After gaining notoriety in 2015 for nixing tips for his staff, Hemant Bhagwani has embarked on a new project inspired by railway station street vendors in India.