REINVENTION THE RECIPE FOR CHEF’S SUC­CESS

Cre­ativ­ity, con­sis­tency and culi­nary der­ring-do keep restau­ra­teur’s Amaya brand ever-strong

Toronto Star - - BUSINESS - TA­MARA KHAN­DAKER

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.

CHRIS SO/TORONTO STAR

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.

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