July 2008 | Sujata Agrawal

Journey to a star

Sit down to an excellent south Indian coastal cuisine meal, topped off with a Michelin star at The Quilon, Buckingham Gate, London

Blend one environment-conscious south Indian chef with a 15-hour workday, add a variety of southern spices, generously sprinkle a few peppercorns and sit down to an excellent south Indian coastal cuisine meal, topped off with a Michelin star.

Sriram AylurThe restaurant is The Quilon at 41, Buckingham Gate in London, one of the only five restaurants (and the only Indian one) to get a Michelin star rating this year. The Quilon is captained by executive chef Sriram Aylur who has been with the Taj group for over 20 years. “It’s a great feeling, especially because we were not expecting it. Personally, and as a team, we have always believed that it is important to be focused in what we do, and do it right,” exults Mr Aylur.

Mr Aylur is justifiably proud. The Michelin star rating — a gourmet’s guide to good food — does not come easy. In the London guide, 2008 edition, it has ranked only 45 restaurants in London as deserving of stars, out of which 39 have one star, five have achieved two stars, and there is only one which has reached the pinnacle of three stars (see box).

The Quilon’s journey began in 1999, when RK Krishna Kumar [then MD, Indian Hotels, and currently member, Group Corporate Centre] wanted to offer more exotic Indian flavours to Londoners, after the overwhelming success of the north Indian restaurant Bombay Brasserie. Chef Aylur was picked, and for a good reason. The restaurant he conceptualised and started in Bangalore — Karavalli at the Taj Gateway Hotel — has been ranked as one of the top five restaurants in India by many eminent Indian newspapers and magazines. Mr Aylur himself was ranked as one of India’s top five chefs in 1997 by the national daily The Telegraph.

The Quilon’s menu has a unique blend of traditional and modern dishes from the states of Goa, Karnataka and Kerala, and the restaurant is known for its traditional home-style south Indian cuisine. Over the years, this eatery has played host to eminent personalities, political leaders, sportsmen and industrialists. And it has been chef Aylur’s personal philosophy on food and cooking that has helped The Quilon make its mark.

Mr Aylur, who numbers the Karavalli and Konkan Café in Mumbai and Per Se and Marsala in New York among his favourite restaurants, loves experimenting with spices, especially his favourite — the peppercorn. He uses it in many different dishes, including ice cream. “The first rule of cooking is that there is no rule, and the second is to keep it simple. To enjoy cooking, you must enjoy eating and understand the chemistry of the spices, the meat, and the vegetables,’’ says he.

For the peppercorn-loving chef, the journey at The Quilon has been uphill all the way, starting from customer expectations of what a good Indian meal meant. “Initially people could not comprehend an Indian restaurant without naan, chicken tikka, dal makhani and a tandoor,” says the chef. Getting visitors to understand coastal cuisine and its very different spices and flavours has been a slow process, painful and sometimes frustrating. With the Michelin star, Mr Aylur feels vindicated and proud to have succeeded in “putting one more style of cooking from India on the world map”.

His biggest challenge was in sourcing the right ingredients. Tata Tea’s spice export division helped in procuring spices from identified suppliers across India — tomato chillies from Varangal, jaggery from Goa, peppercorn from Malabar… all very necessary to create that extraspecial taste in the mouth. “The spices are very important because the quality that we deliver has to be absolutely the best, not only because we are trying to be a great restaurant but also because we are part of a great company and a set of great hotels,” says Mr Aylur.

Another critical ingredient was personal hard work. Mr Aylur and his team of six work 15 hours a day, six days a week. Receiving supplies, planning for the day, doing menus, lunch and dinner service, evening tea... sometimes the day is just too short. “You have to love the job; there are no half-measures. If you do it because there is no other alternative, then it shows in everything you do,” says the top chef, who enjoys the creative elements of his work, the conceptualising and designing of menus and recipes.

Interestingly, Mr Aylur found his niche in life quite by accident. Initially planning for a career in law, he stepped into the restaurant business when his father asked him to help out in his restaurant in Varangal (in Andhra Pradesh). He found cooking so interesting and challenging that he joined the Catering College in Hyderabad. “I had a lot of fun and was hooked within a month, not realising that I would have to work 15 hours a day,” he admits with a smile.

His work culture encompasses more than daily toil; values and ethics, he feels, are every bit as crucial as the personal mantras — ‘getting along to get ahead’ and ‘do what it takes to succeed’— that he takes to work with him. One instance is his concern for the environment and not adding unnecessarily to the carbon footprint. “People are going to be very conscious about the environment and they will expect all responsible businesses to be the same,” he says. Mr Aylur is presently working on bottling safe drinking water in-house and using reusable bottles, in an attempt to cut out unwanted wastage.

The Quilon team is now looking at consolidation and at taking the restaurant to the next level. Does that mean trying for another Michelin star? “We will have to work harder for that.We know what it takes but it is not easy or simple. The approach has to be towards perfection. Many things come into play – the food, the service, the wine, the environment, the experience – the moment you change one thing, the dynamics change. So we will work towards it. But will we only work for it? I’m not sure,” he says candidly.

The next time you visit London, take a walk down Victoria Street and step into The Quilon to enjoy the flavours of the west coast of India, put together by a chef who understands what good food is all about.

Catching a star

The Michelin Guide is Europe’s oldest and best-known guide to hotels and restaurants and is now published in many countries worldwide. Getting a Michelin star is difficult because of the judging process. Michelin inspectors pay several visits to the restaurant (to ensure consistency), always anonymously. The only way a chef knows there is a Michelin inspector in the restaurant is when he or she asks to inspect the kitchen and other facilities, and this is always after sampling the cuisine. Their judgement cannot be influenced in any way. This is the reason the Michelin star is considered to be the ultimate accolade.

A one star restaurant is ‘a very good restaurant or pub’; a two star restaurant indicates ‘excellent cooking, worth a detour’; and a three star restaurant gives ‘an exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey’.