T. Rangaraj tells us the incredible journey of a village cook whose name is today synonymous with sumptuous wedding feasts of the rich and famous

The room is filled with wood-scented smoke. Platters are piled high with diced vegetables. R. Thangavelu, in a kaavi veshti, a red towel thrown across his shoulder, stirs a huge cauldron of biryani for a village feast. That’s T. Rangaraj’s first memory of his father cooking.

The wood-fired ovens are now replaced by state-of-the-art cooking equipment. The clients are high profile. But, Rangaraj, 31, has not forgotten his beginnings. While growing up, he wore hand-me-down trousers and black rubber chappals and studied in the local Government school. Lunch was the mid-meal meal provided at school. Three meals a day were a rarity.

Today, Rangaraj is the CEO of Madhampatty Thangavelu Hospitality Pvt Ltd. that caters for the who’s who, where the guest list runs into thousands.

Rangaraj studied engineering and dreamt of being an animation expert, and even trained for it. He only entered the food business 12 years ago as a stop-gap arrangement. He did not even know how to brew a cup of coffee. But he fell in love with the job. Today, he can whip up a feast if a cook does not turn up.

“From the village, appa moved to cooking for weddings in Telungupalayam, then to the city. It’s been steady progress,” says Rangaraj. The company has about 500 full-time employees, a strong administration department, and about 2,000 people who are enlisted on demand. “Every one does just one thing. That way, quality is maintained, and people feel responsible,” he says.

Helping Rangaraj in his work are his brother T. Krishnakumar, cousin S. Vimalraj and uncle R. Ravichandran.

“There was a time when my father was given 10 coconuts and some vegetables as salary for cooking. Today, when we take up a total contract, we charge anywhere between Rs. 200 and Rs. 350 for a plate of dinner,” says Rangaraj.

When it was time to take the plunge into the family business, Rangaraj’s friend N. Karthick stepped in to guide him. “He and I had planned to do animation. When I backed out, he continued with it. He suggested I take up a short-term catering course. That helped a lot,” he says.

So did the three-month stint in Hotel Alankar Grande, where he peeled sacks of onions and learnt to cut vegetables in various shapes. “What I am today is because of those three months and what I learnt on the job,” he says.

Rangaraj tracks food trends and tries to serve healthy fare. He has done away with ajinomoto and other chemicals, and reduced the use of food colour. “Food must not make people sick.”

The group is known for its crowd-handling skills. “Every half-hour we take stock of how many people have eaten and the number of people in the hall. We monitor the footfall. Before we take up a contract, we factor in whether the wedding is during the weekend or weekdays, if both families are from the same city, and so on,” he says.

The company now caters across Tamil Nadu, and takes up events in Kerala and Karnataka, and even as far away as Hyderabad. “But, the water is always from Coimbatore. That gives our food its taste.”

Rangaraj has also brought in the concept of hugely-popular mini sweets so that even when there is great variety, guests can sample them all without feeling too guilty.

At times, unexpected guests for dinner has meant serving up food meant for next day’s breakfast or quickly stirring up a khichidi or an upma. “Upma is such a saviour. It’s the quickest thing to make,” smiles Rangaraj. “In the beginning, I would be nervous through the wedding, worrying about things that could go wrong. Now, I’ve learnt to relax. I know I can handle any emergency,” he says.

Rangaraj recently got married to Shruthipriya, who is studying engineering at CIT. His friends were worried for him, he says. Who would want to marry a caterer, they asked.

But Shruthipriya married him for that reason. She’s fond of baking. She’ll soon join him in the company. So will Nandhini, Krishnakumar’s wife.

Rangaraj loves his dosai and thayir saadham with maangai oorugai best. On rare free days, he goes with his wife to the thattu kadai near Bharathi Colony, and eats dosai to his heart’s content. He also loves godhumai halwa. “Both the taste and making it,” he says. “One minute, it is a milky mass; the next minute after you add hot water and lemon juice, it turns into a glassy, glossy halwa. It’s like magic.”

Looking back, his journey often astonishes him, says Rangaraj. “When I was in Class IX, our neighbours brought me to R.S. Puram for the first time. I ate a dosa in Annapoorna; it was a dream come true. Last year, I cooked for their family wedding!”

Future in focus

Bringing about uniform taste. “Whether I make 100 sweets or 10,000, the taste must be the same.”

Build the brand. Launch masala powders, start a chain of restaurants serving traditional food, and a catering institute.

Achieve a turnover of Rs. 250 crore in the next decade.

Construct a centralised kitchen and start a corporate kitchen.

Help underprivileged school kids

How it all began

Thangavelu left his native place Palghat to make a living in Coimbatore. He worked on a farm, where he cooked and cleaned for a living. There, he met and fell in love with Palaniyammal. He sold vegetables on a cart (the family still retains the tharaasu!). He then moved to Bangalore where he ran a mess. When he returned, he started cooking for small functions in Madhampatty. Single-handedly, he would whip up a feast — biryani, kozhi varuval, sambar, poriyal… He would travel with film crews, cooking for them in various locations. Today, he is the inspiration behind the brand, guiding his sons when necessary.

Highlights

They have served 50,000 guests for dinner at a wedding held in YMCA grounds in Chennai.

Actor Karthi’s wedding in Coimbatore, where 40,000 people, including a huge number of fans, were fed a varied spread.

Nearly 9,000 people were served a hot breakfast of idli, vadai and pongal, with chutney and sambar, and coffee at the Coimbatore Marathon 2013