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Preserving ethnic flavours, his mission

Many of us have forgotten how wonderful the traditional banana leaf fare is. Thanks to Arusuvai Arasu Nataraja Iyer, you can savour this at Shri Shankara restaurant, T. Nagar. Read on to know the reasons behind the octogenarian's success.

Talking cuisine... Arusuvai Arasu Nataraja Iyer with his clients. Pic. by N. Balaji

OUR CHATTER stopped abruptly as the waiter served the poriyal, kootu and the other assorted traditional sapadu items on the banana leaves before us. Then on, the silence was broken only with "ooh, ah, wow and mmm" and comments discussing the finer points of the Chena chops or the Vatral kozhambu. The rest of the world faded away and the only reality was the banana leaf and the fabulous food on it. It was with reverence that we cleaned the `elai' off the last remnants of rice and rasam.

That was the end of a quest for me at the Shri Shankara restaurant (phone: 28157077/177) at the Shri Devi Park Hotel on the Hanumantha Street, T. Nagar. Amazing it may sound, but the truth is that it is difficult, actually extremely difficult, to eat a truly old-fashioned style meals in Chennai city today. Somewhere between Babycorn varuval and Gobi 69 we have forgotten how wonderful the banana leaf fare is. All the erstwhile bastions of tradition have succumbed to the tomato soup compulsion.

The happy part is that I don't have to suffer any more sad, indifferent and passable meal deals. Even happier is the fact that the unlimited `Thalai vazhai virundhu' at the Shri Shankara costs only Rs. 50.

What do you do when you come across a beautiful piece of art? Tell the artist how much you appreciate his work? That was how I met up with Nalabagaratnam Arusuvai Arasu Nataraja Iyer. After licking my fingers at the end of the sumptuous sapadu at Shri Shankara restaurant it was natural to ask about the chef. And I stumbled on the `Arusuvai Arasu' tradition. No individual chef is responsible for the excellence; it is a `sampradayam' that extends through generations.

At the Kalyana mandapam on the Poonamalle High Road, the scene was typical. Nataraja Iyer was discussing menu with a few prospective clients.

His eldest son, N. Kumar took me around. Ardent devotees of Kanchi mutt, there is a puja room at the mandapam, where the seers peering benevolently from all sides and heights surround one. There are more ties with the mutt. The titles, Arusuvai Arasu and Nalabagaratnam have been conferred on Nataraja Iyer by the Kanchi seers.

After discussions, Iyer strolled in to the office room to chat. But he is restless. The son Kumar was more at ease with talking than the man himself.

Probe a little into his routine then one understands why it is difficult for him to sit and talk about himself. The 80-year old Nataraja Iyer still clocks long hours — eight hours in the kitchen and then some in the office and with the clients.

It all started at the age of seven or eight when his father, N. Narayanaswamy Iyer also a cook, allowed his son to enter the kitchen. The boy did odd jobs for Dad. Education was hands on affair. Ratios and proportions were mastered in relation to chilli and coriander powder mix and brush with poetry came when he met satisfied customers waxing lyrically after a sumptuous feed. By 14, Nataraja Iyer became a full-fledged cook, and at 18, took over charge from his father.

In his career spanning over decades, Arusuvai Arasu fed many luminaries. In 1965, he fed 28,000 Congress workers at the Panchayat Union Conference on the Island Grounds. Both the former Presidents, the late V. V. Giri and R. Venkataraman had been his happy clients. The list goes on.

The secret of his success? Nataraja Iyer smiled. "Hard work," the succinct reply followed. His reputation was not built up after a fortnight of advertisement blitzkrieg launched by image consultants. It comes from hours of slogging by the stove and from the mouths of many satisfied clients. The menu changes depending on the place the clients are from. For example, if the wedding party is from Kumbakonam, instead of Sambar they will be served Kosthu with Pongal for breakfast.

Preserving the regional flavours of traditional food is a mission taken seriously by the Arusuvai team. Cooks are hired from different parts of Tamil Nadu and other States and are encouraged to demonstrate the local specialties and these are later added to the teams' repertoire. Nataraja Iyer does not hire anybody who has worked in a restaurant. It is the wedding cooks who work even at the restaurant.

Excellent relations with his staff is yet another success secret. Iyer gets up at 3 a.m. and makes coffee for his workers before waking them up. When the proprietor himself makes bed coffee for the staff, the relationship between the management and the labour tend to be close and loyal.

Kumar, the son, has more to say on the restaurant. It is diversification, he says. But it is more in the line of doing a service as the focus continued to remain on wedding catering. Remembering the justifiable price paid for the gorgeous meal, one tends to believe the `service' bit. An interesting feature of Shri Shankara is that there is no a la carte menu here for lunch or dinner. One more thing, there is no parceling either.

A la Carte menu is repetitive, according to Kumar. Then there is the pitfall that goes with such menus; it is a short step away from the usual Channa-batura routine. Because with a la carte menu there is not much chances of educating the customers' palate. For old-fashioned meals, the dishes change but the stress will be on traditional fare. That is the USP of Shri Shankara, he explains. Again with the parcels, the management cannot ensure that the food is eaten in a way that optimises its flavour, Kumar clarifies.

All three sons of Nataraja Iyer have followed in their father's foot steps, as did Nataraja Iyer his father's and Narayanaswamy Iyer his father's and so on for eight generations, according to the Nalabagaratnam. Even without the antecedents, once you have tasted his food, it is difficult to erase the picture of this maestro clad in just a simple dhoti from your mind.


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