The story of Vasantha Bhavan doesn’t start in Egmore or Vadapalani, but more than a thousand kilometres from Chennai — at Colombo.
That’s where a young Muthukrishnan Reddy was sent by his family, predominantly farmers toiling away in fields at Munanjipatti (in Tirunelveli). “For studying, I was told,” recalls the 82-year-old, peering through his glasses as he sips sugarless coffee from a copper davara-tumbler. “The first day I went to school, I was teased. I refused to go after that.”
He started doing odd jobs at his relative Ramakrishna Reddiar’s hotel, and got interested in the business. Once, he was taken to a wedding by his neighbours. That served as the inspiration for a successful venture he’d start much later. Carnatic singer N.C. Vasanthakokilam was performing at the high-profile wedding — she was specially invited to Sri Lanka for it. She noticed how Muthukrishnan was enjoying her music, and kept talking to the young boy during breaks. That a renowned singer had noticed him pleased Muthukrishnan no end. He decided that whenever he started a restaurant, he’d call it ‘Vasantha’. “Actually, there was no Vasantha in my family,” he smiles. .
The small restaurant he started in 1969 in Trichy (and, in 1974 in Chennai) has grown into an empire — with 14 outlets in the city’s neighbourhoods.
We’re sitting in one of them, the swanky, well-lit VB Signature Restaurant that will be open to the public soon. It’s very different from the traditional image of a south Indian restaurant — the lighting is bistro-like, the seating resembles a café — and that change is exactly what Muthukrishnan’s 28-year-old grandson Ravi Anand Krishnan wants to showcase to food-loving Chennai.
At this joint, situated on the busy Nungambakkam High Road, already dotted with restaurants offering various cuisines, you can start off with a coriander peanut pesto vadai, experiment with a floret mussalum and finish off with a grand Mysore pak crumble. If you’re feeling indulgent, you could check out their Nitrogen basundi 2.0, which is made by the chef right at your table.
Muthukrishnan and his son Ravi (Anand’s father, who oversees all the other outlets) watch the process in awe. Anand, armed with culinary experiences in the U.S., West Asia and Bali, is certain that patrons, especially children, will have the same awe while watching it.
“I wanted the concept of Indian fusion food to catch on in Chennai,” he says. “It will go a long way in breaking stereotypes. Can South Indian specialities and innovation not be looked at in awe, the way one usually looks at Italian or Chinese cuisine?”
With VB Signature, he’s hoping to give Chennai a new vegetarian experience. “Fusion always gets people interested, right?” he says. “This is our step in going to the next level before we slowly test the international market.”
An outlet in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, is on the cards very soon. It is a huge jump that Ravi, 52, looks at with utmost satisfaction. Since the time he came to Madras in 1991, he has steered the chain through rising costs and changing consumer behaviour. It wasn’t easy though. In fact, when he wanted to come here, his father wasn’t too forthcoming. “He asked me, ‘What will you do there? We have just one branch’,” recalls Ravi. That solitary one was in Egmore — bang opposite the Railway Station.
The idea, Ravi says, was to expand into other areas in the city. And so, armed with all the training he received at Trichy, he came here to try his luck with the hospitality industry. There was competition, but Ravi wasn’t too perturbed.
“My competitors are my guide, after all,” he says, “The trick is to do what you want in a different manner.”
As years went by, he established the brand name ‘Namma Veedu Vasantha Bhavan’ and went on to enter the boutique hotel segment with The Spring Hotel, earlier Arunachala, actor Rajinikanth’s hotel.
Namma Veedu’s home-like ambience and quality fare appealed to the city’s foodies, who couldn’t resist their daily dose of idlis, dosas and filter coffee. The challenge for Ravi came about when he went to Tambaram (“it was still developing then”) with an outlet.
“It remains my favourite outlet,” he says, his smile intact, “The people of Tambaram liked to spend on food; that augured well for us.”
Cut to 2016, and Nungambakkam is one place where Chennaiites spend a lot on food. The father-son-grandson trio hopes people check out their Signature. Anand, who has invested much of his energy in the last year in this venture, might have a fancy food degree from Switzerland, but is determined to support Indian small-scale industries with this venture. The tiles are from Athangudi (a village in Sivaganga district famous for its handmade, durable tiles), the furniture from Rajasthan and the crockery from Pune. “It was a conscious decision,” he says, “We wanted to show how we can source from within the country and still present a classy restaurant, on a par with others in the world.”
They’re moving with the times and Ravi makes no bones about that. “In a couple of years, Chennai’s apartments might be built without kitchens; they might just have a pantry to store and heat food. That’s because people might not have the time to cook. We have to be ready to cater to that segment.”