At the fag end of 2019, just before the pandemic altered the world and the world of restaurants irrevocably, restaurateur Rohit Khattar, 58, owner of the acclaimed Indian Accent and Comorin, called me up one afternoon. He wanted to make his apologies for not being able to attend an event around Business on a Platter, my then new book on the business of restaurants, in which he is a case study.
To be honest, I had hardly expected him to participate in the panel discussion (between the country’s top restaurateurs), knowing, and having written about, his social shyness and reluctance to appear in public. As he signed off, he chuckled and quipped, “You can always put an empty chair with a name tag saying ‘invisible restaurateur’!” referencing the sobriquet I’d given him in my book.
Cut to 2022. Khattar seems the opposite of invisible. After an awards ceremony in New Delhi that he is seen attending, he lands up not just socialising with but inviting winning chefs from different restaurants in Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru to Indian Accent for a lavish meal. A few days later, we find him at another awards ceremony — this time in the world of beverages. Then, I run into him at Megu (which, incidentally, made its maiden appearance in Asia’s 50 Best List recently), wearing a favourite indigo shirt with a pineapple print. Later, the shirt makes another appearance at Garima Arora’s Gaa in Bangkok, while he dines on durian, kadhi, condiments with Australian super chef and restaurateur David Thomson. All this within the space of a little more than a week.
“What’s happening?” I ask. So out of character is all this is for a man who has cultivated an image for elusivity over the quarter of a century that I have known him.
“This is Rohit 2.0,” he laughs.
Growing the brand
Rohit 2.0 is not just about a revamp of image. It is about a revamp of business. Khattar exited his substantial business at Delhi’s India Habitat Centre last year, leaving his team of senior chefs and managers, including managing director and school friend Sandeep Tandon, to continue running the premier hub — but as part of the Habitat and not of any company owned by him. Now, he is ready to expand operations.
“Post the pandemic, I realised that I need to focus on my ambition as a restaurateur much more. And that won’t happen with just owning one, two or three restaurants, but having multiple brands in multiple cities to be helmed by different key chefs,” he tells me. Apart from two Indian Accents in New Delhi and New York, and Comorin in Gurugram, Khattar owns brands like Chor Bizarre, the All American Diner, and Oriental Octopus. The last two have shut at the Habitat but are expected to sprout in other locations, as and when he finds suitable venues. (Khattar also owns Cinestaan Film Company, a boutique studio, with productions such as Mirzya, Kaalakaandi and Bombay Rose to its name.)
However, the big news from the sidelines of Asia’s 50 Best ceremony in Bangkok is that Khattar is tying up with the celebrated David Thompson to create a new Thai brand. Khattar, his wife Rashmi (who is involved in the design of all his restaurants), and Shantanu Mehrotra, the executive chef of Indian Accent (chef Manish Mehrotra has been promoted to culinary director of the brand, which is also looking to expand in the near future) had attended to mark Indian Accent’s no 22 listing.
Khattar’s new company, EHV International, which is part of his Old World Hospitality, the parent company, will own and operate this brand. The plan is to have a couple of outlets in India and venture internationally, too. “I am already looking at locations and we have been offered some marquee ones. David will create the menu as the culinary director of this brand and train staff,” he says.
Thai with Thompson
Thompson, a world authority on Thai food, in fact cooked a private meal for the Khattars while in Bangkok, where apparently “each of the 14 dishes were memorable”. He took them to a wet market, too, to shop for ingredients. “David is a good trainer, just as Manish is a good trainer apart from being a good chef. Just look at all the chefs who are now famous, who worked at Indian Accent. I feel so proud of them, from Himanshu [Saini, of Trèsind Dubai] to Saurabh [Udhinia, of Revolver in Singapore],” Khattar says, as he tries to explain why he is confident as to Thompson not just creating an apt menu (“I don’t want the restaurant to be too expensive or fine dining”), but being able to run it successfully even as he manages his other international commitments.
“I had first eaten at Nahm [while Thompson was part of it] at the Halkin hotel in London many years ago, and then every time I’d visit Bangkok, I’d eat at Nahm, too. I ate at Long Chim Singapore and, during the pandemic, I visited the Thai pavilion at the Dubai Expo to be able to eat David’s food. Each time, I came out thinking these flavours would be well appreciated in India,” he explains.
Khattar’s belief and dabbling in Thai food as a widely-accepted cuisine suitable for India should not surprise those who have tracked his career. He was one of the first restaurateurs in the country to keep Thai dishes in his restaurant Oriental Octopus in Delhi in an era when Indian Chinese was all the rage. In fact, Mehrotra was a Thai chef at Oriental Octopus in his earlier avatar, and when I had first tasted his creations for Indian Accent — at a trial stage, before the restaurant had opened — it had been from that kitchen.
Young, fun, fresh
The Thai brand with Thomson is not the only new foray for EVH, which now owns Indian Accent and Comorin. (Chor Bizzare, Oriental Octopus and the others continue to be under Old World Hospitality.) EVH has reportedly more investors now apart from industrialist Anand Mahindra, who had tweeted in 2014 about being a “proud investor” in Indian Accent, when the restaurant had first broken into Asia’s 50 Best list (it has been on the World’s 50 Best list every year since 2015).
On the anvil this year is a new modern South Indian restaurant brand — to come up in Goa first, and then to travel to other cities in the country. A “young, bright” South Indian chef, who Khattar exhorts me not to name (“you know I always give credit to my chefs, and I would like to introduce him properly”), is to helm this brand with food that is to go beyond stereotypes. “We plan to open a fun, casual restaurant, and what better location than Goa since we plan to focus heavily on fresh seafood,” he says.
Trials have already begun. As we end this conversation, it is with a promise of sitting in on one of these, just as I had many years ago, when Mehrotra had first brought out his tamarind-glazed lamb chops and rice-crusted red snapper moilee. That dish had been an instant winner and continued to be so for years.
Anoothi Vishal (@AnoothiV on Twitter)writes on dining trends and food cultures. She is the author of Mrs LC’s Table: Stories about Kayasth Food and Culture.