The year 2004 was a challenging one for nilgiri’s, especially after we had decided to ‘fight on’.
The rebuilding process had started and all we had to do was to follow the recovery path, which was not exactly a straight one.
This involved speaking to a lot of people. Our aim was to be straight and honest with all the suppliers who are the backbone of any business, and particularly one serving food!
Most of the suppliers had been with me from the start and we had built up a good working relationship over the years.
It was now the time to ask for ‘favours’ and all of them obliged.
The vegetable supplier, the butcher, the poultry supplier, the grocer, the container man, the accountant, the solicitor and even the ‘milkman’, who was by far the smallest of the lot, gave us a full year to pay off our outstanding amounts, with no interest incurred, as long as we made a contribution every week.
The landlord, through his real estate agent, also gave us grace time!
Now that the suppliers had put all the faith in us as ‘good operators’ it was up to us to do what we were good at, offer good food and back it up with good service. We also decided to clean up the ‘back of house’ by sorting out documents into different categories such as: suppliers, kitchen equipment, maintenance, daily purchases, etc. and staff training.
Staff training was very important as it helped us in marketing ourseleves to our customers. Staff had to be trained in this aspect as well. We also believed (and still do!) in ‘in-house’ marketing/promotion as this helps improve staff morale, a key ingredient, as I have always believed, and still do, that a restaurant is as good as its employees are. It is the staff who can make or break it!!
We split our roles and focused on the positives like the cooking classes, chef’s tables, my cookbooks (and at that time I had started writing my second cookery book) and also on the function rooms, take-home food called nilgiri’s @ home and so on . . . We had no choice but to succeed!
In any case, we had to do it for all the suppliers we owed money to and then we had to do it for ourselves and last, but not the least, we had to do it for my little boy, Aniruddh, who had just turned 6.
There was another twist to this story. Just as the business started to improve , there was an emotional and a very personal setback to me. My best ‘well wisher’ and also my biggest hero, my Dad, who I called “Papa”, decided to take a trip to the heavenly abode on the 4th of November.
Nearly everyday during this ‘downturn’ I would speak with him.
He was a scientist and a self-made man. Having lost his parents when he was only 5, and having no money left to him, he managed to teach himself and with pure determination and guts he obtained a Ph.D in Chemistry!!
This was no mean feat for someone who had no support, financially or otherwise! Speaking to him gave me a lot of confidence that I could also overcome these hard times!
He always said, “Son, think like a batsman who has to win the game for his team. After all, life and business are like a game of cricket. You will only get bowled out unless you cover your wicket. There is always light at the end of the tunnel if you try!!”
So, I remembered this advice and knew that we had to go out onto the field and bat and cover our wicket! We had to move on and I am sure that that is what he would have expected. Nothing less.
So, with Christmas around the corner, we started promoting our function room, akash, for private parties, both corporate and individual.
nilgiri’s Akash room
But we also needed to provide catering outside the restaurant; catering is the cream that is essential for restaurants.
It is amazing how positive thinking brings about positive changes even when you are down and almost out.
I think it was probably a Friday night at nilgiri’s, the restaurant was almost full, when three people turned up for dinner.
Two of them had already been to my restaurant.
As luck would have it, we had just recruited a new chef hoping to do some external catering, as the existing team was flat out.
Anyway, one of the trio seated at the table is a doctor called Alok Sharma, an ophthalmologist. He had migrated from India after qualifying as a doctor of Medicine, but due to some bureaucratic reason beyond my understanding he had to redo the exam to get an entry into ophthalmology in this country. It took him a few years to get there , during which he also worked as an assistant to some doctors for a minimum wage. Incredible man!
Dr Alok Sharma
Dr Alok Sharma operating
However, Alok passes the exam with flying colors and is sent to Wagga Wagga where he quickly establishes himself as a leading and well respected eye surgeon.
Soon he is invited to join the Rotary club of Wagga Wagga and it is here that Dr Alok and the Rotarians launch a project called “Darkness to Light”, a charity that will help the blind, and partially impaired, people of Yamuna Nagar in Northern India, to get medical eye treatment.
Doctors undertaking cataract operations
In my career as a cook/chef I have come across a lot of doctors; there aren’t too many like Alok I can tell you, he is totally selfless and extremely giving just like my old man was.
He is a gem of a man and I am blo..y fortunate that he gave nilgiri’s an opportunity to cater for his charity back in April 2005, particularly given there were others who could have done as good a job. But we were lucky!! Meera and I were delighted!
But we had one condition before doing the catering. We said that if all those who were involved in this project at Wagga were to give their time and services free, including all the doctors who were to go to India using their own money, we would also give our food and services at no cost either, not a cent!!
Dr Alok is a philanthropist. He’s not a millionaire, he just has a big heart which is worth far more than any amount of money.
So, the deal was done.
April 2005 came around quickly and Meera, myself and Narender Reddy, the chef we had recruited for external catering, left for Wagga Wagga.
After six hours of driving we immediately got started preparing for the dinner function that was to take place the following day.I think there must have been around 250 guests we were catering for, but believe me it felt like a thousand!!We had never seen anything like it before, it seemed as if the entire population of Wagga had turned up for this event. It was absolutely brilliant!!Since that time in 2005 nilgiri’s has been associated with the “Darkness to Light” project and catered for two more of their projects in 2007 and 2011. [Interestingly, the project was called off in 2009 due to the GFC only to be brought back, alive and kicking, in 2011 to an even bigger audience!”]Dr Alok and his team of dedicated doctors and rotarians have treated more than 5000 patients in that part of northern India and though it is not a big number in the grand scheme of things it is a start and a great example of how one can give without being a millionaire.
And as for us?
Morning after checkup by Dr Rajim Mohan
Well, we have now established ourselves as a good “events caterer” thanks to the kick-start process the “Darkness to Light” project gave us! To see some of our recent community activities, click nilgiri’s community.
And as for positive thinking. Well, of course it does turn things around but there is also the less elegiac financial side that turns things around as well!
Believe you me, it took us five long years to pay off all our suppliers (the longest five years of my life) until we were back to square one where we could make a fresh start in this Land of Opportunities. Back to the point where we had started here in 1990!
The process of rebuilding is ongoing. It’s like maintaining the Sydney Harbour Bridge, whatever the weather but without clear vision things can look daunting.
The Harbour bridge on a not so good day
Sydney Harbour Bride on a good day
I‘ll write about how we’re achieving our goals in some forthcoming blogs. In the meantime, the “Darkness to Light” programme was selected as the best International Rotary project for 2010–11. And if that isn’t good news, I don’t know what is!
Anah daata sukhi bhava!!
Two of Alok’s favourite dishes are murgh hara masala (chicken with mint and coriander) and dalcha gosht (lamb and split chickpeas). Please try these for yourself!