Cooking up a storm – Shankar Krishnamurthy, Hyderabad
He had never stepped into a 5-star hotel before he joined the Catering College. From a trainee chef in a star hotel to setting up a hugely successful chain of restaurants, bakeries and bistros, his rise has been meteoric. He can study diners’ faces and tell whether his food is appreciated or not. His ultimate high is to see his outlets packed with happy people enjoying the treats from his kitchens. RITZ says hello to chef-turned-restaurateur Shankar Krishnamurthy who has the city’s elite literally eating out of his palms
When life gives you lemons, make lemonade, goes the overused cliché. But then there are a few daredevils who have rewritten the adage and created their own philosophy which reads something like this – When life gives you lemons, ask for tequila. Shankar Krishnamurthy, Hyderabad’s most celebrated chef-turned-restaurateur, belongs to the latter school of thought. Making the best of circumstances and constantly pushing the envelope seem to be his specialty. How else can you describe the journey of a simple South Indian boy whose culinary creations had the renowned hotelier Biki Oberoi paying a special visit to his restaurant Fusion 9 in Banjara Hills?
After spending a relaxed evening dining with Shankar and his partner Maya, the legendary hotelier went back and put his appreciation for their expertise on record via email. “It was definitely the proudest experience of my life,” says the chef whose charm is as famous as his food in the city, “Who would expect The Biki Oberoi, who never visits a stand-alone restaurant, to spend three precious hours dining at Fusion 9 with us. In addition to making his appreciation of the food quite apparent, he also made an effort to understand my journey, the various areas in detail of the stand-alone restaurant business. His appreciation letter was a huge fillip.”
This moment of high came after the hugely popular Fusion 9 celebrated a decade of success in 2013 but the story was something else on the day they opened doors for the first time. “We launched our first restaurant on March 14, 2003. It was a Friday and we were booked to the brim. The restaurant was choc-a-bloc with the city’s who’s who walking in to get a taste of what we had to offer. We were all experiencing a huge adrenaline rush and nervous as hell about the response and guess what happened? The electricity decides to go on a holiday. There was a power cut and the generator just wouldn’t start. I had sweat dripping down my sides and was on the verge of breaking down. Maya and I had no choice but to make the best of the situation. Quickly, we lit up candles and I went to every single table and told them that their dinner was on the house. It took a good four hours for my team to come back with another generator. By then, the city had given us a standing ovation. Food was an instant hit, people loved every bit of it, and the ambience turned out to be perfect. Every single person who came that night turned into an F9er,” says the much-admired restaurateur who opened up several outlets – Deli 9, Deli 9 Bistro, Siaa, Spoil, Uberdeq, Fusion 9 Inorbit, Grill Room, and Cinnabar Redd – along with business partners and a highly loyal accomplished team in the last 12 years. Every bakery, bistro, lounge and restaurant has created a niche for itself and a benchmark for others.
So when did he realise that he wanted to be a chef? “Haha,” guffaws Shankar who has had the distinction of introducing various cuisines and concept restaurants to Hyderabad, ‘I never thought I would be a chef, being a Tam Bram. Even in catering college, I was a vegetarian. But when I started getting drawn to F&B, I realised that in order to understand the operation better, one has to be good at the backend, the kitchen. So I joined the Kitchen Program at the Oberoi School. The journey was super exciting and today, when I look back, I feel immensely fulfilled.”
What motivated him to turn into a restaurateur? What keeps him going? “Once you are cued in with the kitchen, running a restaurant is the easier part. When one has worked in the Executive chef position for a decade, the administrative faculties also kick in along with the culinary knowledge. Hence going on my own was the next natural and exciting step. Though I was nervous as hell, determination to stick it out was the key. I had taken this step to prove to myself and nobody else. If I had failed, I would have gone back to a job. I guess I was fortunate with the first step and the rest followed. My motivation is to grow the team, keep pushing and help make the team to do more and more, thereby creating and improving careers. The biggest satisfaction has been that many a team member is always on the wanted list for star hotels and very proud that many a commis who has rubbed shoulders in my kitchen are senior chefs in big hotels, handling huge responsibilities, yet we are connected and nothing is forgotten.”
Talking about the turning points and challenges, Shankar says, “The first turning point was choosing hotel management over engineering and medicine, at a time when the hotel industry was very nascent. Second turning point was choosing the kitchen program to become a chef. Third and the biggest one was becoming an F&B entrepreneur along with my friend Arvind Kaila. We were college buddies first and our business has strengthened our bond a lot more. Challenges have been many, but my biggest one has always been to prove a point to myself.” What has been his learning? “One needs to lead by example, take the team with you and constantly seek to do more and more in the area of your strength, which in my case, has been Food & Beverage,” is his response.
What makes the stress of being on the top of the game worth it? “Many instances come to mind,” reminisces Shankar, “One of the biggest was handling seven heads of state under one roof, over three days. As the chef-in-charge, the experience was surreal, with tasting squads, lab samples, and food protocols of presidents, prime ministers and the royalty. In my entrepreneurial life, there have been some heartwarming moments. There was this two-year-old who would force her parents to Fusion 9 as she loved the pasta with white sauce. She is 14 today and still comes here regularly to eat the same dish. For me she is the biggest celebrity.”
Considering he has expanded heavily in a short span of time, which outlet is the dearest to him and why? What is the USP of his other ventures? “In my 30 years of experience, I was fortunate to have been an integral part of launching at least 40 different styles of food & beverage outlets, in India & abroad. However, Fusion9 is the dearest and most connected to me. Biased? Maybe. But it will always be most special as it was my first time and I believe that we set a new trend in Hyderabad by being here at the right time. Apart from Fusion 9, we have come up with many different concepts, always wanting to offer something different to the city. All our outlets – Deli9, Cinnabar Redd (earliest pan Asian experience in Hyderabad), Grill Room, Siaa, Spoil, Uberdeq, and Deli9 Bistro – have been hugely appreciated and accepted with great warmth. We are ready to roll out 3 new concepts in the next couple of months. We try to keep global trends in all our spaces. The USP is 100% Team Ethos – friendly, personal, efficient staff culture, and ubercool ambience with food being the star,” elaborates the star chef.
So what’s his favourite cuisine, daily staple, comfort food and choice of exotic food? “My favourite cuisine is French followed by Lebanese and Indian fusion. My daily staple is easy going veg food, mostly simple Indian, especially for lunch. Truffle and Dark Chocolate are my favourite exotic ingredients.”
Anywhere you go, celebrity weddings or anniversaries, high profile Diwali card parties or birthdays, you see F9 team catering the best of food in the city. Did he imagine he would come this far when he started? “Have I come that far? I don’t think so. There is still a lot to do, to learn and finally my dream project of a culinary school to give back to the industry that has given me all the opportunities I have been lucky with,” says the super successful restaurateur whose middle name is humility.
Way to go Chef! Hyderabad is proud of you.