What’s In The Box? – Ijas Ahmed, Sultan Sickanthar

New Food Entrepreneurs – A Special Roundup, Absolute Thai, Sushi in a Box

Chennai’s foodscape is brimming with innovation and vigour. From new cooking techniques, to quirky interiors and fusion based menus, every restaurateur worth his salt is doing something different to keep his restaurant at the tip of everyone’s palete. RITZ meets six of the most avant-garde entrepreneurs in the food business.

It is always fascinating to talk to entrepreneurs about the factors that propelled them to achieve success. But, when it comes to food entrepreneurs Ijas Ahmed and Sultan Sickanthar, it is not hard to see the ingenuity behind offering Japanese and Thai cuisine. RITZ enjoys a flavourful conversation with partner and operations head, Ijas Ahmed, of Sushi in a Box, Absolute Thai and Café De Paris Boulangerie on their thriving food businesses.

It is best that you bid your serious business discussions good bye as you step into Absolute Thai. One whiff of the lemon grass tea that heavily scents the restaurant and all you can think of is food! “Maybe that’s what makes us stand out!” laughs the jovial Ijas Ahmed. Though only in the food market for about 10 months now, Absolute Thai has got both lovers and haters talking about it; the trick to garnering all this chatter being ‘authenticity’. “Experimenting with fusion food is something that we do not want to try. You get what you came here for, nothing short of ‘Absolute Thai’,” he smiles. Word play, we like it!

This entrepreneurial duo seems to have gotten one thing right, and that is timing. While most city folk still enjoy their all-time favourite bites like burgers and fries, the city is open to experimenting with their food. “Travelling abroad to places like China or Malaysia or Japan is no longer a luxury. People make the most of these travels to savour local cuisine. Probably that’s the reason customers are open to experimenting with new taste palates,” Ijas believes.

Though people might be open to the idea of venturing into uncharted territories of authentic world cuisine, food pricing has always remained a key deciding factor. “The idea behind Sushi In A Box was that eating sushi did not have to be an unaffordable affair. When we started out, the prices ranged somewhere between `400-500, even when it came to more expensive fish like salmon,” he explains.

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The two partners seem to have worked out their standard of operation; “I handle customers and operations while Sultan designs the menu. Sultan is an NRI from Bangkok, and for him Thai cuisine is like home cooking. Both our head chefs for Sushi In A Box and Absolute Thai are expert chefs from Japan and Thailand,” says Ijas.

The restaurants use a wide variety of fish, meat, curry pastes and red chillies, most of which are bought from the local market while portions of it are imported, “Thai cuisine has absolutely no masala, so we source our roasted chilli paste, curry paste and soya sauce from abroad. Most of the fish that we use is freshly sourced from local markets on a daily basis,” Ijas tells us. Authenticity does come at a price, and Ijas reveals that the overhead cost at the restaurant runs to `10-12 lakhs a month, while their initial investment for the restaurants was ` 2 crores.

While the thrill of having walk-in customers is unparalleled, Ijas treasures his regulars. “The clientele is very varied. We have a lot of Koreans and Japanese. The ratio of expats and locals is about 70:30.” Answering the question on criticism Ijas tells us that there have been customers who have called the food ‘tasteless’.  Maybe authentic Thai cuisine is an acquired taste! However, the man is all smiles when he tells us, “We have about 60 to 70 covers on weekdays and about 100 covers on weekends. We do have a quite a few Jains who are regulars.”

About 50% of Sushi In A Box’s menu is vegetarian, which is good news for the vegetarian friends in your group. Taking his pick of favourites Ijas recommends the sweet potato roll for these friends and the prawn tempura roll for the others. At Absolute Thai the Bai Krapao Gai Kai and Tom Yum soup are crowd favourites, we are told.

The two entrepreneurs have now forayed into a new line of food with Café De Paris Boulangerie. While another Absolute Thai or Sushi In A Box in Chennai may not be on the cards anytime soon, Ijas leaves folks in other cities with a shout out, “We are coming soon!”