Artisan behind celebrated fine dining spots

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Anjan Chatterjee eludes definition, if only because he always seems to be driven in several directions in different domains – in all of which he has achieved a good measure of both professional and financial success. Today he is best known as a restaurateur, the entrepreneur and artisan behind a string of celebrated ‘fine dining’ spots. Many also know him as an advertising professional, with an agency that’s scored some signal brand successes with creative ideas built on a solid marketing base. His friends and associates also think of him as an accomplished entertainer, with a flair for hilarious mimicry, and with a musical bent wherein he has indulged in some low-key – but successful – productions.
All this began a couple of decades ago, when Anjan ruffled feathers in his academia-oriented family by thumbing his nose at a corporate job to open first an advertising agency, and later a chain of restaurants. This should have been alien territory for someone with a middle-class intellectual career-oriented upbringing, until Anjan silenced the naysayers by making it work and thereby, making his mark.
His particular style of operation is marked by his tendency to get involved in all aspects of his several enterprises, even while surrounding himself with talented and trusted people. Some would call that ‘micro-management’, but it’s more likely to be strict attention to detail. Even before it became part of his business pursuits, he was known for taking over the kitchen when there were guests around. Three years in the Hotel Management College later put a formal stamp on this personal penchant.
With such credentials, it was but a short step – and a long leap risk-wise – to the point when he and his wife Suchhanda opened an intimate dining place called Only Fish in Mumbai, expressing his distinct culinary vision. Only Fish was the first of its kind at the time, a restaurant that put passion for food before profits, and was financially vindicated for it. Later, this would become the signature of all Speciality Group restaurants, the group that Anjan Chatterjee established in a relatively short time. Mainland China, the next venture from Anjan Chatterjee group, opened in Sakinaka in Mumbai, and on Gurusaday Road in Calcutta. Both locations were not exactly commercial hotspots. But Anjan accurately judged the shifting dynamics of dining and blazed a new trail into Southern Calcutta and EM Bypass, as well as the Western suburbs of Mumbai. Mainland China is the first stand-alone restaurant chain to present genuine Chinese cuisine based on a hitherto unheard of level of research. Even the decor exhibits inspired renderings of research-based authenticity in ambiences. Currently, the flagship restaurant has spread to 20 cities across India and around 4+ countries around the world, with Anjan Chatterjee as personally involved as ever at all levels of brand management and even day-to-day operations, down to menu choices and – who knows? – fortune cookie slogans.
Anjan Chatterjee is the first restaurateur determined to explore the philosophy of a cuisine merely based on its pleasure on the palate. Mainland China’s fine balance of flavours is as good as a treatise on harmony, the ancient Chinese philosophy. There followed Oh! Calcutta, and the world discovered the sizzling-melting pot of cultures – Bengali, Mughal, Anglo-Indian – that was the North-East since the Raj. Each recipe has a story behind it, and the dining experience is a bite of living heritage. We have here what could well be called ‘concept dining’, in which the food and drink are components in a larger experience which also includes decor, ambience, service and authenticity. It’s a niche that extends into several more Speciality properties. There’s Mainland China Private Dining, which finely balances warmth and exclusivity in a daring tightrope act. Sigree, a restaurant chain in six cities and growing, which advocates ‘slow food’ in an age of international fast food chains. There’s Haka, a ‘pop cuisine’ chain fresh from Shanghai and Bangkok. Machaan, a forest-themed chain, which has opened up a tropical haven around its Indian flavours. And then, comes the global Chinese revolution on the taste-buds, with
New World Mainland China in Delhi. It tosses in elements of Eurasia and splashes of Latin America, all dancing around one essence – the flavours of China.
Though Speciality Restaurant is expanding at a breakneck pace, it continues to reflect Anjan’s growing vision. It’s impossible to miss the joy and warmth, the personal touch of the restaurateur that characterises every new venture.
Meanwhile, advertising is far from being neglected. Anjan manages to inject his day-to-day presence into his successful national advertising business. Situations Advertising works with brands which the agency has helped propel into leadership in their categories, such as Ujala & Maxo of Jyothy Laboratories, Cello Pens, Everest Masalas, Fair & Handsome & Menthoplus for Emami, Active Acres for Ruchi Group, Vasmol & Streax for Hygienic Research Institute, Rupa and many others.
The entertainer and songster dimension also find expression, every now and then, in a recording of Bengali gems, crafted in Anjan’s own home studio. These too have been well received and appreciated. Here’s RITZ Magazine in conversation with Anjan Chatterjee.

When did you decide that you want to enter the hospitality industry?
While I was pursuing my graduation, I had this dream of working in the hospitality industry and therefore, joined the Institute of Hotel Management in Calcutta. After completing studies, I joined Taj as a management trainee and worked there for a year and a half and joined the publication industry. But during this one and a half years of my stint with my Hotel, I fell in love with restaurant industry, food particularly since I had a passion for food since childhood and nurtured a dream even while I was not directly connected. Thereafter, I started my own advertising company and kept cooking & entertaining my friends, some of who are well known gourmets and found that my passion has only strengthened over the years. When the opportunity came to open a small place in Bombay, I answered to my inner call and jumped right into it. This was in the year 1992.

What were the initial challenges and how did you overcome them?
Right from beginning, I found that the food I was serving in my restaurant was very well appreciated and it became the talk of the town in a short time. However, the restaurant was too small where there was a toilet which was located outside the restaurant. The kitchen was extremely small. I needed the best of the staff to produce the right standard of food. The location of space was not ideal which made operations very difficult. But this was a learning experience and I realized that though this has a potential, it would need a professional team to take my dream forward. Therefore, I started building a team very early and strengthened the same overtime. In this industry, a committed, experienced, professional team is essential and I’m lucky that I could build it up in the shortest possible time & retained the same over the years.

What have been the highlights of your culinary journey so far?
There have been many awards, rewards and many write ups which has come our way but the greatest pleasure is when some of our senior patrons come up to me at the airports or in public spaces and thank me for food that we consistently serve and the care the boys take over and over again.

You have known to be a hands-on guy from the beginning. Do you still work minutely at all the levels in your venture?
Like I said my passion is food – therefore developing new recipes, adopting new cuisines, learning new methods, experimenting with new ingredients are some of the things that I enjoy doing and regularly do. So far as operational details are concerned, those are taken care by the team under my guidance.

What are some of the signature things at Speciality Restaurants that gives you an edge over others?
One is our invaluable experience over the years that tells us what to do and what not to do in future. Then, our presence in 22 cities and a diverse experience team which are ready for any challenges at any time. Our flagship brand such as Mainland China has created a legacy in Chinese cuisine in India especially in the last 25 years. We have adopted the true and authentic taste of Chinese with our masterchefs who had flown from China to create the same – whether it’s Crispy Lotus Stem which is a bestseller or our seafood specialities.

Do you travel across the world to keep abreast of the latest trends in the culinary world?
Yes of course. It is absolutely essential. And I love doing it. Without being in touch with places like New York, London, Singapore and Tokyo, it’s difficult to be abreast of new happenings. I travel to these places on a regular basis and also venture out to new countries like Peru, Bali, Vietnam in order to experience the exotic cuisines which are yet to be wholly discovered.

Which are your favourite places where you’ve tried the best food ever?
Some of the best places that I have tried are Japanese specialities in Nobu – London. From a generous selection of Sashimi sand Sake, the tastes were exquisite and nothing like I had tried before. Another place which happens to be a favourite is Kiln which happens to be in London too. They have some great combinations of seafood specialities in a nouveau format.

What are your expansion plans?
Well I’m very excited about our London project. There are plenty of offers from the USA which we are actively considering. This is all apart from the domestic expansion where we are selective but aggressive. We expect that we will have 8-9 projects this year such as in cities like Kolkata, Hyderabad, Bangalore, Hyderabad etc and definitely more in the years to follow.

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