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Masterchef Calcutta

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Anjan Chatterjee loves food. Every single aspect of it, from cooking to eating to running a chain of branded restaurants. So it came as no surprise when he decided to meet me at his Bengali restaurant Oh! Calcutta in Delhi for a chat (and, of course, a meal) and posed willingly in the kitchen. "I love cooking. The prawn malai curry being a favourite. It's the traditional recipe, but with a twist."

In fact, that seems to be his winning recipe for all his restaurants. While Oh! Calcutta serves traditional Bengali dishes modified a bit to make them restaurant-worthy, Mainland China — Chatterjee's chain of Chinese restaurants — serves Chinese food tweaked to Indian palates. "I promise you, we don't do authentic. Anything which is good on the palate is authentic. As long as the ingredients are the same, there's no harm in tweaking the recipe a bit to suit the Indian palate," he says.

Whatever he's doing, it seems to be working. Having started his first restaurant in 1992, today Chatterjee has 86 restaurants spread across the country. And having recently launched a successful IPO, his company, Speciality Restaurants, hopes to have 200 restaurants up and running in the next few years. Popular restaurant brands include Oh! Calcutta, Mainland China and Sigree, which serves north-west frontier cuisine. Besides, there's a chain of confectionery stores dotting Mumbai called Sweet Bengal and other restaurants such as Machaan and Flame & Grill in Kolkata and Bangalore. On the cards is an Italian cafe in Pune.

"Necessity is the mother of invention," he says as he directs his chef to cook Gandhoraj Paneer in place of Gondhoraj Bhetki (a fish dish that I refuse as I'm a vegetarian). Within a few minutes, the chef presents us with paneer cooked in the same batter and it tastes great. "Send the recipe national. Put it on the menu," commands Chatterjee. And just like that the restaurant has a new dish for vegetarians.

TOP PICKS: Chatterjee's favourite prawn malai curry and fish with green onion in spicy tomato sauce (left)

Innovation, whether in tweaking the recipe or changing the name of a dish, seems to work for Chatterjee. One of the hot-selling items at Sigree is the Kosha Gosht, which is basically mutton fried in its own juices without water. Kosha Mangsho is the same dish with a Bengali name served at Oh! Calcutta and is equally popular. "If we had called it Kosha Mangsho at Sigree, it wouldn't have fitted in and we didn't want to call it Bhuna Gosht because that's too common." 

Chatterjee's endeavour to please the tastebuds of a larger section of society has also made him do the unthinkable — serving boneless ilish or hilsa at Oh! Calcutta. Bengalis not only frown at the thought of hilsa without bones, they consider it an insult to the most-sought-after fish.  However, most non-Bengalis find it difficult to eat hilsa because of the numerous bones. "There's one chef at a restaurant in Calcutta's Park Street who has perfected the art of cutting the hilsa in such a way that the bones are removed. He has trained our chefs," says Chatterjee. The boneless hilsa is a favourite at most Oh! Calcutta outlets. 

It's not just food but the whole experience which, feels Chatterjee, makes his restaurants stand out. "We are a 5-star restaurant chain without the 5-star price tag." But really it's his eye for detail. For instance, the front office staff at all his restaurants are trained to handle babies. If you have left your reading glasses at home, don't worry, the restaurant manager can offer you a pair to help you read the menu. And shawls are available for those who find the air-conditioning too cold.

Manpower is one of the biggest challenges of the restaurant business. "In our business even if you need a glass of water, you need someone to get it for you," says Chatterjee. He runs his own catering school in Kolkata and 90 per cent of his staff is trained there. "Initially, my wife and I taught them all the Bengali recipes. Now there are others but I'm still hands-on. I call my chefs at 3 am if I want to discuss something."

So what is it that worries him the most? A dissatisfied customer, he says. "Satisfied customers are none of my business but a dissatisfied customer can kill my brand," says Chatterjee whose second love is advertising. Reading the comment cards tops his to-do list everyday. Leave a negative comment at any of his restaurants and you may get a call from one Mr Chatterjee. On the other hand, if you enjoy the food at Mainland China, don't forget to kiss the chef.

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 16-07-2012)