Rahul Akerkar, one of India’s best-known chefs, opened the much-loved Indigo in Mumbai in 1999. Considered one of India’s first stand-alone fine dining restaurants, Indigo shut last year, and Akerkar has since returned to the city with Qualia. Launched last month, Qualia has drawn flattering reviews for its modern, loosely Mediterranean-inspired cuisine. We spoke to Akerkar about how he travels.
How often do you travel and is it mostly for work or holidaying?
Not enough. I do one trip a year overseas. I don’t travel ever for work per se. I always combine the two because, eating out in restaurants is like doing R&D. I do one trip a year where I go diving. The other trip I do is another kind of holiday. I will be travelling in July to go diving in the Galapagos.
What sparked your interest in diving?
I’ve been diving since 1985. I was in Mombasa for two months farting around. I went to propose to a girl there, and it never happened. So rather than getting upset and leaving I decided to have two months of fun. I was about 26. So I learned to dive there and I’ve been diving ever since. I’m an instructor too. If I wasn’t cooking and running restaurants, I’d be diving.
What is it about diving?
I just love the ocean. I love that its pranic in a way, the breathing, the fact that you are entirely in control of your own wellbeing. I like the fact that no matter you are with 20 people it’s still a personal experience underwater.
And what about the other holiday?
The other holiday is more going to a place. I’m not a big sightseeing person. I love doing things. I try as best as I can never to stay in hotels, I always stay with people if I can manage. I meet people and we exchange addresses and they say ‘Oh when you come next time, come and stay’ and I say ‘Be careful what you wish for, I will show up.’ And I do.
If there is something interesting from the sightseeing point of view I’ll make the effort. But am I big museum goer? No. I focus on experiential things, a safari or trek or hot air ballooning.
Does your profession factor into your travel?
We try and do what I’d loosely call a food trip every year. We pick a place and see what they’re doing food-wise. If there are well known restaurants or chefs in the area we try and go there and see what they’re doing. We were in Singapore last year. In the past we have been to Australia, U.S., Spain, Italy, France, Southeast Asia.
Places you’d travel to for the food?
I’ve never been to Japan. It’s definitely on my bucket list.
Exciting destinations for street food?
Southeast Asia; Bangkok, Singapore.
And for fine dining?
My wife and I always decide we are going to do five or eight days of dining at the haute cuisine level. But at the end you’re fed up and want to eat hot dogs on the street. I’m tired of haute cuisine. It’s too stilted, it’s not fun anymore. It’s too expensive and unnecessarily so. Are they pushing boundaries food-wise? I don’t think they are any more. I think there are better meals to be had at the street food level. It’s just more fun to see what’s happening at the grassroots level.
How much have you travelled through India?
I used to when I was in college in the U.S. every time I came to India. I was a keen amateur photographer. I used to take off for three weeks with my camera, backpack and I never had a real plan. I’ve done Rajasthan, Gujarat, a lot of South India.
Does what you experience while travelling go into your work? And is it conscious?
I’ve never really thought about it. I have some things on my menu here that stemmed from influences when I travelled to Kerala. So yes it happens. But how? They’re more like epiphanies. You travel along and think, this is a great idea. For example we have a tuna loin which has a typical curry leaf kind of sesame spice rub. It’s typical in Kerala. We have an avocado pachadi. So that dish is drawn from that trip. But [consciously travelling to come up with dishes] is too much pressure and it’s better when a creation happens organically rather than forced.
Do you cook on the road?
I’ve done guest chef stints all over the world. If I’m at a friend’s house and they say Rahul you have to cook a meal, then I do.
What do you think of airplane food? Has it evolved?
I don’t think about it. How can anyone think about it! I think in business class perhaps it’s improved. In economy it’s still the same everywhere. Reheated food. Some airlines take more care than others; you won’t get a rubber omelette but something you can eat. If I can, I try and do a special meal if they offer it. Special meals are generally cooked specially. I say I want a seafood diet, so you get something out of the ordinary. I’m eating prawns while people near me are eating butter chicken.
Have you ever packed food while travelling? Is there any point?
I don’t. If you want your theplas go for it. I like to try the food where I’m going. On the banks of Lake Como eating dal and dhokla is a bit much.