The New York Times Magazine today published online (and, I assume, this weekend will do so in print) a long story about the man behind the Saravana Bhavan vegetarian Indian restaurants that are, almost, everywhere.
As our headline (and the Times’, too) suggests, it isn’t just a story about the latest celebrity chef. The man who founded it and still is in charge was charged with murder in 2002.
Saravana Bhavan specializes in the holy trinity of south Indian snacks known as tiffin: dosa, idli and vada. All are made from ground rice and lentils, with remarkably different results. Dosas are crispy golden crepes that are most deliciously served with a masala of potato and onion; vadas are deep-fried savory doughnuts; and idlis, the south’s staple food, are pure-white saucer-shaped steamed cakes. At most branches of Saravana Bhavan in Chennai, you can also find for sale a little book titled, “I Set My Heart on Victory.” First published in 1997, the book is Rajagopal’s memoir and manifesto, a curious blend of mythmaking and self-effacement.
In 2000, Saravana Bhavan branched out for the first time beyond India, opening a franchise in Dubai, where Indian expats vastly outnumber native-born Emiratis. According to Rajagopal’s elder son, Shiva Kumaar, the opening-day crowd was like “for a newly released movie.” They’d eventually expand to Paris, Frankfurt, London, Dallas and Doha, Qatar. The strategy is simple: open one restaurant in every city with a large expat Indian population. (One exception is Manhattan, which has two.) Prey on homesickness by importing skilled chefs to ensure that the food tastes just the way it does in Chennai. Don’t bother trying to pursue non-Indian customers.
I believe that this chain of restaurants was one of Pattabhi Jois’ favorites, and that we ate at one (and stayed in the connected hotel) on our last Yatra in India. (Maybe in Kanchipuram?) Part of the Times’ interest is because there are a couple of restaurants in New York, as noted in the excerpt above.
The Times story is a pretty fascinating read, which also touches on the rise of the Indian middle class, the further developments of the restaurant business and, of course, the murder part of the tale.
Posted by Steve