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From Kohli's Nueva to Tendulkars: Celebrity restaurants can leave a bad taste in the mouth

Celebrity ownership does act as an initial draw, but once the enthusiasm and sampling ebbs, most such restaurants flounder

Sandeep Goyal 

Kohli's restaurant Nueva
Kohli's restaurant Nueva in New Delhi

Stars expanding their name recognition is nothing new for celebrities and it only seems natural that a celeb entrepreneur also turns into a restaurateur. Earlier this year, cricketer opened the first restaurant in India to serve South American food, Nueve which is located in South Delhi's culinary hotspot Sangam Courtyard. But despite the fanfare, it doesn't even come close to hitting the spot as there is more to creating and owning a successful restaurant than coming up with a catchy name, picking the chef, and telling him or her to put fancy names on the menu. The column below discusses the good, bad and ugly of in India.

My wife and I were in Delhi last month. Since I had read a lot of media hype about Virat Kohli’s new restaurant, Nueva, we opted to head there for dinner with some friends. I had high hopes. All of Virat’s PR tom-tomed that Nueva served authentic South American food, and the menu had inspirations from Spain, Italy, Portugal, France and Japan. Some interesting Asian food too was supposed to be on offer. ‘From pan-seared duck to Peruvian piscos, the restaurant has some unique signature dishes that are bound to wow you’ promised press write-ups about Nueva.

I am an unabashed fan. I was sure young Kohli had brought the same excellence he displays on the cricketing field on to the dining table.  We were not disappointed. The ambience was nice. Upmarket, classy. We were welcomed with warm smiles. The restaurant was full. A mix of yuppies, and family crowd. There was a nice, friendly air to the eatery.

The menu selection seemed eclectic. For starters, we ordered Panko con Costra Palitos de Pescado, a flavoured soft buttery fish ensconced in crunchy panko and sprinkled over with tomato dust, Pollo Rojo con Salsa de Pimenton y Romero, chunks of chicken simmered in a vibrant red wine sauce with the kick of paprika, fragrance of rosemary and hints of garlic and Chorizo de Cordero con Papas, Portuguese style Chorizo and potatoes cooked in a spicy concasse flavoured with red wine. For the vegetarians, we added Tostada des Alcachofa Marinada, soft artichokes marinated with lemon and spice, tossed in a chunky Chilean Walnut sauce stuffed in a spongy brioche and Croquetas de Hongos y Queso, cheese and potato croquettes rolled in panko crumbs and fried to crispness. Someone asked for a portion of Nduja, a special blend of pork sausage, from Calabria in Italy.

To be honest, the food disappointed. Seriously disappointed. The portions were small. Too little to pass-around. And the food descriptors, basis which we had ordered the food, were exaggerations all the way. The dishes were just ordinary. Well presented. But insipid to taste. Style, yes, substance no. We were not new to the cuisine, having partaken some really exotic stuff during our recent trip to Peru. The dishes at Nueva lacked authenticity. And taste. 

I won’t get into the details of the rest of the meal. The experience of the starters was repeated through the main course and the desserts. Big promises. Small portions. Dull food. I felt cheated. I asked to see the Chef, a gentleman called Michael Swamy. Sensing my mood, the staff told me Chef Swamy had ‘just left for the day’. 

Why would someone like launch Nueva? It is a question I have not found a ready answer to. Kohli already has a stake in the ISL team, FC Goa; he is invested in the ITPL through UAE Royals where Roger Federer plays for the franchise; he owns Chisel gyms; he is part owner of Wrogn, a youth fashion brand; he has invested in, a London based sports fans forum. And the list goes on. But why a restaurant?

is not the first, and surely, not the last celebrity to be enticed by the glamour of the restaurant business. If memory serves me right, Kapil Dev was the first to set up Sixer, a resto-bar way back in 1982 in his home town Chandigarh inside his Hotel Kapil which is now called Kaptain’s Retreat. Tendulkar’s came up in Mumbai a few years ago. There was a Sachin’s too a little later. Both, from none else but the legendary Sachin Tendulkar, in collaboration with hotelier Sanjay Narang. Sourav’s - The Food Pavilion came up in 2004 in Kolkata’s upmarket Park Street, owned by the former Indian captain, Sourav Ganguly. Pacer launched ZK’s and then Zaheer Khan’s Fine Dine. He also launched a bar, Toss. Not to be left behind, all-rounder Ravindra Jadeja launched Jaddu’s Food Field in Rajkot in 2012. The Nawab of Najafgarh, Virender Sehwag too launched Sehwag’s Favourites in Delhi. Ajay Jadeja too tried his hand with hospitality, launching an Italian restaurant, Senso in Delhi. Robin Uthappa and S Sreesanth launched The Bat and Ball in Bangalore. Harbhajan Singh was to launch Bhajji Da Dhaba, but I don’t know if he actually ever did. 

Indian cricketers were not alone in their love for good food (and drink!). Chris Gayle launched Triple Century Sports Bar (333) in Kingston, Jamaica; Mohammad Ashraful started Sichuan Garden in Dhaka; while Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara inaugurated The Ministry of Crab in Colombo.  

The sad story on almost all of the above is that every single one of the above restaurants has either shut down after inglorious innings, or exists in doldrums. The only visible exception to the above list is The Ministry of Crab which I have personally visited a couple of times in Sri Lanka. It serves outstanding sea food and is one of the busiest restaurants in the capital city of Colombo. Most others have teetered and toppled after making no visible or lasting mark on the gourmet map. 

So, why do such enterprises fail? Primarily, I think, out of lack of understanding of the domain. On the face of it, it looks easy to do. Especially when the cricketer invariably partners someone who claims knowledge of the hospitality business. But not all choices are obviously wise. I am told that Sehwag’s venture ended up in litigation with his business partners. While casting no personal or professional aspersions, I am told Virat Kohli’s chef, Michael Swamy was in charge of the back kitchen of the television show Master Chef, not a particularly celebrated CV to have. If Kohli was looking to launch a top-of-the-line eatery, he could perhaps have looked for someone with better credentials and higher in the pecking order of chefs in India. 

The best example of a celebrity-plus-chef combination, without doubt, is Nobu, one of the finest Japanese restaurants in the world. Robert De Niro teamed up with Chef Nobu Matsuhisa to launch this much talked about box office success way back in 1994 in New York. Nobu today has restaurants across 30 cities including New York, Bahamas, Beijing, Budapest, Cape Town, Dallas, Dubai, Hong Kong, Las Vegas, London, Berkeley St. (London), Los Angeles, Malibu, Melbourne, Mexico City, Miami, Milan, Moscow, Next Door (NY), Fifty Seven (NY), Perth, San Diego, Tokyo and Waikiki. I have been to Nobu at NY, Dubai, Las Vegas and Tokyo. The food is consistently great, not a notch short. Table reservations require advance planning. The restaurants are abuzz at all times. And, there is star-gazing in abundance to go with to-die-for sushi and sashimi. Nobu has obviously got the celebrity-plus-chef combination right. Perhaps needs to go there for inspiration.
Besides the enormous success of Nobu, there are other examples too of global celebrities who meandered into food. Jay-Z’s 40/40 Club met with moderate success. Eva Longoria, star of the hit TV show Desperate Housewives, got together with Chef Todd English to develop a Latin inspired steak and seafood restaurant, Beso. It flopped. Ashton Kutcher’s old-world-Italy-meets-Hollywood-chic restaurant Dolce Enoteca e Ristorante opened in Los Angeles and a couple of other locations but closed down. Jennifer Lopez’s, Madres, opened in Pasadena, CA with the promise of being ‘a family restaurant with a little bit of sexiness to it’ but failed to make any dent. Britney Spears’ Nyla got consistently bad reviews and was shuttered. Francis Ford Coppola’s Rustic survives because of its location on his winery in Sonoma County. Bon Jovi’s Soul Kitchen is a no-prices-on-the-menu restaurant and flourishes because of its charm. 10 years after it launched, Justin Timberlake’s Southern Hospitality continues to do well because of its barbeque offering and southern style ambience.
If most cricketers in India have failed to register centuries with their restaurants, other celebrities too have had mixed success with restaurants. Nagarjuna’s N Grill in Hyderabad is supposed to be doing well. Mollywood star Dileep’s Dhe Puttu which serves Kerala cuisine is said to be popular too. His Mollywood colleague Prithviraj has a very successful restaurant Spice Boat in Qatar. So also Asha Bhosle whose Asha’s is quite a rage in Dubai. Bollywood stars have had their ups-and-downs with Gondola (Perizaad Zorabian), Mischief/H2O (Suniel Shetty), Lap - The Lounge (Arjun Rampal), Royalty (Shilpa Shetty Kundra), Monarch (Mithun Chakrobarty), Someplace Else (Bobby Deol) and Crepe Station (Dino Morea). I believe there is a restaurant in Bandra called Bhai Jaan blessed by Salman Khan, but I am not sure if the connection and patronage is official. 
In the final analysis, forays into food by celebrities by-and-large have been iffy. More failures than successes. Celebrity ownership does act as an initial draw, but once the enthusiasm and sampling ebbs, most such restaurants flounder. The reasons are not far to seek. A good restaurant is first and foremost about food. Unfortunately, are so blinded by the aura and fame of the owner that this essential focus on food is invariably not there. Food is merely seen as a by-product of the celebrity’s magnetism, which it surely is not. Another important dimension of a good restaurant is the service. Because of their initial success guaranteed by the celebrity name, most such restaurants tend to inherit the ego and brash attitude of their celebrity owners turning back customers in the good times. When the novelty wears off, the customers just do not come back. 
Back to where we started, needs to take some time out of his busy cricketing calendar to revisit the basics at Nueva. The presentation is fine but the portions and the food itself needs serious attention. If not addressed sufficiently and quickly, Nueva may just join the long list of celebrity failures that left a bad taste in the mouth. 

Sandeep Goyal is a business columnist, commentator and critic. He is also Chief Tasting Officer (CTO) of FoodFood, the 24x7 TV channel, that he co-owns with celebrity chef Sanjeev Kapoor

Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal. They do not reflect the view/s of Business Standard.

First Published: Thu, August 24 2017. 10:00 IST