A little over four years ago, when Ashish Kapur quit his job as an engineer with GE, packed his bags and came back home from America, his parents were appalled. "No one in my family had been an entrepreneur till then, not even working in the private sector, everyone had been in government service," he says. Worse, Kapur was to meet his prospective in-laws, out-of-work, sans even the economic security that family money can provide. "My wife married me when I was jobless," he chuckles, clearly savouring his tale as much as the crispy pork spring rolls on our table. Within three months of that eventful day, however, Kapur was in business, quite literally, writes Anoothi Vishal.
The first Yo! China outlet was on its feet in Delhi, all bright and shiny and dare we say plastic-y (in a McDonald's sort of way, clearly an inspiration). And Kapur was well on his way to creating a pan-Indian brand that would aspire to parallel the Big Mac ¡ª only it would serve up the "aspirational" Indian-Chinese to the aam janta; manchurian, chilli chicken, clich¨¦s and cornflour, (but also the relatively unheard of dim sums, of which the company has gone on to sell more than 10 million pieces in its four years, I am told ) packaged as contemporary fast food for everyone from the average Joe at the BPO to the multiplex-goer to a small-towner in Patna, where a Yo! China "store" has just opened, making it the only branded food outlet in that city.
Spice Route, the superb restaurant at the Imperial, New Delhi, has not been the first choice for this lunch. Ashish Kapur has, as expected, suggested, that we meet at his flagship Yo! China store. He tells me (later) that he eats there four times a week, takes his wife and kid out to the same and conducts business such as this out of its premises, and that he "honestly" does not feel the need to go anywhere else for Chinese food. The cuisine is clearly his favourite but when he asks, "What is the difference between Yo! China and this (Spice Route)?" quite rhetorically, as if the answer could be nothing but "no difference", I almost choke on the water I am sipping.
Then, he adds, "If you say, ¡®ambience', I would have no issue. But if you say, ¡®food', I don't buy that." I try to gently point out that there is a (huge) difference between what we'll be eating here and the Yo! China fare I've sampled earlier (and only once not regretted) and jump into a huge discussion on cuisines, their migration, authenticity, organised food retail in India (Ìn million people multiplied by three meals a day equals an opportunity of a billion meals") and so on. This is a discussion that will finally end in Kapur conceding that yes, consistency can be a problem in a chain operation the size of Yo! China, that yes, he's actively tackling it, and that yes, his menu needs revision "very soon" since Indians have developed more sophistication in these four years than chilli chicken dunked in huge amounts of "gravy" would suggest. He invites me to future food tastings and it is a conciliatory note that we manage to strike. But first, the order.
"Let's order chilli chicken?" Kapur says, quite dead-pan. And then seeing my grin says, "You'd be surprised at how many people would still order that even in restaurants such as these." I acknowledge the truth of the matter but the Spice Route, which does a fine act of balancing the creativity of its chef (the redoubtable Veena Arora) with populism, does not have d¨¦class¨¦ dishes such as the above. Not to be outdone, Kapur asks the waiter, "So, what do you have that's closest to chilli chicken?" The waiter must have heard that one before because he's quick to point out Kai Phirk Thai Dum, Thai-style, stir-fried chicken that turns out to be quite excellent.
Digging into it, I ask Kapur whether he gets upset at all when people deride Indian-Chinese that he's so successfully peddling (40 outlets, 12 cities, ambitious plans of taking Yo! China global in a McDonald's like fashion since there are no truly "global Chinese food chains"). He philosophises, "There's a difference between improvising and massacring a cuisine." By his complicated logic, massacring would involve the likes of sending ketchup sachets with, say, take-away pizza (or spring rolls?). "Some Indian chains did that in the beginning. But you would notice Pizza Hut never does that," he says. "We also have a responsibility of educating customers, after all." Improvising, on the other hand, could mean a "sambhar cooked in a north Indian home" that may taste nothing like the original but would still find takers. That's the equivalent of manchurian, invented in India and American chopsuey as we know it, neither American nor Chinese. It's a thin divide and Kapur clearly sees himself on the right side.
Our main course has arrived ¡ª in a break from Chinese, this is minced chicken with basil (Thai) and coconut-flavoured fish (south Indian). Kapur, still in a ponderous mood, says "Coconut is one of those difficult flavours." The other is garlic. What he means is that there is less mass acceptance for such flavours in his line of work (local sensitivities mean that there is a Jain-Chinese Yo! China outlet in Ahmedabad) and thus dishes obviously need to be tailored accordingly. He admits that Chinese chefs whom he hires from the Mainland or centres such as Hong Kong are shocked by such tailoring required to suit Indian palates. "On the other hand, the world of food is increasingly getting globalised," he points out, "I was at a restaurant in Hong Kong, for instance, where they were serving naan with authentic Chinese food!"
Besides, Indian-Chinese is clearly the flavour of the moment. "We may deride it but the world over, people are consciously looking for its flavours." His dream of growing a McDonald's style chain in the next few years clearly has potential. What's more, with Matrix India having recently invested in the company, the growth plan to take the brand "everywhere, anytime"¡ª to airports, leisure complexes, home delivery (the fastest growing segment in food retail) ¡ª is well underway.
But such ambition can be punishing. Kapur sighs at the 14-18 hour days he needs to put in, says that his wife has banned all newspapers (including this one) from his house on Sundays, and he certainly misses his days in America when his time was indeed his own. "I didn't even have my boss' mobile phone number. People respected your leisure time and if something was to be discussed, it would be in office." In India, obviously, things don't work the same way and the biggest myth, Kapur says, is the fact that labour is cheap here because "for every one person who is supposed to work, you need to hire two more to ensure that!"
Our lunch is almost at an end now. The forks have been pushed away. Kapur, ever the gentleman, offers to pay. When I decline, he says, "Oh! But would you mind if I packed (the leftovers) and took this?" That's to give to the beggars on Delhi's roads and traffic stops. I nod, saying that the newspaper footing the bill can only benefit from the good karma! As we step out, our guest touchingly confides a stray thought. "Once I gave some Thai red curry to a man on the street but wonder later whether he liked the flavour." We don't know if he did. On the other hand, the promised new flavours at Yo! China may find larger approval.