Food Entrepreneur Melds Indian Flavors, Global Fare

M. Mahadevan stands in his Ente Keralam restaurant in Chennai. "We live in a globalized world," he says. "Why not have the global world on your plate?"
M. Mahadevan stands in his Ente Keralam restaurant in Chennai. "We live in a globalized world," he says. "Why not have the global world on your plate?" (By Emily Wax -- The Washington Post)
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By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, November 12, 2008

CHENNAI, India -- M. Mahadevan believes that a croissant can have curry amid its flaky folds, not just chocolate. He knows how well chicken tikka can work in sizzling Tex-Mex fajitas.

That's because he's at the forefront of Indianized fusion cooking, launching 111 restaurants from this southern Indian city to Richmond, Va.

"We live in a globalized world. Why not have the global world on your plate?" he said with a chuckle over a recent lunch at one of his Chennai restaurants, scooping up squid mixed with spices in a dish known as "a taste of Kerala on a silver platter."

Five years ago, just as middle-class Indians were beginning to eat out more often, Mahadevan opened Chennai's first Spanish tapas bar, along with French and Mexican eateries, all with India's ubiquitous chilies and onions on hand to please local taste buds.

Earlier, he had opened casual bakery cafes known as Hot Breads, selling his famous tandoori chicken tikka croissants, curry buns, Indian-style crepes and doughnuts to the Indian diaspora in Ghana, the United Arab Emirates and the United States. The chain even became a hit in Paris, not just with Indian expatriates, but also with the baguette-loving French, who were curious about the taste of Indian-French fusion in a pastry.

Mahadevan is managing director of Oriental Cuisines, an $80 million food empire with dozens of partners and a list of restaurants worldwide that sell Thai, Chinese, Mexican and even mall food, all with an Indian spin.

Mahadevan, known as the father of Indian fusion food, has been credited with getting people in South India to enjoy eating out, shedding their reputation as idli (rice pancake) addicts.

Just a decade ago, most Indian families cooked at home, preparing curries and yogurt from scratch and packing meals into lunchboxes known as tiffins for work, picnics and trips. But with two-income households on the rise, more families are going to restaurants, which are becoming increasingly creative and varied in cosmopolitan cities such as Chennai.

The amount Indians spend on dining out has more than doubled in the past decade, to about $5 billion a year, and is expected to double again in about half that time, according to Euromonitor International, a market research company.

"I set a trend then, of stand-alone fine-dining restaurants outside of five-star hotels," Mahadevan said of his early ventures. "There was a market for affordable food where the joint family could be out together and young Indians could hang out without going broke."

Mahadevan didn't start out as a food entrepreneur. He was a marketing and management professor at the University of Madras in Chennai when he was asked to teach a catering management class and it occurred to him that "food was a fantastic business."

"I realized there were so many mouths to feed in India," he said, adding: "I could see a changing world where I could follow the Indian immigration trail around the world and around the country and meet their tastes."

His parents were doctors. At first they were horrified that he was giving up the "very noble profession of teaching" for the risky business of cooking. Seventy percent of restaurants fail in their first year, Mahadevan acknowledged.

"I said, 'Mama, I can afford to take a risk. I can sleep on a platform,' " he recalled.

He didn't have to. Hot Breads showed spice-loving Indians that bread didn't have to be bland or what Mahadevan described as "a sick patient's food." For vegetarians, he offered eggless danishes and chocolate cakes. He put masala, or a mix of spices, in cookies and muffins.

Today, his restaurants employ 4,000 people in 16 countries, and many credit them as models for international fast-food companies looking to tap into the Indian market.

McDonald's, for instance, serves a chicken or lamb burger, known as the Maharaja Mac, and vegetable McNuggets, rather than trying to sell beef burgers in a land where cows are sacred. The Atlanta chain Church's Chicken opened in India in September, offering lentils and Indian garlic nan as sides, rather than fries and coleslaw.

But Mahadevan is famous not just for his fusion cuisine. Three years ago, he started his own version of an affirmative action program, attracting recruits from low-income families and teaching them breadmaking skills. Their products are sold at a popular shop called Winners.

Dhinkaran Arumugam, 20, recently finished six months of training at Mahadevan's school. Arumugam's father was a rice farmer. But he has learned how to make buns, danishes and chicken tikka croissants and is earning $200 a month, 10 times what he made farming.

"My father feels on top of the world, since he never thought I would have such proud work," Arumugam said. "I now want to open my own bakery one day."

Mahadevan is also setting up a barista school to teach residents of a nearby slum how to make espresso.

"He's so down to earth, with an innovative soul," said Geetha Krishna Raj, 57, who teaches at the training center and has been working with Mahadevan for more than 20 years. "He's unlike most businessmen in India, who won't dream of using profits for such things."

At the Maple Leaf chocolate cafe, another recent Mahadevan venture, a huge sign reads: "In the cookies of life, friends are the chocolate chips."

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