Well, there are nearly 200, 000 Indians in Australia, so I am told, and the number is increasing daily, so why single out Vishwanath Apte?
He was the first Indian to be granted Australian Citizenship in 1951, among many others I am sure, who came to Australia around the same time, so why focus on Vishwanath?
He was an astute and successful businessman who made a fortune importing and selling damask and fabric into Australia from India, China, Portugal and Pakistan. Of course there are others who ran successful businesses, and some even more successful than VA’s, so again, why single him out?
He was a philanthropist like many others in his line of business so that can’t be the reason I’ve chosen him in particular.
Okay, so let’s cut to the chase and explain why. It’s because VA was not just all of the above but he was also a great inspiration, both practically and ‘spiritually’, to me when I was going through a tough time in my business.
So here’s the story.
We had been open for nearly six months with little success. Firstly, my restaurant was possibly the first Indian restaurant to be called a Southern-style restaurant serving little-known dishes like prawn balchao, chicken xacutti, beef ishtew. . .etc. Added to this, it was also the first Indian restaurant that did not have the word ‘cu..ies’ on its menu which meant that a lot of Australians were confused by this fact, and to add to all this ‘ethnicity’ we did not even have a tandoor. It was a hell of a task trying to run a restaurant with all these challenges!!
They say that when the going gets tough the tough……Yes, this line sounds good but not when you’re living it and don’t have the bl..dy money to pay your next rent!!
Vishwanath entered literally into my life on a Thursday evening (in September 1991). There wasn’t a soul in my restaurant and in walks a family with an Indian father, mother and some young kids with their Australian friends (possibly the Australians were married to the Indian girls).
This was to be my first Indian family to have dinner at the restaurant and it could have been a great night if only the food had lived up to the mark.
The floor staff were too excited to even think about the basics of serving guests like giving them their napkins, or pouring water or even handing over the menus! Meera, who ran the front of house with Amin to help her, came charging into the kitchen to tell me there was an Indian family and they were speaking in Marathi, my mother tongue!
Orders were taken and the food was served. So far so good.
However, more orders were taken from them! By this stage there was no coconut chutney and we were running low on sambhar (an important accompaniment that goes with dosai).
So picture the scene, if you will. All hell breaks loose!! Just when we thought that all was going well it was slipping away, fast. There was a long delay and the family, and a few other guests in the restaurant, were losing patience. No food meant no service and no service, as we all know, meant no planning!
Anyway, the food was finally served, although it was late. It was my job as the chef to go out and apologise for all this misery. As I stood at one end of the table waiting to be crucified, I heard a soft, but stern, voice say, “I am very disappointed with the delay and poor service. The food, however, is very good and the young lady who looked after us is a good waitress!! We will come back but only if the food comes on time”.
Bl..dy hell!! After all this delay I was going to get another chance.
So, the next Thursday, as promised, the Aptes come back and thus began a long association that lasted over two decades.
VA was the man who gave me a second chance when people usually judge you on the first innings that you have played. Usually people aren’t interested in hearing about one’s history but Nana was aware that I had spent a long time working for the Taj hotel group in India. And so, according to him, I deserved another chance!
As the years passed we catered for a number of functions at Mr Apte’s (now called Nana!) residence, including one for a famous flautist named Hariprasad Chaurasia, the classical vocalist Bhimsen Joshi, Malini Rajurkar and many others.
But, as the saying goes, all good things must come to an end! My business partner and I decided to part company and Meera and I decided to move on. But where? Nana advised us to take a break and said that a trip overseas would help. So, we decided to go on a holiday and learn about food trends in other parts of the world. Nana made a mention of Woodlands in Singapore where some of his friends had a business. Nana said that as the owners were his friends they would help us set up a restaurant in Sydney, if the need arose. Now that’s a friendly gesture!
However, on return from our overseas tour, about six months later, and with Meera pregnant with our son, Aniruddh, there was absolutely no scope of starting a business let alone a restaurant. But Nana and Mrs Apte gave us a function to cater for almost every month just to keep the cash flow going. A considerate man!
When my son was born, Nana and Mrs Apte were there to wish us well and share our little bundle of joy the very next day! He never forgot Aniruddh’s birthday and wished him well till the end. What a great memory and what a very kind-hearted man!
Nana and Mrs Apte were also there to open my new venture, nilgiri’s, in Crow’s Nest and then in its new location in St Leonards where we still are to this day.
Nana was going to launch my first book but he was overseas when it came out and so the honour went to one John Pearce (I will write about this man soon. If Nana’s was the first family to dine at my restaurant, John Pearce was my very first customer. John left us for the heavenly abode in 2009).
Well, in 2007 we took up the biggest challenge of my professional career. We were to cater for nearly 1200 people for breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea with snacks followed by dinner. That is a whopping 4800 meals in a day. We thought we could pull it off. But nature and other elements beyond our control were against us and the writing was on the wall. It could never succeed!! This was the biggest flop of my 31-year career and to this date I am not sure why I took up that humongous challenge in the first place. I was at my lowest point when I got a call from Mrs Apte to cater for a function at their place. Nana, a man of few words said to me, “Ajoy, I know you can do it, I have full confidence in you!”
What an amazing man, he had more confidence in my own capabilities than I had.
Well folks, from that day onwards we have never looked back.
But let’s get back to Nana and Mrs Apte who were my most regular customers. They were also my best, and fiercest, critics who had every right to be so! I remember on one occasion Nana was served a mini masala dosai when he had ordered a large one, and boy, he was not happy. I was summoned to his place the next day for this sacrilegious act. However, we moved on. We made mistakes, we learned from them, the rest is history.
Every staff member in my restaurant knew Nana and, of course, Mrs Apte. He treated the staff with respect and always had a tip for them in an envelope with their name written on it. To him they were not mere ‘servers’ but people who helped him make his function a success. What a great way to run a business. Treat your staff as helpers and not workers!
I am extremely fortunate to have been associated with this man of great character and acumen, who stood shoulder to shoulder with the best doctors, engineers and accountants when he was ‘just’ a commerce graduate from Mumbai. But what an inspiration to people like me who never even passed their graduation.
Nana passed away on Friday, 23 of September 2011.
He was cremated on 30th of September 2011. He was 88-years-old! For me that date is also significant as it is my father’s birthday; it now becomes doubly so. My father died in 2004.
Well Nana, you are a true ‘Fair Dinkum Aussie’! I will miss you.