Cooking what I call “progressive experimental cuisine” is a time-consuming endeavor. It’s a Saturday morning and it’s my husband’s birthday. We’ll be hosting 10 guests for his birthday dinner tonight.
Watch the ‘I Am Possible’ video with Harsh >> https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vxvJQV23Kus
I work uninterrupted and by noon, I have finished making the ember-roasted carrot gelée to go with the smoked egg yolk I will serve alongside compressed mango, pickled mustard seeds and coffee-pickled carrots. The beets for the beet Wellington, a dish inspired by a photo of rare beef Wellington that I recently saw on Instagram, sits in the smoker; they have already been roasted over wood chips and steamed. I will eventually swath the beets in a mushroom duxelle, dotted with beet greens, enveloped in puff pastry and accompanied on the plate by a smear of creamed sorrel, a beet bordelaise sauce made with reduced ember-roasted beet juice and a single smoked, glazed date…
I revel in my daydream with my eyes closed as I wait for Harsh who soon interrupts me, to begin our interview. I quickly notice how very slender he is, with thick dark hair that swoops to the middle in a style that would easily be described as ‘a perfectly laid bunch of green beans’, and a mustache he very frequently attempts to brush off the corner of his lips when he speaks. He comes across as preternaturally calm and poised, though not entirely un-self-conscious.
As Harsh takes his seat opposite me, it hits that with only about 500 Indians in the country, the Akheniyas have in fact done well for themselves. His father sowed the seeds of prosperity when he visited Namibia in 2011 in search of greener pastures. He fell in love with the country, because of its quietness.
“I came to visit the following year. I should have stayed for a month but I stalled, because I wanted to see more of Namibia,” Harsh narrates.
“I noticed the lack of Indian cuisine in Namibia as soon as I began to crave our home-type cuisine, and decided to consult with the former owner of the previous [only] Indian restaurant who also owns Chelsea Fashion. The restaurant did very well on all fronts and the decision to close it down from its Government Park premises was purely a management issue.
“By the time I decided to seriously pursue a restaurant ownership career, I was “this” close to giving up; what with the paperwork at Home Affairs, getting a suitable location, money wastage on middlemen and the list goes on.
“We missed getting space where Chops Bar is now at the Warehouse Theatre, but soon got a referral for this place. For the first six months, we went through a rigorous trial and error serial system that went horribly wrong for us, on so many levels. We have, however, grown so much since. I will forever appreciate our customers’ consistency. They kept us in business during a pretty tough time.
“Because of the initial flops, we had to serve take-aways and be OK with it for a while. I mean, people would and still come and say they like the food but they would rather have take-aways than sit in, because if they come in this 50-seater space and find it full, then they have to order take-aways or come back later and diners don’t like that. That’s one of our biggest challenges.”
Exciting as this adventure may have seemed, “We were your regular modern Indian family until my little brother’s sudden death. He was killed in a motor accident and died instantly this March. You don’t get over such loss overnight. He and I were close. We were friends,” he narrates, with a zoned-out gaze, as if he could speak to his little brother at that moment.
“We know he would want us to move on. So we take each day as it comes, and pray for his soul to rest in peace.”
A previous episode of flops was when Harsh and his family attempted to get a bigger premise for their business.
“We landed a deal for a place near TransNamib last August, only for the people involved to lay a complaint that our business would pollute the environment (and gave like ten or more reasons why we couldn’t establish a restaurant there).
“In our pursuit of branching out, we eventually heard about a Swakopmund restaurant whose owner wanted to close shop. He has four more restaurants, so he said, ‘what the heck!’ He knew we needed it and was glad to help. The ambiance is amazing there and as you’d imagine, the meal prices are very different from those here. It’s doing very well. We’re proud!” he explains, adding, “We were hesitant to jump into it, because we were like; ‘Swakopmund is far!”. After serious consideration, however, we took it, because we had everything in place, which we had bought for the place we would have settled for here in Windhoek, near TransNamib. We did the paperwork, got everything in place and viola! The 70-seater eatery was born. It has since been well-received by the locals there, and that’s way beyond what we had hoped for.
I was extremely shy, although an independent thinker.
“I was the shy boy who never spoke to girls until Standard 11 (Grade 11). I was extremely shy, although an independent thinker. Most friendships, for me, only existed because the other party/s always wanted something out of that relationship, and that just never blended in well with my personal values. Not much more to say about that part of my life, really. I was a dull kid.”
“Believe it or not, I never saw myself being a restaurateur. In fact, I wanted to be a doctor, growing up. I’m so glad I dropped that sooner rather than later. Given the education system in India, if you pursue science, you’re top-notch; if you pursue commerce, you’re well to-do for; but when you pursue arts, the society has less regard for you as it would a science or commerce major. Sad, but that’s how it is there.
“In my pursuit of a career in chattered accountancy, I flanked my accounting exams twice. They say the best chattered accountant is one who has flanked the exam at least 15 times – that’s like five years – but you would have learnt at least 15 different new laws. That doesn’t get you a fat remuneration package – because you’ve flanked so many times – but you become the best and should you get an opportunity out of the country, you run for it.”
Chartered accounting and restaurant ownership are such contrasts, and yet they’re so close in the sense that he needs his book-expertise to run his business effectively. So I ask if he ever regrets dumping the former for the latter. He says: “I only regret giving chattered accounting a break on a stressful day, otherwise, I don’t. I mean, I got cleared with the Namibia Qualifications Authority as a chartered accountant but if I wanted to seriously pursue it, it would take me another six years to do the Namibian/South African syllabus till I’m a certified chattered accountant. I don’t have that amount of time on my hands at present, but it’s not a forgotten dream.”
Indians don’t change their values whether they’re in or out of India.
Inasmuch as the art student may end up being a mega super star, they are not thought much of until they “sparkle”, Harsh says of the Indian culture and how it has shaped his life. “Indians don’t change their values whether they’re in or out of India. I mean, my parents are modern and would never force me into an arranged marriage or anything like that, for instance, but I assure you, I get enough calls from relatives asking me when I’m getting married, if I’ve found someone and whether or not they should hook me up with their daughters or friend’s daughters, etc.”
According to an Indian joke Harsh tells me, Indians worship every animal while Chinese eat every animal. That said; “We make the chef wash all the pots and plates clean before he cooks our family meals, because there could be a trace of an animal product. We don’t kills to eat any animal. We worship them.”
At 24, he has enough to brag about. He runs the only Indian restaurant in Namibia, which employs a total of 28 local employees – 14 females and two Indian chefs in the Windhoek branch in Trift Towers and 14 more at the coast with three Indian chefs.
“It’s interesting how Namibian male employees, at least from my experience, are the worst workers. I had one guy who would lose someone after each payday. He was one of our pioneer employees. I eventually confronted him only for him to take us to the Labour Court. When my dad intervened, he blamed us for not firing him sooner. I was like, ‘get out, now, and never show your face here again’. When the Labour people finally heard our side of the story and verified it, they apologized on his behalf.
“In my opinion, that’s what lacks in Namibia; there’s no culture of respect and hard work. In India, we pray out fear. That aspect of life is absent in this country and I’d say it’s one of the causes of passion killings and murder-suicides and such in this country. It’s not to say such don’t happen in India but tell you what, India does better than the media shows the world. That I can tell you for sure.”
Being a family business, “we agree with Richard Branson who says; if you treat your employees well, they’ll treat you well and the end result of your business will be a win-win. As would family members, we value our employees and treat them as we would each other. They get food and transport allowances plus a basic salary. We, however, have a tip system that includes the background staff too, because it’s team effort to get through each day.”
“Are you there yet,” I ask? “Nope,” he prompts. “Still got a long way to go but I think I’m headed in the right direction and lucky to have a support system.”
With the business doing so well, what happens to his chartered accounting? “I don’t believe in killing dreams. As a matter of fact, unless your dream is to be the ‘baddest’ bank robber, or something that sick, I believe every single dream is valid. I’ll pursue my initial dream and don’t, for a second, think being a restaurateur is my settling point. No. Watch this space.”
“There isn’t a rich culture of street cuisine here and that’s where we’re headed,” Harsh says, before we get interrupted by one of his shipping employees who needs a document signed. He has a quick chat with his mother who ever so often comes to find out if we are OK before flashing us the kindest of smiles and then disappears in the back. T.hey speak Gujaratti, so I don’t understand what they’re saying but it seems to be something about the document being signed
I watch him interact with some of his employees and notice a level of comfort and respect with just enough air of boundary, and I wonder what kind of businessman he’ll make, say, ten of fifteen years from now.
His story reflects many of our prevailing pop-culture obsessions — precocious kids, super-parenting, esoteric food, homemade public figure-esque. When we sat last week to do the featured video for ‘I Am Possible’ (follow link below for the video), he told me how excited he was to have participated in the FNB Restaurant Week that ran between end of August till mid-September and won in his category.
He had just got an email from nbc asking him to feature in a Cooking Show, which he turned down, because he is notoriously media-shy and doesn’t think it’s something that aligns with his goals. He is, however, in the process of developing an unscripted version of a feast festival, which has in fact been running since the beginning of October and will be on till end of the festive season.
In this project for which his eyes sparkle when he explains, he comes up with different menus each week for his professional chefs to bring them to life. It’s an experimental type cuisine and you have to be there to witness it for yourself.
His parting shot? “Should you find yourself doing something that wasn’t your initial goal but pays bills, keep it, but make sure your initial dream is carefully placed at a special space in your mind. Do something that steers you towards achieving it every single day, even if it means calling one right person every day.”