Kainaz Contractor: From advertising to restaurateur!
Kainaz Contractor always had an instinctive passion for food – she credits her Parsi roots as well as her Navy upbringing for the exposure to various regional and international cuisines. Rather than do a hotel management course however, Kainaz did her B. Com degree in advertising before following her food dreams. After a hotel management course at the Taj group, Kainaz ran a Taj group restaurant and wrote on food for Time Out and BBC Good Food magazine. The constant stream of thought running through her mind during these stints was that by 30 she wanted to run her own restaurant. Finally at the age of 28 she launched her own Parsi restaurant Rustom’s in Delhi and it has opened to rave reviews.
Kainaz says her earliest memory of food was after her 10th standard when she became very interested in food and cooking in general. She knew she could join a restaurant and become a chef or do hotel management and become a food and beverage manager. However she was also clear that hotel management was something she could do even after doing a basic degree in a general subject. So she decided to get a B. Com degree in advertising, sales and sales promotion first at HR College in Mumbai. It took an internship at an advertising agency to realize that this was not a field that appealed to her at all. The idea had taken root that she wanted to open her own restaurant by the time she turned 30.
Kainaz credits her father’s navy career as well as the general foodie nature of Parsi families with her food obsession. She remembers being transferred a lot as a kid and eating various regional cuisines which really fine-tuned her palate. As she puts it, “I was exposed to different cuisines right at the start – and became aware of subtle differences. Even as a kid, I would prefer watching travel shows and cookery shows and I would make myself a snack after dinner if I was hungry. Even now I don’t follow recipes I combine things based on what I think would work.”
EARNING HER CHOPS
After she finished her B.Com, Kainaz decided that advertising was not for her, and in fact her passion lay with hotel management. The only course for non-hotel management graduates was the management training program at the Taj group of hotels. Kainaz says, “Most people in the program have at least 4 years of experience but out of a class of 14, at least 3 candidates are from a non-hotel management background. My college actually missed the application date for this course but I was so persistent that I badgered them by calling the Taj corporate office a lot of times.” Her persistence paid off and Kainaz got in. The course was meant for absolute freshers as well as experienced hotel management so they started from the basics. Kainaz quickly caught up with the other hotel management graduates by borrowing books from her friends who had done the course and reading up in advance. Kainaz admits, “I am a fast learner so I didn’t have any problem picking up.” In fact the only course she felt she lagged in, was the sommelier one, because her knowledge of wines was not very good. At the end of the course, most trainees focused on sales & marketing or the front desk, but Kainaz was clear she wanted to be in F&B.
She obviously did well because she bagged the job of the restaurant manager for Pure, the organic food restaurant at the Taj Land’s End in Bandra. As Kainaz remembers it, “Pure taught me how to manage a restaurant, I was responsible for a team and I had to deal with the staff and finances. But the collective experience of my team put together was more than my age! They were a lot more experienced than me but I had to learn to manage them. I just worked really hard, and did crazy shifts.” She remembers a crazy incident from her two year stint, where she was stuck inside deep freezer placing green apple chips on sorbets because that was the only way it could be garnished before it melted. And they didn’t even have jackets on!
Kainaz recalls, “I had a very romanticized approach to restaurants but it was in fact very structured and process driven. While I learnt a lot from the stint about how to run a restaurant, I wanted to learn much more and be more creative with food, which was not happening at Pure. I realized that as long as it was about food, I can be doing anything anywhere.”
At that point food writing was just taking off, magazines were dedicating entire sections just to food, and the concept of standalone restaurants was about to proliferate. So again by sheer persistence and without any connections, Kainaz landed a job as an intern with Time Out Mumbai working directly with editor Naresh Fernandes and food writer Neha Sumithran. She says “They had immense patience with me; while I knew my food, they taught me how to write.” She then worked with Burrp on developing a new website but that never launched. Thankfully at the same time, BBC Good Food magazine launched in India and Kainaz joined them as their assistant food editor.
THE RESTAURANT DREAM
The magazine was great because Kainaz got to work on recipe development and they had their own test kitchen. She also interacted with chefs and worked on articles – researching and writing about rare ingredients and cuisines. She created a classic Parsi recipe edition for one of the issues, on dishes that are hard to find on restaurant menus and it got her thinking. “One thing you must know is that I am very timeline oriented,” she says, “so at that point I was two years away from turning 30 and the Parsi issue sparked off the thought that why not do this as my venture.”
She spoke to her Taj classmate Rahul Dua who was then running Café Lota in Delhi and they thought they should do a restaurant together. Around the same time her magazine turned completely vegetarian and other magazine launches like Bon Appetit stalled in India and Kainaz figured it was now or never and made the switch from food writing to running her own restaurant.
It was not an easy jump – she and Rahul decided they would try not to raise funds from investors and would instead fund it themselves. So they kept the concept niche – “Rustom’s” would be a home style Parsi restaurant in Delhi. It helped that Delhi had a more experimental palate and didn’t really have any Parsi-style Irani restaurants like Mumbai. The real estate rentals were also more affordable. As Kainaz says, “we had to be smart about the decisions we made, and do the best with what we had, and we realized the best ideas come to the cash-strapped!”
THE TASTE OF SUCCESS
Kainaz says they had to run around a lot for everything from licenses to finding the right place to training their staff but seeing the sign board for Rustom’s go up was a truly emotional moment for her. It has been heartening to see her personal brand of restaurant come up and do well. They take care to source spices and masalas directly from her aunt in Nagpur, and change the menu every 3 months to add new dishes – keeping a good mix of the traditional sweet and sour Parsi staples and adding options for the vegetarians as well. While Kainaz says she divides the work equally with Rahul and he tries to be around for operating hours, at the end of the day she is the face and soul of Rustom’s. They have also opened up a Rustom’s café and bakery but Kainaz is clear that they won’t adopt a cookie cutter approach to running the restaurant and instead want a more personalized approach. So thinking out loud she says, perhaps by the time she turns 40 she would be opening different brands of restaurants that serve good food to customers with personalized care and attention, rather than a large franchise spread across the country. The icing on the cake for Kainaz of course was when her father admitted that her dhansak was in fact better than her mother’s. Kainaz treats Rustom’s as her family’s food and every review has been personal to her, but nothing beats the high praise from your own father!
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