Chetan Rampal and Manu Chandra's winning recipe

Chetan Rampal (left) and Manu Chandra. Photo: Kamlesh Pednekar
The last one year has proven to be a busy one for Manu Chandra and Chetan Rampal. The duo brought their popular gastro-pub, Monkey Bar, to Kolkata in 2016 and opened Toast & Tonic, an East Village-style eatery, in Bengaluru. This year, The Fatty Bao has opened in two locations in Mumbai already: Kamala Mills in February and Powai in April.  It will open its doors in Andheri most likely in June/July. Toast & Tonic is all set to welcome diners at BKC Mumbai at the end of May. 

This is a landmark year for them in more ways than one, as it marks five years of Monkey Bar, their first eatery that opened in Bengaluru in 2012. “We brought gastro-pub into the lexicon in India,” says Chandra. Gastro-pubs, or pubs with a heavy emphasis on food, gained currency in the West in the 1990s with pubs such as The Eagle leading the way. The duo brought it to India a decade later. 

Housed within well-designed spaces, with oodles of natural light flooding in, Monkey Bar offers cosy nooks to its customers while sipping on cocktails crafted with shrubs grown in-house. “It’s not that Chandra invented the concept. It was already quite popular internationally. But he just showed how to do it better,” says veteran food critic Vir Sanghvi. 

Chandra and Rampal then extended this concept to The Fatty Bao, an Asian gastro-pub, which first opened in Bengaluru in 2014. 

In the last two years, eateries taking off from the concept of Monkey Bar and The Fatty Bao have come up across the country. This makes Chandra and Rampal’s task tougher. “Our endeavour is to stick to our convictions, to drive the products to our strengths. The customer can get distracted easily, but can also tear a product apart. That’s why we are constantly reinventing, adding layers and generating excitement,” says Chandra. “The idea is to give them something to hold on to.”

Together with Toast & Tonic, the duo’s three brands make innovative interpretations of dishes we all have grown up with. So the menus feature the sorpotel jam pot, butter chicken uthapam and Rajnikanth rice with tamarind, coconut and curry leaf. 

One of my most memorable meals of 2016 was at Toast & Tonic, where Chandra has married regional ingredients with world cuisine to create dishes such as Lobster risotto with raagi batter, five spice aioli and naga chilli sauce and smoked Cochin mackerel on toast. 

He doesn’t like to be confined to any particular culinary style, rather takes pride in cross-pollinated menus. “Culinary influences can come into the menu in so many different ways. If I add desi, because it’s not,” he says.

His signature, over the years, has come to be comfort food, made with well-sourced local and seasonal ingredients. “Together with the ITC Hotels, Andaz by Hyatt and Masque in Mumbai, Chandra is part of a movement that is no longer relying on standard food supply. He is now curing and smoking meats in-house. It’s laudable as it shows his commitment to quality,” says Sanghvi. 

Chandra is also at the forefront of the growing millets movement in the country. He incorporates these in novel ways in his menus. For instance, he recently introduced a special small plates menu at Toast & Tonic that revolved around grain such as jowar tacos with pulled jackfruit, goat’s cheese and jalapeno cream proved to be popular. 

There have been miscalculations along the way, with Monkey Bar closing down in Connaught Place and Like That Only — an Asian-inspired bar and restaurant — in Bengaluru which closed in 2014. “The profile of the consumer in Delhi is very different from Mumbai or Bengaluru. In Delhi, another disruptive restaurateur, Priyank Sukhija, came into the scene with restaurants such as Warehouse Cafe. He appealed to young people on tight budgets with cheap deals on booze, something that Chandra and Rampal weren’t willing to do,” says food critic Sourish Bhattacharyya. The duo refuses to go down the route of formula eateries with cheap liquor and homogenised menus. 

The growth story of Chandra and Rampal mirrors the rise of casual dining in the country. “It is growing at 20 per cent, year-on-year, and will continue to grow 15 to 20 per cent for the next three years,” says Riyaaz Amlani, another key player in this segment. “In India, diners are still coming to terms with the concept. Here, people eat out only six to seven times a month. Compare that with Singapore, where people eat out 55 times a month. So, there’s a lot of potential for growth.” 

It is no wonder then that Rampal and Chandra continue to be aggressive in their plans for this category, which yielded them a turnover of Rs 55 crore last year. “Investments to the tune of Rs 10-12 crore have been made for the three Fatty Baos and the upcoming Toast & Tonic in Mumbai,” says Rampal. 

What has also worked is their choice of locations: from the residential Wood Street in Bengaluru to the bustling BKC in Mumbai. The menus are tweaked according to the location. “If we are in spaces with a strong after-work drinking culture, then we introduce pitchers and cocktails, and small plates for a bite before heading home. If we are located in a corporate space, then it’s great to have quick lunch options, with professionals having merely 25 minutes to eat,” says Rampal. That combined with affordable price points, between Rs 800 and Rs 1,200, add to the many attractions. 

Those who know the two hail their partnership as a finely balanced one. Both Chandra and Rampal started their careers with Olive Bar & Kitchen which holds the majority stake in the subsidiary, Olive Cafes South, with them. “Chetan was with us since Olive started in Mumbai in 2000. He grew in the ranks and by 2010 he was leading all our Mumbai operations. Manu joined us in 2005 after moving from New York and was part of the opening team of Olive Bangalore,” says A D Singh, managing director, Olive Bar and Kitchen. 

Both proved to be outstanding in their work and were heavily sought after by rivals. “So, I went to the board to take approval to form a partnership between Olive, Chetan and Manu,” Singh says. “Manu is a genius, very creative, while Chetan is more practical. They balance each other well.” 

According to Chandra, what keeps the partnership going is that they are always on the same page. For instance, both were clear from the beginning that they wanted to create a product which would have a wider reach and audience than the fine dining segment. “Between us, there are no hidden agendas. I have 5 million ideas popping up all the time, but one has to take stock of things,” says Chandra. Rampal concurs: “We agree on what’s best for the product. We might think differently about certain things, but at the end of the day, we have to bring things to their logical conclusion.” 

The year holds a lot more for them, with plans afoot to merge Olive Cafes South with the parent company. “They will now be partners in the parent company and will continue to look after the brands they have built and are so passionate about,” says Singh.

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