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Serving food with style

November 22, 2003

Ritu Prasad isn't your run-of-the-mill restaurateur. She's a vegetarian and freely admits a lack of hands-on knowledge about many dishes. More surprisingly, she isn't especially passionate about food and says she doesn't even cook much.

But that didn't stop her from grabbing an opportunity. When she opened Spirit in 2001 in Delhi's Connaught Place, it was one of the first restaurants to serve Lebanese food in the Capital.

Since then, it's developed a reputation as one of the city's most stylish eating places-- an affirmation of Prasad's belief that ambience is as important as the food.

I did my economics honours from Lady Shriram College, Delhi and then went to Bombay in 1992, to do an MBA from Sydenham College.

On returning I briefly worked with my father, who was into steel exports. This was followed by a stint in advertising, with Ogilvy & Mather.

In 1995 I got married and had a son shortly afterwards, so I had to take a break from my work. Having started a family, I realised that it might not be viable to continue with advertising or marketing as a career, since those aren't professions where you can work in spurts.

Besides, the timings are terrible and I wanted to keep time for my family. Accordingly, I began about starting something of my own.

My stay in Bombay had given me an insight into the vast difference between eating options there and in Delhi. In the early 1990s, Delhi had hardly any good stand-alone restaurants -- if people wanted to eat out in a classy place, it had to be a five-star hotel.

I felt this was paradoxical, since Delhiites have always been passionate about food to an extent people in Bombay aren't. Here, everyone thinks of themselves as a foodie!

I did a SWOT analysis and found there was a gaping hole in the market between five-star food and mediocre, low-level eateries.

We honed in on Lebanese cuisine because there were hardly any places serving it in the Capital. Besides, Lebanese food suits the Indian palate and is healthy as well. There was also a need for good Italian food.

We bought the property in Connaught Place in early 1999 and were ready to start then, but then I had a baby daughter so we had to defer the opening. Spirit finally began operations in 2001.

Call me a snob, but I've personally always valued the eating-out experience as much as the quality of the food; I'm not the dhaba sort.

Accordingly, I was very particular about providing the best ambience possible -- from the quality of the glasses and upholstery to what music is played and at what volume.

All efforts were taken to ensure that the interiors gave Spirit a classy look. Interior designer Iram Mukherjee helped provide unusual elements like portraitures. I was clear that Spirit would have a formal, upmarket look. It wasn't to be a cafe.

But we've never compromised on the quality of our food. Our two chefs have both worked in Dubai and have a solid grounding in the cuisine we deal in.

It was an especially proud moment for us when we won the Jack Daniels barbecue sauce competition held in Delhi recently.

There were so many high-profile contestants -- including top hotels -- and it was a real blow struck by the underdog.

Later, some people tried to downplay our achievement by saying it was only sauce. My riposte to that was, "Those high-profile eateries couldn't even get their sauce right." Basics are important.

We do business of between Rs 18 lakh (Rs 1.8 million) and Rs 20 lakh (Rs 2 million) monthly but I'm not completely satisfied yet. The traffic problems in central Delhi as an offshoot of the Metro construction have affected business in general in this area, and we've been affected too. I'm optimistic though. The next plan is to get into catering.

We'll be looking to serve top-end clients, at events for 35 to 40 people, and will also enter agreements with big farmhouses. We won't restrict ourselves to Lebanese and Italian cuisine though we'll deal in all kinds of food. Of course, it'll be under the Spirit brand name. I think there's a great future in the catering business.

As told to Jai Arjun Singh

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