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A wok with a view

October 25, 2003

What happens when three young women with a love for food and an entrepreneurial spirit put their heads together?

In the case of Payal Jauhar, Shilpa Gupta and Natasha Chaudhri, they pooled their savings and resources and opened a restaurant specialising in Thai food, at a time when such eateries were hardly the norm in Delhi.

Thai Wok, popular both for its location -- on a terrace overlooking the Qutab Minar -- and its food, recovered its investment within a few months and the women are now looking at more such ventures.

With Payal and Shilpa currently in Goa for the launch of a new restaurant, Natasha Chaudhri explains the food fetish.

People often tell us they like Thai Wok for its ambience and rooftop scenery.

In that light it's interesting that the idea of opening the restaurant initially came about because of the location. Shilpa and I -- who have been friends for many years -- studied commercial art for four years and then got into product designing.

We have a store called Earth Shop, dealing in soft furnishings and lifestyle accessories, in the Ambavatta Complex, Mehrauli.

One day, a couple of years ago, Shilpa went up to the building terrace, looked at the view and said "This would be the ideal spot for a restaurant."

That set the wheels rolling. Around this time we met Payal, who had been marketing for Swatch watches. Foodies all, we decided to put the plan in motion.

We pooled our resources together -- Shilpa and I brought in furniture from the store, and Payal had a bone china factory -- and established Thai Wok within a month and a half.

Why Thai? We wanted something close to the Indian palate but different from the cuisine that was easily available in the city -- Chinese and the like.

At the time, Baan Thai was the only restaurant that dealt exclusively in Thai food, so it was a challenge.

Since there wasn't much knowledge of Thai food in north India, it wasn't easy. Our three chefs are all from Thailand, and getting them was tough -- we had to use contacts and keep going to the embassy.

It was also important for us that our staff be well trained. Imagine being given 180-odd dishes with Thai names and being asked to choose between them! So we sat with them, got them to sample the various items and familiarise themselves with the menu.

Underlying the venture is our joint passion for food. I should clarify what we mean by "foodie".

It doesn't involve being familiar with every condiment that goes into a dish, or even being a good cook -- believe it or not, none of us is into cooking! We've just always enjoyed good food and we all have respect for the ritual of eating.

In my family, for instance, no one was allowed to take a phone call during a meal. Also, there was no question of keeping food in the fridge and reheating it; for each meal, we would make as much as we needed to eat and finish it then.

When it comes to division of responsibility, the three of us work to our strengths -- Payal is into marketing and PR, Shilpa's handles the licensing and administration, and I deal with human resources.

We try and ensure that at least one of us is at the restaurant at all times. We've also made trips to Thailand to understand the food culture there and to ensure authenticity.

Ambience is as important as the food. The concept of terrace seating, with cushioned seats, night lanterns and mashaals adds to the quality of the dining experience.

More of the same is planned for our next venture, a lounge bar in Goa called Congo Lounge, for which the three of us have collaborated with Malini Ramani.

The lounge, which opens this month, will have an outdoor feel, with tents and beds. After this, we're looking at getting into Mumbai.

As told to Jai Arjun Singh



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