An Interview with Ajay Walia- Michelin Starred Indian Restaurateur
Ajay Walia and I first met about five years ago while I dined at his restaurant in San Carlos, California, Saffron Indian Bistro but we didn’t realize we met. It was a simple, friendly greeting from a restaurant owner to his guest. A few years later we were reintroduced formally by a mutual chef friend when Ajay was well into his first year at his second restaurant, the now Michelin starred Rasa in Burlingame, California.
Genuine, quietly charming and extremely witty are the first thoughts that come to mind when thinking of Ajay. He is the consummate FOH (Front of House) restaurateur, able to chat easily with customers, make us laugh and have an overall great experience at his restaurants. He made headline news in the industry at the end of 2015 when Rasa became one of the very few Indian restaurants to garner a coveted Michelin star, let alone in its first year of operations, all stunning accomplishments in an industry normally unkind to Indian establishments.
I recently had the chance to chat with Ajay, keen on understanding the enigma behind the success and what made this unusual man who remembers what his wife wore on their first date tick. Over several hours, he shared stories about his childhood, his marriage to the love of his life and all the ups and downs of running successful restaurants in a hyper competitive market.
Born and raised in New Delhi, Ajay was the only son among three sisters and admitted he got away with everything. His parents worked together in the garment business, manufacturing jeans for Gap. As entrepreneurs, they were rarely at home, leaving the kids in the care of Grandpa (from his father’s side). Ajay remembers his childhood fondly, often breaking into smiles and laughter as we chat. Grandpa was kind and loving, giving him preferential treatment over his sisters. If Grandpa doled out a buck to everyone else, Ajay got two. If Grandpa bought a samosa for everyone else, Ajay got two.
His childhood was happy, carefree and normal until Grandpa passed away when Ajay was 12 years old. Afterwards, there were no more afternoons biking around town or getting into harmless boyhood trouble. Ajay’s father would pick up the kids from school and bring them straight to the factory where homework was mandated and more stern behavior enforced.
At just 18 years old, Ajay met the love of his life, Reena, in college. The couple later moved to the US for graduate school, eventually making the country their permanent home. For years after graduating, Ajay transitioned between the tech and tech finance industries, from Oracle to Cisco but found his unwavering passion for food calling him. In Chicago, he ended up helping a Chef friend who owned a few Indian restaurants as FOH, a natural at engaging customers in witty banter.
Later while at Cisco, he bought his first restaurant which did fairly well but it was not his greatest dream. Along with wife Reena, the two foodies felt strongly that Indian food was not properly represented in the bay area. Bad pasta in Italian restaurants were bringing in high prices but high quality Indian cuisine was forced to be dirt cheap.
Thirteen years ago, the first part of his dream came true when Saffron was born in San Carlos. Through battles with the city over parking allotment and seat allowance, unexpected staff injuries and every other headache imaginable that comes with opening a restaurant, he weathered through, even quickly learning how to operate a Tandoor oven himself and working on the line. Ajay witnessed neighboring retail stores and restaurants come and go through the years with only a Sports Bar and Restaurant and Starbucks remaining strong alongside him for well over a decade.
In my years studying with Chefs, working as a Consultant to restaurants and boutique hotels, and simply hanging out with industry folks, I’ve never encountered an individual quite like Ajay Walia, a man who clearly remembers his first date with his wife, a man who believes strongly in destiny and turns the other cheek when unpleasant situations arise. He is the anti-restaurateur in a sense, charming in a quiet manner, as razor focused as the big players in the business and as romantic as olden day Bollywood heartthrobs.
It was in 2014 when Ajay opened Rasa, after developing several concepts and settling on an elevated Indian cuisine experience. As with Saffron, all kinds of difficulties arose from pre-opening. Opening date itself was delayed several times which gives way to a fond memory of allowing customers who stood oustide Rasa’s windows watching the team eat their lunch, (thinking Rasa was already open when it was not), to join the team meal free of charge, eating together like old friends.
He is a man of strength and conviction, as any successful restaurateur must be, but his character is glittered with the rare combination of genuinely caring about his people and customers while unabashed about standing his ground to achieve his grander vision of a new day when Indian cuisine is respected properly in America.
Dina: There’s a bad stigma against Indian restaurants in America. Food is sometimes good, sometimes not. Service is almost always negative. Place is usually quite dirty. What took place in the course of your journey that shaped the way you think about reinventing what Indian food means to America?
Ajay: I came from a background where I fortunately had access to better things in life. I dined…I can’t say I wined and dined because I mostly dined but I dined in mostly the high end restaurants in India. Back then Taj was one of the biggest brands. It was either there or street food. There was no in between at the time. So getting used to Taj, I always expected that level of cutlery, service and place.
Dina: Given your experience, how do you explain other Indian restaurateurs who’ve shared those high end experiences in India and elsewhere in the world but come to America and it seems like they just don’t care about their customers? Many seem intent on opening a restaurant as quickly and cheaply as possible without proper training for staff or caring about creating the same great experiences they had themselves.
Ajay: I think it comes down to education. Nowadays, our industry is more glamorous but back then, 20 or 30 years ago, it was not glamorous at all. It was considered “if you were good for nothing, become a chef.” When I told my dad I bought a restaurant, his reaction at first was “Oh great, if you were going to go do dishes, why did you make me spend all that money on your education?”
Dina: It’s traditional thinking.
Ajay: Yes. If you’re not a doctor, lawyer or engineer, well nothing else exists. Now we’re starting to see changes. Now people who are educated with good degrees are getting into the restaurant business and starting to change things.
Dina: It’s an uphill battle isn’t it?
Ajay: It is. Now we’re fighting perceptions that Indian restaurants are either very expensive or you’re supposed to conform to what everybody else thinks Indian food is. We changed our concept from Fast Casual to buffet and in hindsight, if I could redial time, I would get rid of the buffet. Buffets are money pits. When I started Saffron, the entire Peninsula area was doing $7.99 for lunch buffets. We did $10.95. Family and friends told me I was stupid to do 30% higher but I didn’t care. I felt if people felt our food was good, they would come. Then everybody else bumped up their price. Today we’re doing $14.95 and most people in the Peninsula are in that range, maybe a dollar less than us.
Dina: Yes but no doubt the quality doesn’t compare to Saffron.
Ajay: Thank you. I check every single dish that goes out to the buffet every day. I take a spoon out of everything before customers get to the buffet line.
Dina: That’s brilliant quality control. I’ve rarely heard of Asian restaurateurs doing that kind of control.
Ajay: I can’t cook at the same level as my chefs but I have a sharp palate.
Dina: I imagine with so many families dominating the Peninsula, Saffron must be a no brainer for professional parents who may not have the time to cook healthy meals for the kids.
Ajay: I have such a personal relationship with many of our customers. Many of them have been with us since opening. I know some couples who came to Saffron on their first dates and are now married and they bring their kids to Uncle Ajay. Kids will come look for me in the kitchen if I’m not out front. Most of our crew has also been with us from the beginning.
Dina: How have you managed to retain a crew in an Indian restaurant for that long?
Ajay: I’m not picky. As long as they’re doing what they’re supposed to do, I’m fine. I don’t like to babysit people. I have high expectations and I lay it out from the beginning. As long as they do it, I don’t bother with anything else. Also, as the restaurant has grown, I’ve grown and they’ve grown financially.
Dina: You’re saying you’ve rewarded them financially as you’ve grown?
Ajay: Absolutely. There’s no other way. You cannot be rich alone.
Dina: That’s key what you just said. Most restaurant owners do not think like that.
Ajay: Nobody is stupid in this world. If you’ve found the right key people, you can’t do it without anyone. You need people to become rich with. You can’t get there by yourself. People have grown tremendously with me. I have to give them credit. They put in their time with me. They could have left for greener pastures during difficult times but they stuck it out with me.
Dina: Are they all Indian?
Ajay: Indians and Mexicans.
Dina: Mexicans…the backbone of the restaurant industry.
Ajay: I was just going to say…the backbone of our industry.
ON HIS CHILDHOOD
Dina: Tell me about the values that your grandfather raised you with.
Ajay: He was a very simple guy. It didn’t matter to him what someone had or didn’t have. He had one treatment for everyone. He was very nice. He would wake up at 5 in the morning and make our traditional tea. He would wake me up and tell me “go give this to your dad and mom.”
Dina: That’s very sweet.
Ajay: He would do that every morning. He would cook for us and go for walks with us every day. He would always tell me “if you get into a fight, just don’t get beaten up. Do whatever you have to, come home and I’ll handle the rest.” Every third day we’d have somebody’s parent on our doorstep. (Laughs)
Dina: Were you naughty?
Ajay: Very. I was notorious.
Dina: What fights were you getting into? You weren’t a bully were you?
Ajay: No! I was always fighting other people’s fights for them.
Dina: So you were a justice seeker?
Ajay: (Laughs) I don’t know about that but I was protecting people.
Dina: Do you remember what it was like coming home after school and what your daily routine was like?
Ajay: I remember coming home from school and then going out to play with the neighborhood kids. Back in the day we didn’t have iPads or video games.
Dina: Right, back in the day, we had real fun.
Ajay: Right, we were either playing sticks and stones or badminton. Simple fun. Or I’d be riding my bike all over town. My dad would find out I’d been all over and he would scold me after finding out from his friends who had seen me in their neighborhood.
Dina: Dinner time was with everyone or just with grandpa? Who cooked?
Ajay: Dinner was with us kids and grandpa. My parents were still at work. Grandpa cooked. Sometimes my mom would cook in the morning before she went to work and left the food for us.
Dina: Do you remember what you used to eat?
Ajay: I remember that I used to hate a lot of things. Ginger, garlic…
Dina: Really?! Garlic?
Ajay: I would have an argument with my mother about why she couldn’t cook without it. Now she still reminds me about it. It’s funny. Sometimes we would have street food, vendors coming by on foot or bicycle vendors. Come dinner time, I wouldn’t be hungry.
ON GRANDPA’S PASSING
Dina: So grandpa passed away when you were 12. Did you understand what death meant at the time?
Ajay: No, I didn’t understand at all. All I knew was that everything changed after. Dad came to pick us up after school and took us to the factory.
Dina: Did you realize as time went on what his passing meant?
Ajay: I still miss him today. I was just too young at the time. One guy was missing from our house and it was done. Also, death was a celebration if you were old. We had 4-500 people celebrating at his funeral with really nice food. It was a party. I couldn’t relate to it but now I understand it was a passage. They were celebrating that he lived to an old age where he got to see everything.
ON HIS MARRIAGE AND UPS AND DOWNS OF THE BUSINESS
Dina: Did you know at first sight that your wife was the one?
Ajay: We met when we were 18 in college and yes, at least from my side, I knew she was the one. (Laughter)
Dina: How did you know?
Ajay: I just looked at her and I said, that’s going to be my wife. But it was a one sided affair for a little while.
Dina: Do you remember your first date?
Ajay: Of course. I remember even what she was wearing that day.
Dina: That’s so romantic and unusual. What was your first date?
Ajay: It wasn’t exactly a date. We had mutual friends we were supposed to hang out with in a group but last minute, the friends told us to go ahead. And that’s how it happened. From there we went to Woodlands Hotel where they had the best South Indian restaurant.
Dina: Do you feel your marriage has played a huge role in your success as a restaurateur?
Ajay: Yes. She’s my advisor. She’s my fallback. She has to do her job and she has to advise me. I had so many late nights when I first started. It was normal for me to be home at 1.30 or 2 in the morning back then.
Dina: How did your wife initially take it when you decided to move into the restaurant industry
Ajay: We both love food. I have a refined palate for Indian food and she for everything else. We’re both foodies.
Dina: You both were on the same page about the direction of the restaurant?
Ajay: Yes, we didn’t grow up on the kind of Indian food that existed in America. Here it was almost always bad service and bad quality. We knew Indian food to be of great quality and that’s what we wanted to create. Whenever there were celebrations in life, we wondered why everyone had to go to a French or Italian restaurant. It was never an Indian restaurant. We asked why it was that way and set out to change that.
Dina: In a business that is full of constant ups and downs, how do you deal with disappointments?
Ajay: I just move on…to hell with it. Move on.
Dina: That quickly? You don’t linger on anything?
Ajay: Things bother you of course but the only way out is forward. I don’t have it in me to hold a grudge. If I don’t get along with someone, we get out of each other’s lives. Simple.
ON MICHELIN STAR FOR RASA
Dina: On the same note of disappointments and rebounding, you had some emotional roller coasters with your team not even one year into Rasa.
Ajay: We had worked so hard and had seriously high hopes that we would make it to Bib Gourmand’s list. But we didn’t make it. We were so bummed. We were less than a year old so we thought, maybe next year. Days later, on a Tuesday, one of my guys called me from the restaurant and said “Ajay-ji, we just a got a call from Michelin telling us we got our first star.” I asked him “what are you inhaling?” (Laughter) “Didn’t I tell you to get off that horse and not be so Michelin oriented? We just went through that disappointment.” But he said “no no no no you have to believe me.” Our team was frantic, slicing and dicing every word, having my guy repeat word for word what the Michelin people said on the phone. We thought it was too good to be true. There was no way. We asked him how do we know if we really got it? They said they were going to send us a formal invite. So then we asked are they emailing it, mailing it, Fedexing it? Email. For the next two hours, all of us were sitting in front of the computer staring at it. Refresh, refresh. Still no email. Two hours later the email came, “congratulations on your first Michelin star.” It was real.
Dina: Now this brings Rasa and your team into a whole new ball game.
Ajay: Yes and no. People may expect something different from us but I’ve never conformed to what everybody else is doing or expects. If we feel that menu changes are the right way to go, that’s what we’ll do.
Dina: Now that you have this Michelin star, what’s next in your journey? What are the big dreams following?
Ajay: What’s next is changing up the menu at Saffron. What happened at Rasa gave me the confidence to shake things up a bit.
Dina: Do you have any fears that you’ll alienate your regular customers?
Ajay: Every day but I think we don’t change the crux of things.
Dina: Have your customers changed after learning about the Michelin star?
Ajay: Not so much our regulars but new customers who aren’t familiar with who we were at Rasa. It’s now managing expectations. We’re the same food, the same people, the same restaurant but people have different expectations. Some want more service; some want no families. Some couples think we’re supposed to be a quiet, romantic restaurant and get upset when families are there with kids who might speak above a hush hush volume. We’re a family restaurant. What do they want me to do? Tell the families that were here before the Michelin star that they can’t come in anymore? We’ve seen some people dressing up more and people coming in for celebrations like birthdays and anniversaries.
Dina: So finally, the question you asked many years ago about why people don’t come to an Indian restaurant for celebrations has been answered.
Ajay: Oh yeah. That’s exactly it. We’re turning into that place now with Rasa but we still have a constant battle of where do we fit in.
Dina: Do you have a lot of Indian customers and if so, do they complain about why Rasa is more expensive than xyz hole in the wall?
Ajay: We do have a fair number of Indian customers but thankfully, most of them are educated and get what we’re doing. I respond to every single post on Yelp whether good or bad. Occasionally we get that one off Indian customer who expects a huge great meal for so and so price or they complain that we’re not “authentic.” What does authentic mean to any person? Someone who grew up eating grandma’s food in India won’t have the same definition as someone who grew up eating at Indian restaurants in America or in London.
Dina: You’re pioneers. Besides Junoon in New York, there’s not many in the US doing what you’re trying to do with Indian cuisine. How are you planning to continue handling that long-held perception Americans have about Indian food or even perceptions held by Indians?
Ajay: Just like everything else in life, education is the key.
Dina: And patience?
Ajay: Education and patience. I have the mindset of changing one customer at a time.
Dina: You’re not planning to change to every customer’s whim or whatever is the perception is supposed to be for Michelin starred restaurants?
Ajay: No, we didn’t open this restaurant to chase after stars. This is our heart and soul and we have a deeper purpose here.