The Table: The Interview
Gauri Devidayal is the co-founder of revolutionary Mumbai-based restaurant, The Table. Trained as a lawyer in UCL, then joining the Big Four as a tax consultant, in 2008 she moved back to India where she met her husband, Jay Yousuf. Together, with no prior restaurant experience, they founded The Table in 2011, one of the first restaurants to bring San Francisco fine dining quality in a convivial setting to India. After a string of accolades including Time Out’s Best Restaurant in India, The Table empire has now grown to include experimental culinary space, Magazine Street Kitchen, a farm-to-table experience known as The Table Farm, and soon a catering company, Dining Table, and a bakery. Their newest offering, Miss T (opening 1 August), will be a South East Asian restaurant and cocktail lounge inspired by the cuisine of the Asian Golden Triangle.
We caught up with GQ’s Most Influential Young Indian to talk food (of course!), career change, sustainability and who came up with the genius idea for cornflake-crusted French toast!!
Foong: Welcome, Gauri! It’s been a long time since you and I solved tax conundrums together. I bet you miss those days! [ahem] Since then you’ve been at the forefront of an Indian culinary revolution - first things first, tell us - what is The Table and how did the idea for The Table come about?
Gauri: Can’t say I miss those days, but I will say that my background in tax and accounting has been an incredible advantage in running this business. So The Table was the brainchild of my husband, Jay Yousuf, and me. Jay was fresh off the boat back from San Francisco to Mumbai and dearly missed the food scene he was fortunate to have at his doorstep in SF. Back in 2008, the restaurant scene in Mumbai was quite limited so there was definitely a huge gap in the market and the city didn’t yet boast of a place that served a heavily ingredient focused cuisine. So that, coupled with Jay’s (and every other guy’s) dream of opening his own restaurant, led to The Table.
Foong: You had been a Big Four tax advisor in the UK and India for your whole career up until you opened The Table. What was it like going from accountant to entrepreneur?
Gauri: It certainly was a bit of a dive into the unknown switching from tax consultant to restaurateur. My family was initially a little aghast at me dropping this career path I was on (and doing quite well), but they understood my approach in the end which was that if all this fails, I can always consider this move a mini sabbatical and come back to my accountant avatar.
My involvement with the new venture actually started in my capacity as lawyer and accountant, helping out with setting up the business and managing the financial aspects, but then I got more and more involved in every aspect of setting up the restaurant.
The transition from employee to business owner essentially is that the buck stops with you. You’re responsible for literally everything – you get to hear the compliments as well as the complaints.
Mills: What has it been like running a restaurant? Mistakes and highlights?
Gauri: It was the most steep learning curve I’ve ever had. There were definitely mistakes we made with the first restaurant which were costly in terms of time, and therefore money. But it was also slightly inevitable since this was our first project, neither of us were from the hospitality industry and were therefore very dependent on consultants and advisors for guidance. 8 years in, it’s a completely different feeling as we go into setting up our second restaurant in the city. For instance, we took 14 months from start to finish for the first project and with the second one, we’re aiming to be done in 4!
My background in law and finance definitely helped immensely, since as an entrepreneur, it’s so important to be able to understand the numbers behind the business without being too dependent on consultants for that. I also feel that the attention to detail you need to have as an accountant, is as important in a restaurant scenario, where it’s as much about the details that make the experience.
Foong: You’ve grown from one restaurant to an urban farm, an events space, a catering business and bakeries… How do you keep things fresh and different from other restaurants in Mumbai?
Gauri: Our expansion has undoubtedly been unconventional in comparison to other hospitality groups. We didn’t really plan things this way, it was very organic, largely driven by spaces that became available to us at various times. The key, however, has always been to stay true to our brand values. For instance, the farm, which is part of our weekend family property, came about because of our endeavor to focus on quality ingredients and grow our own to the extent possible; we’ve always baked all our breads in-house, so the bakery business was a natural extension of our brand and the experimental kitchen space was in line with our constant effort to bring something new to the city in the F&B space.
Mills: The restaurants now source a lot of their ingredients from your home farm, an initiative run by Thrive (previously known as Fresh & Local), to encourage urban farming. How important is sustainability in the restaurant business and buying local?
Gauri: Sustainability is the word du jour and if you aren’t incorporating it into your business, you’ll soon be left behind. Our farming practices at The Table Farm have always been with an awareness of knowing what’s going into creating the produce every step of the way, but also in terms of what’s best for the land from a long term perspective so we can continue to get great quality produce for many years to come. We’ve also taken conscious steps to reduce our plastic use at the restaurant, from ditching plastic straws for stainless steel ones, to shifting from plastic mineral water bottles to brands which only supply glass bottles.
There’s a definite endeavor to buy local to the extent possible, both from the perspective of reducing our carbon footprint but also consequently from a cost effectiveness. However there are some ingredients which unfortunately we cannot source the best quality locally and do have to look at importing these items. To the extent possible, it’s important to support local purveyors and hey, some of the world’s best tea and coffee comes from India!
Foong: Talking about food - we love the look of the menu, it’s really fresh and eclectic (our only regret is that our S&S budget doesn’t cover a trip to Mumbai for a taste test!). Where do you get your inspiration for the dishes from? What is the philosophy behind them? We had our eye on the cornflake-crusted French toast!!
Gauri: As I mentioned earlier, the inspiration for the menu at The Table is very much the ingredient driven food of San Francisco, which is home to such amazing produce. The dishes are a product of influences of different cuisines from around the globe, resulting in great quality comfort food. We aim to use the highest quality ingredients available to us and let them be the stars of the dish. Some of our dishes are signature items which have been on the menu since the day we opened, but we also try to keep evolving the menu to keep our diners coming back to try new things. We have a slightly different menu for lunch and dinner and a completely different offering for brunch.
At Magazine St Kitchen the food has a similar philosophy but every menu or cooking workshop we do there is different, so the change is the only constant thing, unlike the restaurant.
Mills: What has it been like juggling motherhood, family and business - especially as your other half is your business partner! How do you find the right balance?
Gauri: I read somewhere that you can only ever be good at two out of three things at any given time, between motherhood, running a business and being a wife. So I’ve accepted this reality and try to find some balance between each at different times. Sometimes, my daughter will suffer because I’m at work for long hours (where I spend more time with my husband), and sometimes my work will have to wait because I focus as much of my weekend as possible on family time. The most important thing for me has been not feeling guilty about my choices and then the rest sort of just falls into place. I realised that I wasn’t the first working mother in the world and the kids of working parents manage to turn out ok. I sincerely believe that no one has it perfectly worked out, so stop comparing yourself to other mothers around you, and do what makes you comfortable.
Mills: What’s the big vision for The Table?
Gauri: The Table will always be our first and most important baby, but we’ve also just embarked on opening our second restaurant in collaboration with some dear friends from the industry. I’m sure we’ll have a lot to keep us busy with the new project over the next few months but we definitely hope to be able to take The Table experience beyond Mumbai. We recently did a successful pop up of The Table in Colombo, Sri Lanka and hopefully will do something in London soon too…! As far as opening a restaurant in other city, I can’t even imagine what that would be like given how much of us goes into making it what it is. But never say never right?!
Foong: Suits & Startups is about creating a community where entrepreneurs learn from corporates and corporates learn from entrepreneurs. Having been through this whole journey from employee to restauranteur, what would be your one key lesson that you’ve learnt while being an entrepreneur that you would bring back into the corporate world?
Gauri: An entrepreneur’s journey is undoubtedly a lonely and extremely challenging one but if you truly love what you do, the passion can often get you through the toughest times. I think this philosophy applies equally if you work as an employee – make sure you first and foremost love what you do and treat it like it was your own – it will undoubtedly be more rewarding than pure financial gain.
Mills: And finally - your favourite dish at The Table?
Gauri: I would consider to be a huge failing as a restaurateur if I had only one favourite dish! Honestly, I love every single dish on the menu and if I didn’t, it probably wouldn’t be there. But if you twisted my arm, I would probably say The Table Burger! It’s worth a trip from London!
Foong: Can't wait for our S&S funded trip to The Table! All the best for the new restaurant!! If you can’t get enough of Gauri and The Table story, take a listen to this hilarious interview with Gauri on Cyrus Says.