My mind is a jumble, first because of what I am tasting, and then because of what I am hearing. I’m processing the story that is coming at me from the other side of the table, which is much at odds with what’s on it. I’ve just sampled a smidgen of stone-cold, deeply savoury khandvi gelato—and liked it. My Gujarati heritage isn’t certain of what feelings to allow, but it involuntarily nods to the cleverness of an airy, sophisticated—wait for it—dhokla gazpacho that comes next.
I’m at the uber-cool Trèsind in Dubai, stealing a few hours from a family holiday to meet with its owner, Bhupender Nath, 46, who I’ve been chasing since I heard the restaurant is making a Mumbai debut—and who has quite the story to tell.
Nath arrives late, and apologising, leaving me to first acquaint myself with Trèsind’s dim elegance, fitted in Dubai’s swanky and storied Nassima Royal Hotel. He now sits across from me at a quiet corner table, in a natty patterned shirt and casual blazer. It’s a little after noon on a Saturday, and diners haven’t yet begun to pour in. He has called various times over the past few minutes with regrets for his tardiness—he was out till 4 am flitting from one flashy party to the next—and now shakes his head at the mounting social obligations his wife and he have to scale in Dubai.
“Here, no one comes for lunch before 2 pm on a Saturday,” he gestures to the empty restaurant. “In this season, on a Friday, everyone in Dubai is out partying until late.”
That’s part of the reason we’re here today. The rest is a long-winded tale that begins back in India. In Patna.
"I come from a middle-class family back in Patna, Bihar,” says Nath. “In the 1980s, I grew up and got a job as a stock trader and lost a heavy amount of money. There was a time when I would wonder: If I jump from a building, would I die of electrocution from the wires that hung around the terrace first, or from the impact of the fall? One day, I asked my mother this question, and she became very worried. She realised I needed to get out.”
Nath’s father had a small eatery in Patna back in the day, which he lost in the ’70s because of financial struggles. “It was just opposite the historic Gandhi Maidan, where Independence rallies had taken place. When he lost the eatery, he was heartbroken,” Nath recalls. “I had decided then that I would work, earn money, and open a restaurant in Patna to gift my father. But destiny had other plans.”
Amid his depression, Nath’s mother called in favours with family friends, and found him a job in Nigeria. “I had an MBA from Patna University, but that didn’t mean anything. Bihar has not been treated well in that sense. If you wanted a good job, you had to be from Delhi University or University of Mumbai, or Benares University in those days. I was the first in my family to look for work outside the country,” Nath says, as we are served a carefully constructed potato-straw dome that encloses a dahi kebab, with a side of spiced muhammara chutney and edible purple flowers as garnish. “My cousins would grow up and start a department store or invest in farm land. We are a hardcore baniya [trader] family.”
Struggling against his father’s mounting debts and his own misfortune, Nath left for Nigeria in 1994 with his savings. “Back then, I didn’t even know what a dollar was,” he recalls. “I remember clearly that I had ₹52,000 in hand and it was ₹26 to a dollar. I didn’t understand exchange rates. I thought I would get $52,000 in return for my money. When I got only $2000, I thought I was cheated! That was my level of ignorance. I was so ashamed back then, but now I laugh about it.”
Nath worked an entry-level job as a credit analyst for a trading company, and for the first six months, didn’t get paid. “I didn’t even know what my salary was,” he recalls. He slept on the sofa of the family who helped him get the job, with a table propped against the couch to prevent him from falling over its slim edge. He lived out of a suitcase. “The pressure was on from Day 1, because I had my dad’s debts to pay off. I was never free,” he says.
In the late ‘90s, his family back in India had their bets on a trading tyres business that wasn’t going well. “There was a lot of goonda-ism [hooliganism] in Bihar at the time, so I asked my brother to join me in Nigeria,” Nath says. “Our goal was always to spend a few years and earn enough to set up a restaurant in Patna for our father.” He estimated that it would cost ₹25 lakh to ₹30 lakh, which could take more than a decade to make and achieve this dream. *****
In 1999, Nath—now married and living with his wife Sakshi in Lagos—saw an opportunity and set up a fisheries business, called African Fish (Nig) Ltd, in the Nigerian capital; it has been a successful venture that he continues to run today. In 2010, he set up a freshwater fish farm in Ras Al Khaimah, among the top two Emirates for aquaculture, but that shut subsequently.
“I would come to Dubai often, but my trips were usually all about work and a little shopping,” Nath says. “The more I came, the more I realised that here, everybody goes out to eat. This was not the culture in Africa, where people would stay home even on Sundays because their children had school the next morning. I thought about it and did a lot of research.”
Nath’s initial plan was to bring a franchise of modern Indian restaurant Masala Library—owned by Zorawar Kalra’s Massive Restaurants—to Dubai, but that deal didn’t go through. Eventually, he decided to launch his own, home-grown restaurant brand that would take Indian food out of the greasy naan-and-butter-chicken cliché and serve it up to a global audience. (Clockwise from left on the facing page): The khichdi at Trèsind BKC, Mumbai, prawn ghee roast, a lava lamp mocktail, kaju katli and apple tart
Image - Lava Lamp Mocktail: Aditi Tailang
“I want to show our foreign audience here that India is big, and in every state there are different delicacies,” says Nath. “It took me a few years to build the confidence to do this. In those days, when someone would visit me in Dubai, I would take them to fancy Japanese or Italian restaurants. I realised that no one ever takes guests to Indian restaurants to impress them. That’s what I wanted to change.”
“I had big plans, but I didn’t have an F&B [food and beverage] background. In Dubai, it’s impossible to get space at a five-star property without that,” Nath says, as a chef sets up an incredible live station by our table, whipping up Trèsind’s signature Birbal khichdi—cooked with 46 ingredients, from broccoli to pomegranate to crunchy onions, such that each bite is different.
“This restaurant was an Indo-Thai place that was not doing very well. I made my pitch and after a couple of meetings, the owner called the hotel general manager saying, ‘The place is his, give it to him’. The GM hesitated because of my lack of experience, but the owner said he trusted in my dream, let’s do it.”
Nath and his team made a formal project report, tweaked and perfected the plan, and launched Trèsind in 2014. But it didn’t do well right at the start.
Trèsind’s fortunes changed with the arrival of chef Himanshu Saini, who, in his mid-20s back then, decided to come onboard. Saini had already worked with chef Manish Mehrotra at Delhi’s Indian Accent, and was part of the launch teams of Massive Restaurants’ two modern Indian properties, Farzi Café and Masala Library. Nath had sought him out from the beginning, but at that time Saini was helming a kitchen at an Indian restaurant in New York City.
“Mr Nath had called me to encourage me to follow my dream, but to keep him in mind for the future,” Saini recalls. “As it turned out, I wasn’t enjoying myself in New York. When I began to acknowledge that, I called Mr Nath to ask whether the offer was still open.”
Saini had only spoken to Nath over the phone thus far, but took a leap of faith and moved to Dubai to work with a man he had never met. “I didn’t ask about my salary, job description, anything,” Saini says. “I had the feeling that Mr Nath was making an honest effort and knew I wanted to be part of it. He had heard about my work, and eaten at my previous restaurants and said he knew I could deliver. That’s the validation I needed at the time. I had learnt by now that any chef needs just one thing—a free rein in the kitchen. I felt that trust with Mr Nath, and continue to feel it today, four years later.”
“My philosophy is very clear—for your team, either you create or you allow,” says Nath. “For Himanshu, I’ve managed to create a position, a brand and various formats that let him showcase his talent. If I were not able to, I would allow him to move on to better things.”
“His working style is more inclusive than exclusive,” agrees Zamir Khan, vice president of Passion F&B, Trèsind’s parent company. “He believes that the power isn’t under his chair, which is a breath of fresh air in the restaurant business. It works well for us, but you can see that everyone knows Trèsind and chef Himanshu, but few people know about Mr Nath, because he lets his team take the limelight.”
Nath wanted a restaurant brand that would take Indian food out of the greasy naan-and-butter chicken cliché
Trèsind never served sabzis in kadhais or rotis in bread baskets, but focussed on telling food stories. “We had no elephant statues at the entrance,” laughs Nath. “We wanted to package Indian food for a global diner, and now, when I see people—of all nationalities—come in the evening, dressed to impress, for a business meeting or a dinner date or a meal with family, I can say we have made a difference. Trèsind takes you on a culinary journey, an experience where, for two hours, you forget the world outside and let the chefs take over.”
Our conversation is interrupted by a mini-tandoor that is now placed at our table, featuring generously marinated Portobello steaks; a chef is concocting with a mortar and pestle a chimichurri sauce, a layered, tangy-green condiment, to go with my fleshy vegetarian steak. The marinade flavours are familiar, but it all comes together to form an entirely unique identity.
“Our chefs travel extensively, and not just across India,” explains Nath. “For instance, this tandoor concept is Indian, but chimichurri has its roots in Argentina. Food is food—why limit it with boundaries?”
After its December launch in Mumbai’s BKC, Trèsind now has three outlets in three countries—the UAE, India and Kuwait. In Dubai, Passion F&B also has a casual resto-bar called Carnival by Trèsind, which dishes up similarly inventive Indian bar snacks, with Instagram-worthy cocktails. The main Trèsind restaurant in Dubai now also houses a small but exclusive culinary studio, where the chef stirs up a 16-course meal for guests paying top dollar. “We’re also in the process of launching another brand at a sprawling Dubai resort, for world tapas,” says Nath. “We have had many enquiries to bring Trèsind to London and Sydney, but we’ll wait for the right opportunity.”
“Mr Nath is clear that he doesn’t want to get into a partnership model,” says Saini. “We have several offers on the table from Europe and the US, but we’re happy with opening one new restaurant in a year. We want to earn enough money to expand ourselves slowly, which allows us to serve the best experience to our diners, instead of stuffing people into a small space and trying to do table-side experiences. That’s a mistake many Mumbai restaurants end up making. Money will come, but doing right by our diners is our top priority.”
At a time when Indian restauranteurs are venturing out into markets like Dubai and London, Nath’s Trèsind is going against the tide, coming from Dubai into Mumbai. The city is a tough market by any standard, and has seen its fair share of modern Indian establishments, featuring many tricks and theatrics that diners are now tiring of.
“Ours is a different category,” Nath says. “Businesses open and close all the time, but that can’t be the benchmark for a market. Someone’s loss can be another’s opportunity. You have to believe in your product. For instance, in Dubai, we compete with the world’s top restaurants, even Michelin-starred chefs. But we built a brand from nothing, and not just because we cook a good khandvi.”
The decision to come to Mumbai was calculated, he adds, and not a mad rush to get a slice of India’s rapid growth story. “It’s a growing economy, but that’s not the only reason why we’re here,” he says. “We have a lot of traffic at Trèsind Dubai from Mumbai, many of whom have asked us to bring the experience there. Our Mumbai restaurant is in a building owned by Adani Realty. Mr Gautam Adani [founder and chairman of the Adani Group that has business interests ranging from power to real estate and commodities] himself had dined at Trèsind in Dubai, and said we have to be there.”
The food scene in Mumbai, says Nath, is “amazing”. “Even on a Wednesday, restaurants do double sittings. People really go out here, and I’m very excited to bring our showcase back to India, where it all began. We want to show the world that we are Indian, and we understand the breadth of that term in a way that no one can compete with us.”
(This story appears in the 01 February, 2019 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)