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04.01.2015

This is a story about mousse and Mumbai in 1990, about foot tapping jazz and big tipping folk. It’s about the hands that built and baked, about a refrigerator on its last legs, and another set of legs that walked in and sat down at table number 2. About a gigolo who served ganache, about Parsi ladies’ buns and a set of blue crockery that perished in the Khatau family feud.

But ultimately, this is a story about AD and Rahul. It has a sweet start, raging middle and two ends that most certainly will culminate well.

****

Somewhere between 1990 and that future culmination, there’s us, presently waiting by the azure swimming pool at Breach Candy Club in Mumbai for our protagonists to arrive. AD Singh, MD of Olive Bar & Kitchen Pvt Ltd (Olive, Guppy by ai, Monkey Bar, Fatty Bao) comes in first at 10 am, deep in conversation with the tennis instructor who is scolding him for not being on the court enough. Rahul Akerkar, Founder & MD of Degustibus Hospitality Pvt Ltd (Indigo, Indigo Deli, Neel, Tote on the Turf) is here 15 minutes later, kicking off a tableau of nostalgia.

AD gets a “Hey stud!” with a slap on the back.

Rahul gets a “Hey buddy!” shot back at him.

“It was called Parisian Café by day and Just Desserts by night. And what nights those were,” AD says.

The two restaurateurs are clearly happy to see each other, but in their breezy casualness we sense the slight awkwardness of exes that are trying to just be friends. It all makes sense when you learn – if you didn’t already know – that AD and Rahul used to be partners at Just Desserts, a small café that kick-started two giant careers on the Indian food scene.

Now all together, we look for seats, afraid to sit too close to the swimming pool. Can chlorine bleach out memories?

Not willing to take a chance, we step away from the water and into the shack, where checkered tablecloths seem like the perfect tapestry for stories that started at an Irani restaurant with table runners not unlike these.

“It was called Parisian Café by day and Just Desserts by night. And what nights those were,” AD says.

The Cake Quartet 

When AD and Rahul recount how Bombay’s cool coalesced at Just Desserts, it’s hard not to imagine a Rick’s Café, forgotten and glamorous, waiting in the wings should it be called out for an encore. “This is probably our first Just Desserts interview since it shut down,” says Rahul, and we all smile because we know that encore is about to begin. 

Just Desserts, a café back in 1990 that sold, well, dessert, was conceptualised by AD, who roped in Naomi Khatau of the industrialist family as a partner. “There was an Irani restaurant at Fountain, Mumbai, called Parisian Café that would shut at 5 pm every day. We convinced the owner to let us set up there every evening with a rent of, I think it was Rs 15,000 per month,” AD says. But as they got closer to launch date, he grew increasingly anxious about running a café without any F&B experience. At the time, Rahul had just returned from the US and “Bombay was abuzz with the kind of food he was doing through his catering business.”

Long story short, AD had a meal at Rahul’s home and asked him to come on board as the third pin. “I don’t think we signed a contract or anything, right?” AD asks Rahul. “We didn’t. We just shook hands over a milkshake,” Rahul confirms. And so Just Desserts had its trio. Quartet if you count the old fridge that really was part of the team. It was “family”, in fact. Yes, the story gets cooler from here on.

Another cosmetic change to Parisain Café, fresher than the plants and smoother than the paint was the basketball team from St Xavier’s College, a band of “cute boys” who were brought in to be waiters. And where they are cute boys, there are cute girls.

*** 

“It was like a dessert lover’s wet dream, that fridge,” AD says, “stacked from top to bottom with dessert, 80% of which was made by Rahul and the rest outsourced to a number of Parsi ladies in South Bombay.” 

“That’s right. There was my special chocolate mousse, which at the time no one in Bombay was doing well or at all for that matter, many kinds of brownies, Ms Jeroo’s Death by Chocolate, pastries, tarts….” Rahul trails off.

Once in their nocturnal possession, AD and Rahul cleaned up Parisian Café and painted over the brick wall, adding a lush of green plants, bringing in crockery and playing jazz. We ask about the origin of the crockery and our protagonists smirk.

“Should I tell the story at all?” AD asks Rahul with some trepidation.

“Yes, it’s a great story. Come on, big deal!”

Here are the fragile particulars: the Just Desserts team had spent a sizable amount of money on blue crockery that was supposed to be delivered to their partner Naomi, who lived in the large Khatau mansion, occupied by warring nuclear families. “The parcel went to the wrong Khatau household. They were fighting so bitterly that instead of returning it to Naomi, they smashed the plates and everything else to bits,” AD recalls. Managing the crisis just two days before launch was Mansoor Bhai, a tableware rental vendor who Rahul still uses on occasion. “You want a thousand gold plated thalis for a sit down dinner? Mansoor Bhai will arrange them in a day. He’s amazing!”

A common joke from the past, this shared snicker appears like fabric softener to help ease that starchy ex stress a little bit. At this point, we’re all laughing, and stories and secrets are served up faster than we can spoon them.

“Remember the waiters?” AD asks. “Was it your idea or Zenia’s?”

Another cosmetic change to Parisain Café, fresher than the plants and smoother than the paint was the basketball team from St Xavier’s College, a band of “cute boys” who were brought in to be waiters. And where they are cute boys, there are cute girls.

And so it reached a point when all the beautiful people in Bombay were eating cake at Just Desserts. The list of regulars was long and glitzy, and included Tarun Tahiliani, Ranjit Barot, Riyad Wadia, Fahad Samar, De Wood, Pritish Nandy, Busybee. “One day I remember, Shiamak Davar came in and one of our waiters said to him, ‘coffee, tea or me’. Later I found out that the waiter was a gigolo. The other boys told me,” AD laughs.

Rahul thinks hard. “Really? I don’t remember this shit.”

 “I swear. He was a muscular guy named Roy. I bumped into him just the other day.”

Well, as long as it helped sales, we offer.

*** 

Word about Just Desserts began to spread, and the last course at restaurants was getting turned down as people flocked to Rahul and AD for nocturnal pleasures. At that time, the only other place you could order dessert of this quality was at five star hotel coffee shops, so you can imagine what all the fuss was about.

“When the place really started to get going, there were lines outside with 50-60 people snaking around the bend. I used to man the door sometimes and no one was allowed to break the line, not even my parents,” says Rahul. 

Just then, AD zooms out of Just Desserts and into the larger picture of Bombay, calling 1990 a “seminal year” for the city. “There was Just Desserts and there was Mumbai’s first pub called The Pub at Churchgate.” The city was bursting with good ideas (but clearly not very imaginative names) and AD and Rahul seemed to be at the centre of this universe.

Sometimes, When You Do The Math, You Find Love

Just Desserts ran its course for two years, and began with a budget of Rs 50,000. “That amount I borrowed,” says AD. “And Rahul, you put in how much? I can’t remember.” 

“Nothing at all.”

They laugh.

Everything is easy now, like a linen shirt at brunch. There are a few creases, but no one cares.

While there’s no exact recipe from the Just Desserts menu that continues to exist in either one of their kitchens today, there are many, many lessons that have been carried forward.

For both restaurateurs/entrepreneurs, Just Desserts was their first exposure to profit and loss, a journey from as AD puts it,  “dreaming to accounting”.

It’s a lesson that Rahul applied to all his restaurants later. “I also learned at Just Desserts that it’s easy to get lost in the glamour of this world. It can be a lot of fun, but at the end of the day it’s still a business,” he says, quite sure that if he showed someone the business plan for Just Desserts today, “or even Indigo for that matter”, they’d throw it out the window.

But AD and Rahul didn’t think about business models in those days. “We were young and foolish. That’s what you need to be in order to do stuff. You jump into these things because you know it’s right. You can’t always explain a gut feeling,” Rahul goes on.

But how can we let a story about batter and booty end with an institution as mundane as a bank? We look up at our protagonists expectantly, and they give us hope: two short stories about love at Just Desserts, two alternate ends, like the extras on a Director’s Cut DVD of your favourite film.

There may have been no plan or backbone menu, but the two decided that there had to be money in it somewhere. “If we could keep a check on costs, the rest was cake,” Rahul shrugs. 

For AD, the education came from interacting with customers. “A lot of the regulars at Just Desserts became my friends and I didn’t charge them money, which was a very bad habit. That didn’t help with the cash flow, and so when I started Olive Bar & Kitchen, I knew better.”

And as you can imagine, they had a lot to learn from each other as well. Were there disagreements? “Plenty. When two strong people come together, there are bound to be.” But there was respect as well. “Personally, I like working with a partner because there is someone to bounce ideas off,” says AD.

At the end of two years, Rahul was long gone (he left to open Under The Over at Kemps Corner, that place of perfect nachos and dark brownies) and Just Desserts didn’t make profits but it did break even. And then the building’s landlord bought them over and replaced Café Parisian by noon and Just Desserts by night, with a bank that laboured all through the day.

But how can we let a story about batter and booty end with an institution as mundane as a bank? We look up at our protagonists expectantly, and they give us hope: two short stories about love at Just Desserts, two alternate ends, like the extras on a Director’s Cut DVD of your favourite film.

AD: “I met a girl at the Willingdon Club swimming pool a couple of years before we opened Just Desserts. We started dating and about that time I quit my job to work in the NGO sector. She dumped me because she didn’t want to date a jhola and I was quite heart broken. A few years later, when Just Desserts was the hottest ticket in the country, she walked in to see me there, surrounded by girls and all these amazing people and I know she was looking around thinking, this could all have been mine.

Rahul: “I have one too! There was this girl who used to come in to Just Desserts often and I took a real shine to her. She was dating someone else at the time, but she eventually dumped him. I remember she was sitting at table no 2 when I asked her out and we started dating. That girl is now my wife.”

See, we told you, this is just the beginning.

***

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