The mentor of the Qureshi Group — which owns a string of restaurants in the Klang Valley, including the newly acquired La Bodega — speaks about finding strength and comfort in these tumultuous times.
Options: What have been the best lessons learnt during the pandemic?
Shiva Kumar Raju: When Covid-19 hit, we were thinking along the lines of, ‘This too shall pass’. After all, we’ve all been through hard times and, naturally, we used those times as a reference point. But, of course, what has since happened is unprecedented! We’ve had to relearn and relook so many things and we are still in the process of learning and adjusting.
But we have achieved many firsts due to the pandemic: We conducted our first Zoom meetings and La Bodega has just completed its first batches of takeaway meals — something we had not done earlier as we didn’t think many items, like our paella, would be as nice if not enjoyed on site. We had to come up with offerings that would work for the takeaway concept. So, I would say the pandemic taught us the necessity of forced reinvention!
It has been tough years for the F&B industry and yet, amid all the closures, your group is still expanding.
The acquisition of La Bodega early this year was very smooth and we kept the team intact. I am also pleased to say we’ve made some of the long-term staff stakeholders in the business. If we have to close one restaurant, we always make sure to open another. Ever since the pandemic hit, our losses have been tremendous, but we find opening another outlet neutralises the pain and loss somewhat. It keeps the momentum going and reminds us of the old saying, ‘Never put all your eggs in one basket!’
There are also plans to expand the Niji restaurant brand, currently only at TPC Kuala Lumpur to downtown KL and Langkawi soon.
Are you more optimistic, though, as the vaccine rollout is underway?
Oh yeah. Looking at countries go from disastrous situations last year to opening up this year, I am convinced our country too will bounce back; this is especially so for the F&B industry as Malaysia is, above all, an eating nation. It’s our core!
What advice would you share with fellow restaurateurs?
I can honestly tell you, it is near impossible to stay afloat if there are two months of non-operations. You hear of the big boys shuttering but there are so many more good restaurants that have just quietly closed. My advice is always give things one more try. F&B is a soulful business. It’s charged with emotion, passion. If there is no soul in your business, the chance of failure is always there. It is all too easy to close down a restaurant but if there is soul and you feel connected to it, give it one more try, one more chance, one more time.
How do you stay calm during such trying times?
I dance salsa. I have also taken up meditation and it has made me a happier person as it helps me comprehend the misery we are in. Meditation also helps us ensure that misery does not turn into grief.
Where would you go once dining-in is allowed?
That’s easy! To Jalan Ipoh’s 3rd Mile for my favourite chicken rice and wonton mee. And also to La Bodega for the gambas (prawns). Some things need to be eaten at the source!
What started this love affair with food?
I think being a Klang boy helps. From bak kut teh to good Indian food, Klang people have great food bragging rights and exposure. I also spent 20 years in Madurai, India — the cradle of Tamil food — which made me appreciate the richness and diversity of India’s food culture so much more.
So, which are the most exciting food destinations for you?
Malaysia, anytime! We truly have the best of East and West here. But I also have a special fondness for Mexican food, which I fell in love with while in Guadalajara. Yet, somehow, authentic Mexican food has not been able to take off in Malaysia.
When it comes to comfort, what does it for you?
Sitting down to eat at a neighbourhood place where the aunty and uncle manning the stall know your name. Alternatively, Pelita Nasi Kandar for a half cup of teh tarik and roti canai. That’s my soul food.
Describe your perfect KL weekend.
Driving out for a good banana leaf meal. I like this place in Brickfields at the Villa Scott condominium, opposite the Sri Kandaswamy Temple, called Ceylon Flavours. They do vegetables like no other. I particularly like their valaipu (fried banana blossoms).
This article first appeared on July 5, 2021 in The Edge Malaysia.