This much is clear — Malini and Rahul Akerkar can crack up at pretty much any joke. In fact, it can be said that it is this camaraderie that keeps this incredibly close couple together. One can even be forgiven for thinking that they have been close buddies from their school days. Though they disagree vehemently on many issues, on many an occasion, they complete each other’s sentences as well. By their own admission, both have very strong opinions and can be quite obstinate, but it is also this trait that keeps them going. There is not one moment when the Akerkars do not profess their deep sense of affection (love, as they candidly call it) for each other — even when posing for pictures, they have their little moments of privacy and laughter.Food is what brought them together and what they do for a living — and they do a very fine job of it.
Follicularly challenged Rahul’s self-deprecating humour ensures that he shows you pictures of himself with a full mop of hair at least once through the day.“It’s all gone away today, though,” he says wistfully, before breaking into a smile. Both have lived abroad for many years and bring to the table a culture that is still uniquely Indian and revolves around warmth. They speak about what it was to start Indigo and how difficult the early days were. Money was hard to come by and the only thing that kept them going was passion and perseverance. Here is a couple that can be as different as chalk and cheese but still similar in many ways. They count on the simplest pleasures of life and raising a toast for guests is one of them.
How did the two of you meet?
Rahul: It was way back in November 1991. I was running this place called Just Desserts, which was located opposite the Tata Group headquarters. She was a customer that evening. Malini is Tarun Tahiliani’s cousin and someone mentioned that to me.
Malini: I was working in the UAE for PricewaterhouseCoopers and the Gulf War had just broken out. We were forced to go home on paid leave. So, I came to Mumbai to visit Tarun.
What brought you both close?
Malini: Rahul is a fabulous cook and I remember what he cooked for me on our first date. It was the most incredible mushroom almond pâté that came with a bottle of wine and pasta. That made it very romantic.
Rahul: Of course, I proposed to her a day after my birthday in April 1992 over bowls of chicken soup at The Chinese Room. The fact is that I was really stressed. I told her, “Enough of this nonsense. Let’s just get married.” And to ensure that she took me seriously, I went down on bended knee at 3 am again the following day.
Malini: I said yes and the two of us just broke down after that. It makes us laugh today, though!
Rahul: It worked — we eventually got married on December 20 that year. I am not sure if it can get more romantic than that. Sadly, much of that romance has gone out of the window after we got married (laughs).
In what ways are you similar?
Rahul: I think both of us are very stubborn and highly opinionated. In that sense, it is important to draw the lines of distinction. Fundamentally, we are very good friends who share common interests such as good food and adhere to the same set of basic values. We have similar aesthetic sensibilities, like to
entertain and are very hospitable.
Malini: I don’t know what similar or different means. That’s not the way I look at it. To me, it is an amalgamation of two personalities. We just really like and love each other. But we do love to host people and our home is open to everyone. My two daughters call the Akerkar house their own adda (den).
Do you often agree on most issues?
Malini: Not at all — Rahul is very cynical as a person and I am the eternal optimist. Also, I am very spontaneous. For a marriage to work, one has to be open to compromise and change. Rahul needs a plan for everything but I prefer the unpredictability of life.
Rahul:I would not call myself cynical. I just like being organised in what I do.
In what other ways are you different?
Rahul: The fact is that we fight like crazy in the kitchen. I am a very organised person and she is like a toofan.
Malini: That’s an exaggeration. I like to play around a little bit there and he likes things to be in place. Actually, I have been interested in cooking from the time I was eight. My first dish was a sticky chocolate fudge with condensed milk that turned out pretty well. Now, however, I like to experiment with Asian and Western cuisines, while Rahul is partial to Western dishes. We have an Indian cook at home and meals are often as simple as dal chawal (yellow lentil gravy and rice).
How difficult is it to live and work together?
Rahul: It’s a bloody nightmare. On a more serious note, it helps that our roles are clearly divided. Malini handles the branding, design and positioning of our restaurants. I restrict myself to the food and operations.
Malini: I love design and colours — it brings out the best in me. I even enjoy painting walls. That’s not to say that I am not involved in the food. Left to Rahul and his team, Indigo would have had a 90% non-vegetarian menu. It helps that I am a vegetarian and we can offer our customers a bit of that as well.
How much time do you spend as a family?
Malini: We work five days a week and are particular about family time. In that way, we are a normal, dysfunctional family. I must confess that Rahul is amazing with our two girls. They fight like mad with him but they also have a very special relationship.
Rahul: I spend a lot of time with them and I like it. Our older daughter is currently in the US, studying at the same place that I went to for my undergraduate degree. In that sense, you could say she has followed in my footsteps.
How often do you take holidays?
Rahul: We like the concept of several short holidays. Later this year, we will visit the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. We try to combine conferences with a short holiday. To me, a vacation is not about putting my feet up in a hotel room. We like outdoor activities, perhaps me more than Malini; you could spot me in New York having a hot dog on the street. But I try not to go overboard with food during a vacation.
Malini: We do try different restaurants but get tired of the whole routine after a while. The concept of vacations has changed ever since our older daughter left for her course abroad; now, we go to the US to visit her. Other than that, we recently took a three-week break to visit the Turkish coast — it was quite fabulous. We did a lot of diving and paragliding there. Like Rahul said, being outdoors while on vacation is a big thing for us.
What do you like about each other after so many years together?
Malini: I come from a family where there was no distinction between girls and boys. In that sense, I was always very independent. What I like about Rahul is that he just lets me be. He makes me laugh all the time with his often-morbid sense of humour. The fact is that he is a great father and a good husband.
Rahul: We have known each other for a long time now. She was seeing someone when I got to know her. To put it simply, she is just my best friend.