What do you call a person who dabbles in both finance and gastronomy? You, err, don’t, because there is no name for it. They are both like chalk and cheese, with no thread of commonality connecting them. Hong Kong-based Tiena Sekharan left her successful banking career to carve an entirely different niche — in the culinary world — with the sole intention of letting the world know that there is more to Indian food than just naan and curry. Thus, her first entrepreneurial endeavour, Masala Train — a takeaway outlet — came into being in Hong Kong, followed by her more recent Cardamon Street.
Over an email conversation, 36-year-old Sekharan tells the indianexpress.com about her journey, the different hats she has worn, the initial hiccups, and how she intends to challenge and change the global perception about Indian food.
What made you drift away from banking, and how did you find this culinary interest?
I never got tired of banking. After 10 years of doing the same thing, I was simply ready for the next stage in my career. Going from ‘analysing’ to actually ‘doing’. I enjoyed my stint in banking. (But) I wanted to start a restaurant that would be accessible, serving healthy food.
Tell us about your earliest experiences with cooking.
Like many kids in India, my first experience with kadhai and gas was making Maggi. I mention this only half in jest because I feel like I understood the concept of al-dente pasta from making Maggi. I detested the overcooked mushy Maggi that my friends ate without complaining.
The second item I perfected was chai. In the movie The Hundred-Foot Journey, Helen Mirren asks potential hires to cook an omelette to decide if the chef has it. I think if I have to ask a chef to make one item, I’d ask them to make chai. Only the best chefs can make good chai.
What is the one thing you want to convey to non-Indians through your cooking?
There are two things I want to convey to non-Indians. In my job, my suggestion of ordering Indian food for lunch was constantly turned down on the grounds that Indian food is “heavy and unhealthy”. I had to agree that most Indian restaurants in Hong Kong (though serving tasty food) were likely responsible for some of the obesity and clogged arteries of their patrons. I was, however, aware that Indian food — the way it is cooked in Indian homes — would make it among the healthiest cuisines globally, with the right mix of proteins, carbs, and fiber. It is clearly the most vegetarian-friendly cuisine. I want to break the myth that Indian food is not healthy. The Masala Train and Cardamon Street chefs are very frugal when using oil and butter. Spices add flavour, and instead of overwhelming the dishes, all ingredients are fresh and nothing is overcooked.
The second thing I want to convey is that Indian food is versatile. Curries and naan are a very small part of the cuisine. At Cardamon Street and Masala Train, you get Indian salads, Indian breakfasts, Indian egg preparations, Indian tacos, Indian street food like vada pav, to name a few.
What is the one item you would recommend to tourists who come to your restaurants?
At Masala Train I’d recommend the vada pav and our version of the Bombay sandwich. I believe, it is better than what is available in Mumbai. At Cardamon Street, I’d recommend the Indian mezze platter. It’s the Indian version of the Mediterranean mezze platter with the Indian versions of hummus, babaganoush and maktbuah, served with zatar parathas and crudités.
Why did you choose Hong Kong as your base?
Hong Kong is a developed market as far as food palettes are concerned. The people are international, accepting of new concepts and flavours and open to experimentation. In this highly developed market, Indian food is still not that mature. There’s a gap that presents an opportunity.
Did you face any initial hiccups?
Hiccups are part and parcel of an entrepreneur’s life. In my business, it started with dealing with unreliable contractors and consultants, and went on to educating customers of the new concepts they were unfamiliar with, and hence, hesitant to try.
How did your family react to you deciding on this professional transition?
My father worked in the same company for 30+ years, and till date, speaks fondly of his experience. My mother was a homemaker who raised two strong daughters. Entrepreneurship is not the path my parents expected me to take, but being the darlings they are, they support everything I do even if they don’t understand it.
I was raised to study hard and build a strong resume with several extracurricular achievements that would give me admission into good colleges, which would eventually give me a great starting job. I did exactly that. I excelled in academics and sports, got admission into SRCC and IIM-Ahmedabad and got that highly-coveted overseas banking job with Lehman Brothers. Starting my business was certainly dropping off that well-charted plan but my parents respect my choices.
Do you think you have been able to change the perception of people regarding Indian food?
Absolutely! We now have a loyal following of customers who come to us for their healthy and delicious Indian food cravings.