The Mahadevans could be the perfect restaurant family. Kumar and Suba run successful Indian restaurants Abhi's and Aki's, named after their sons. Kumar has featured in two MasterChefs and scored a hat in the 2013 Good Food Guide for Aki's. Now there's a lavish new cookbook. But things weren't always so idyllic.
As a child growing up in India, Kumar's parents wanted him to be an engineer or a doctor, but as a teenager he already loved food and was accepted as a trainee at the prestigious Mumbai-based Taj Mahal Palace in 1977. He was initially groomed as a waiter but soon changed to work in the kitchen, because he saw that the chefs gave the orders. After two years, trained in the classic cuisines of France and Italy and in love with the dishes of Paul Bocuse, he was finally a chef de partie.
Kumar still had a lot to learn, and even today he praises the chefs who took the rough edges off his already enthusiastic approach. Cyrus Todiwala from the Mumbai Taj Palace gave him the subtle secrets of spicing and introduced him to Parsi cuisine; the German chefs he worked with in Iraq, when he joined the Sheraton group, taught him speed, organisation and precision; and at the former Mayur restaurant in Martin Place he learnt the importance of good management.
Perhaps the most important step in this chef's story is his marriage to Suba. It was a traditional Indian-style arranged marriage, endorsed by the family astrologer. Right away there was a spark that grew to become a strong love. Suba remains his greatest influence and an integral part of the restaurants, bringing grace and serenity to the floor. She is always on the floor at one of the restaurants and is clearly the one in charge if Kumar's not there.
But before they married, Kumar accepted an offer to become one of three chefs at the newly established Mayur. With backing from the Indian government, Mayur aimed to establish high-class Indian cuisine in Sydney. Kumar loved the clean air of Australia after the Iraq desert, along with the great produce and the challenge. In 1987, he married Suba in Chennai in India and returned to Sydney the following week. Suba joined him three months later. They found the going tough, like most newly-weds, with the contracted wages not really enough to let them have any life outside work.
By 1989, Mayur was winding down (the Indian Tea Board and Air India, the principal sponsors, lost interest) but Kumar had decided to make his home here and after some time as an agency freelance chef he opened his own restaurant, Abhi's. Named after his first son, on the advice of his father, it demonstrates the place of family in his life.
Kumar is scathing of the Indian food in Sydney at that time: it was dominated by bright-red tandooris made with indifferent-quality meats, and gut-searing curries devoid of subtlety. He was determined to do something special at his small restaurant in suburban North Strathfield. He introduced southern Indian dosais along with the Goan and Parsi dishes he loved. His tandoori dishes were a revelation, made with top-quality produce and marinated in freshly ground spices, and no red food colouring. And he began experimenting with unique dishes such as his pasanda, made with rolled veal, a meat never found in India. He imported his own spice-grinding machine and made his masalas every day.
The locals soon learnt to love the complex layers of tastes in his cuisine. But life remained a struggle - until Abhi's was reviewed by The Sydney Morning Herald in April 1994. Suddenly diners were coming from all over town and he was often booked out.
After years of hard work, the success of Abhi's was assured but Kumar wanted more. He wanted to put the Indian food he loved up there with the great cuisines of Sydney. He wanted to show us just how sophisticated Indian food could be. In 2003 he risked everything and signed a lease for a restaurant on Cowper Wharf at Wooloomooloo, naming it after his second son, Aki. There were costly fitouts, expensive rents, high wages and an extensive cellar to be paid for. His menu prices had to go higher than any other Indian restaurant in Sydney.
It took a while for Sydney to accept his classy twist on a cuisine so often bastardised. It wasn't even like the quality traditional dishes served in the best Indian eateries in London, or the best Mumbai restaurants, for that matter. Kumar was now doing his own interpretations of Indian food, making it work with local produce while respecting his Indian roots.
Today, even with the success of Aki's, Kumar is still not satisfied. Great restaurants survive on slender margins and the whim of food critics, and Kumar is determined to do keep striving.
The key to this success is Suba. She remains his greatest inspiration and at times his greatest critic. Whatever he does, she will be behind him. Their sons, now with their own lives, remain connected to the restaurants that bear their names. Abhi is with an international bank but still finds time to drink fine wines with his dad after service. Aki is in his final year at university and loves being involved in the kitchen. On busy nights you may just find them helping on the floor.
Having survived the global financial crisis, what lies ahead? Kumar is keen to pass on his knowledge and teach. He feels Indian chefs must innovate but still respect the soul of their cuisine. One day he may even open a simple restaurant specialising in his other love, southern Italian food, and serve a real acqua pazza (the quintessential southern Italian fish dish - he believes no one in Sydney cooks it properly). Whatever he decides to do, Suba will be giving her advice and support.
The real success of this family is, in the end, very simple. Lots of hard work. And love.
From India by Kumar and Suba Mahadevan, Murdoch Books, April 2013, rrp $59.99
Green chicken curry
Each region of India makes a green chicken curry and many people have their own tricks to ''green it up''. The distinctive use of dark rum and coriander makes the finished colour of this dish a dark green.
2 tsp ground turmeric
1 tbsp finely grated ginger
2 tsp crushed garlic
1 tbsp malt vinegar
1kg skinless, boneless chicken thigh fillets, each cut into 3
80ml vegetable or sunflower oil
Chilli oil, to garnish (optional)
Green masala paste
1 bunch coriander, leaves picked
1/2 bunch mint, leaves picked
1 onion, chopped
4 small green chillies
5cm piece of ginger
1 tbsp white sugar
6 garlic cloves
5cm piece of cinnamon stick
12 black peppercorns
6 whole cloves
2 tsp cumin seeds
3 tbsp dark rum
2 tbsp malt vinegar
1. Combine the turmeric, ginger, garlic, vinegar and ½ teaspoon of salt in a bowl, rub all over the chicken and leave to marinate in the fridge for one hour.
2. To make the green masala paste, put all the ingredients in a blender or spice grinder and process to a fine paste. Heat the oil in a large heavy-based frying pan over medium-high heat, add the chicken and cook until golden brown on all sides.
3. Add the green masala paste and cook, covered, over low heat for 15-20 minutes or until the chicken is cooked through, removing the lid for the final three minutes of cooking to reduce the sauce slightly, if necessary. Drizzle with the chilli oil to serve.
Serves 6-8 as part of a shared meal.