Harsh Chawla and Derek Valleau, the dynamic duo behind Pukka
Indian restaurants in Toronto have had a long history with the city. In the early days the main complaint about them was that they weren’t authentic enough, but over time, things slowly started to change. More and more Indians migrated to Toronto and brought with them came valuable cooking skills and aromatic spices to make authentic tasting dishes.
These days when someone mentions an Indian restaurant, the first thing that runs through some people’s minds is the Indian buffet, but there are places that are moving away from that ‘stereotype’ and trying to put their own unique spin on Indian food.
Recently, Harsh Chawla and Derek Valleau opened Pukka in the St. Clair and Bathurst area of Toronto. Their goal is to focus on the intricate flavours of the many spices that make up Indian food and present their dishes with less heat than what one would commonly associate with Indian food.
I met up with Derek and Harsh on a cold winter night at their new restaurant where they were hosting a media tasting event.
Can you tell me a little about your self and your experience in the food industry?
DV: I’ve been in the restaurant industry for thirty years but the better part of the last twenty have been here in Toronto working in various restaurants and in various positions. It was while working at 360 in the CN Tower that my passion for wine began. From there I joined the Ruth’s Chris Steak House chain for a short time and then on to Crush Wine Bar with Jamieson Kerr. Prior to opening Pukka with Harsh I worked with a wine agency that mostly specialized with Italian wines.
HC: I came to Canada in 2002 and worked in marketing but I’ve always had a passion for food and a passion for restaurants. In 2007 I started working in the restaurant industry on the consulting/marketing side. I’ve always thought that Indian food was not well represented in Canada because it’s always considered an oily, heavy style of food. The idea behind Pukka started when Derek and I met a few years ago when he helped me start a wine program in a restaurant that I was consulting at in Brampton.
What differentiates your restaurant to other Indian restaurants in and around Toronto?
HC: There are a few things, firstly we want to give excellent food, excellent service and have excellent ambiance. Secondly our food is less oily, less spicy and presented to our guests differently. We’ve married the seasons in Canada with our food, meaning that we’re taking advantage of the foods that are in season and creating unique dishes with them. As the seasons change so will our menu. We’re an Indian restaurant and we serve authentic food, but we serve it in a lighter way, in smaller dishes or in sharing plates, it’s different than the usual Indian buffet at other restaurants.
DV: My interest in Indian food is relatively new but I do believe that Indian food has not been given the attention and the respect that other cuisines has such as French or Mediterranean. For me there’s only one amazing Indian restaurant in Canada and that’s Vikram Vij’s restaurant in Vancouver. Most of the Indian restaurants are kind of around the same level, but there’s nothing in the upscale market as far as I am concerned, so the philosophy here was to have an amazing restaurant with a great beverage program that just happened to be serving Indian food. We also want to teach people that Indian food isn’t about just red chilis. It’s about a complex layering of aromatic spices that elevates vegetables, proteins or even paneer cheese. Our food is spiced, but not in a hot way, it’s more aromatic.
Derek, what made you switch from wine to food?
DV: I’ve been in the hospitality industry for a long time. I’ve worked in hotels, I’ve worked in restaurants and, as a matter of fact, I started out in the kitchen when I was a teenager, so you can say I’ve always been in the industry. Right now there are a lot of restaurants opening up in Toronto, but I see a void in quality upscale ethnic restaurants. I’ve said this a few times but I think Indian food is where Italian food was thirty or forty years ago. At that time Italian restaurants were all about spaghetti and meatballs but these days Italian restaurants are mainstream and high end and I think that’s where Indian is right now. It’s at the stage where it’s just going to grow and that’s one of the reasons why I wanted to open this restaurant.
What were some of the challenges you faced opening up your restaurant?
HC: One of the major challenges we had was finding the right location, it took us almost a year to find this spot. After finding this spot we had to go through the process of timing the construction and, as I’m sure you know, no matter where you are in the world, there are construction delays. After all that we had to find the right staff and that also took some time but at the end we’re very happy with the results.
DV: Yes, I think the location is key. There are a lot of trendy neighbourhoods in Toronto, but you’re going to have to pay big to go into those areas. Our goal was trying to identify what we thought was going to be next neighbourhood to take off. In this area there’re a lot of younger families moving in and there’s a lot of development currently going on. When Jamison and I opened Crush Wine Bar in 2002, we went through that process of looking for the right spot. At that time there was only Susur and Rodney’s on King West, it was pretty much a dead zone. We decided to take a huge chance and look at King West now. We’re hoping that this is what’s going to happen here also.
What advice would you give someone looking to open up their first restaurant?
HC: Don’t do it!
DV: Do your homework, be prepared to work a lot of hours, find an amazing location, did I mention that you should do your homework? Also make sure you have a lot of money in the bank then add at least another 30 per cent on top of that. Opening up a restaurant is full of surprises, for example our electrical and plumbing was much more than what we expected. It’s not a glamorous life, it’s a lot of hard work
HC: I completely agree with what Derek said, do your homework. You also have to be social. Don’t hide yourself if you want to run a restaurant, be the face, engage with people, treat your guests the way you’d like to be treated and have excellent food. We work when everyone is enjoying life including holidays and when your family wants you.
How are you using social media to bring in customers?
DV: We’re using Facebook, Twitter and now Instagram, which I’m now learning. Before opening Pukka I was following a restaurant, on my personal Twitter account, called Rock Lobster. Being older I didn’t quite get the whole social media thing but I was amazed at the attention that this restaurant was receiving on Twitter. What amazed me even more was within a short period of time they opened a second location and a LOT of their support came from their online presence. I think social media is the way of the future and we want to use that to attract younger people. Going after people in their 40s and 50s is great, they’re established and they have money, but I think focusing on those people are short sighted. We need to get people in their 20s into the restaurant and hope they become regular customers. Even though we’re doing a little print media I think those days are done.
What are some of the emerging trends do you foresee in the Toronto dining scene?
DV: In the past two or three years I’ve seen a trend towards more smaller chef owned and operated restaurants. While these types of 20 or 30 seat restaurants are great, they’re hard to make money. I can’t say what other trends there are but I would like to see more diverse cuisines and more higher end Asian restaurants being opened. I think there’s a huge market for that.
What are some of your favourite restaurants around Toronto?
HC: I enjoy seafood so I regularly go to Catch Seafood which is just down the street. My wife and I also enjoy going to Gusto 101 down at King and Portland. I live north of the city so we regularly visit an Italian restaurant called Mezzanote.
DV: The thing I love to do, and it’s been the same for 25 years, is to go for pho. It’s my most favourite food. I also love going to Chinatown. The other type of food that I’m really into is good quality Mexican which I think is just starting to emerge in Toronto.
What was the process you went through creating your menu?
DV: A lot of the menu items are based on classic recipes so our challenge was to take those classic recipes and tweak them so that they’re a little more modern in terms of presentation and to make sure they are lighter and fresher. We’re trying to break away from the stereotypical curry house that most people associate Indian food with. I live near Little India, so my exposure to Indian food was always the heavy and greasy type, and while it’s good I didn’t really find it exciting. It wasn’t until I ate at Vikram’s in Vancouver that I was blown away and I realized that there was much more to this type of cuisine than I had imagined.
Tell me about your wine and food pairings.
DV: Because of the complexity of the spicing it’s not an easy thing to do. It’s more about finding a wine that can complement the meal as opposed to one particular dish. With French food, for example, each dish has a wine that it’s matched with. With us it’s a little different. We’re not the first to try and match wine with Indian food but we’re looking for wines that are lower in alcohol, more fruit driven and a little more neutral so that it augments the spices used in our dishes.
What are your thoughts on food trucks?
DV: I think it’s a great concept. They need to loosen up the rules and allow that mobile kitchen to move around the city. There’s a lot more to street food than the street meat that Toronto is known for but the rules preventing them are totally ludicrous. You can go to many American cities and there’s so much to choose from or even look at the success of Vikram Vij’s Railway Express. Obviously our biggest challenge here in Canada is the weather which would make it difficult to operate a truck in the winter, but I think it’s a fantastic business and I’d love to get into that.
Any final thoughts that you’d like to share?
DV: What we’re trying to create here is a great quality restaurant that’s not expensive, a place where you can come and have a snack and a glass of wine or you can come in and have a full fledged dinner and spend as much money as you’d want to spend. We’re a small neighbourhood restaurant, first and foremost, and hopefully we’ll become a destination restaurant for people seeking great Indian food.
HC: I am very proud of the restaurant, really proud of the great team here. I’ve known Derek for six years and we’re unbelievably compatible in many aspects. I think we’re on the right track with the right attitude and most importantly we have fun. You’ll never see us grumpy, we’re always having fun.