Madhu “MadMan” Menon: Defender of Justice, Destroyer of Evil, and Keeper of the Knowledge.
Known in his Superhero avatar as The Incredible Bulk and in his Supervillain avatar as Dr. Sarcasmo.
Previously, I was the chef and owner of Shiok Far-eastern Cuisine, an Asian food restaurant and cocktail lounge in Bangalore, India. It served food from Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia. Ran the place for more than 6 years.
And before that, I used to work in the big bad world of web development as a User Experience specialist. My last full-time corporate job was as the UX Head at a web solutions company, and I can still be found fixing up web sites and ranting about design.
(If you’re on Twitter, you can follow me here.)
I know what you’re thinking: “WTF? Geek to restaurant business? What on earth?”
Plenty of people have been asking which demon possessed me enough to make me throw out everything I’d been doing for more than 7 years and get into the restaurant business. Where shall I start, I wonder…
Before all this happened, I used to be a Webhead. No, I wasn’t Spider-Man. I was a dude who did stuff on the Net. Wait, that’s not a very good place to start either. (OK, this is going to be long. You sure you’ve got time?)
Ahem, flash back to 1988 to when I had just entered my teens. As you might guess, I’m very fond of food. At that time, I loved Chinese food (the stuff I now call Indo-Chinese glop.) Unfortunately, my parents didn’t share my enthusiasm. One day while thumbing through a UK superstore catalogue (that my father brought back from his frequent trips there), I noticed a curious item in the “kitchen appliances” section. There it was, described as “Ken Hom 14″ Carbon Steel Chinese Wok. Comes with spatula, chopsticks, and cookery book.” Somehow, the idea hit me that if I perhaps got this thing (I didn’t even know what “wok” meant), I might be able to satisfy my craving for Chinese cooking by making it myself, or at least get my maid to make some for me.
My poor, wonderful father actually dragged it back for me on his next visit. It wasn’t easy; a thick gauge wok weighs a fair bit. Over the next few weeks, I studied Mr. Hom’s book in detail. It taught me a fair bit about the philosophy of the cuisine. I realised just how different it was from the goo they dished out at the local “Chinese” restaurants. (No Virginia, there isn’t a Chinese Gobi Manchurian.) The only problem was the sheer number of exotic ingredients I’d never heard of. These days, stuff like oyster sauce, dark soy sauce, etc. are available in every supermarket but in 1988, almost nothing was here. Fortunately, my father’s UK business associates were kind enough to keep bringing me bottles of these gems so I could continue my culinary adventures. Over months and years, I studied cooking like an art, trying to understand not just the “what” but the “why” of making food. It is a quest I continue even today. I gradually figured out, “Hey, I’ve got a talent for this.” It soon became just as much of a passion as the other love of my life – computers.
(You still with me? You’re either unemployed or very interested in me. Let’s hope it’s the latter, eh?)
After passing out of school, I had to make a career choice. Do I study hotel management and extend my love of cooking into a career? Or do I confirm my geekiness and get into technology?
I decided to remain a geek.
Whoa whoa whoa! That’s not as stupid a decision as you might think it to be. I talked to a lot of hotel people before making my choice. The problem was essentially this: I wanted to cook glorious food and would’ve loved to become a chef. What I didn’t want, however, was to do all the other stuff – make up beds, clean rooms, learn French, and everything else you have to do as part of the course. So I told myself that I’d continue to study cookery as an art to keep my passion alive, while making a living being a geek.
You know what they say about making lemonade when life hands you lemons? Well, I never got handed those lemons. I prefer iced lemongrass tea anyway.
That was a test for attention. You nearly failed.
Where was I? Right, so I was making a living as a geek. You remember how I started off cooking authentic Chinese food? Well, I happened to study in Australia after school. The flights there and back always involved stopping over at Singapore or Malaysia since there wasn’t a direct flight from India. That’s when I met Asian food and instantly fell in love with it. I hadto learn this new cuisine. Fortunately, Asian food is fairly popular in Australia. I ate and learnt more and more. Singapore really is the food capital of Asia and I’ve had the best food there numerous times. That’s how I expanded my repertoire into newer, more exotic food.
Starting a restaurant was one of my long-term plans. I figured that if I didn’t become a millionaire from stock options in tech companies (I didn’t), I’d set one up when I was in my mid-thirties. The volatility of the IT business (in my last company, they fired a third of my department at night without asking or telling me), combined with the encouragement from friends persuaded me to move forward my plans and do it while I was still young, er, younger, er, below 30. I figured that it’s easier taking big risks when you’re relatively young and single, not when you’re hitched and have two kids to look after.
And thus was born Shiok Far-eastern cuisine. I took almost half a year to get everything planned, designed, and making sure I was psychologically ready for it. The other half was spent building the place from scratch, hiring good staff, planning and designing a menu, and all the other hard stuff that goes into setting up a fine dining restaurant. I saw a real market for South East Asian food in Bangalore, my adopted city. I also saw a market for a warm, cosy restaurant where you didn’t have bright lights, loud music and tables 1 foot away from each other.
Alas, not all stories have happy endings. In March, 2009, after running my restaurant for 6.5 years, I shut it down. An economic recession that just hit as we moved to a new location was a major factor, but that’s all I really want to say about it.
Well, that’s my story, folks. I thought I could make it short, but apparently I’m not as good a writer as I thought. :)