Wednesday, November 19, 2008

They came.

They saw.

And conquered!

Text as published in the Amsterdam Weekly

That pretty much sums up the success story of Mr and Mrs M.L. Gupta in a nutshell. In the early eighties they swapped New Delhi for the Dutch capital city, setting up various takeaway restaurants in the Netherlands, creating their own Indian version of the American dream, here, right in the heart of Amsterdam.

No one would have believed that behind the facade of their shabby-looking takeaway called Indian Express, unfolds an unexpected story. The story of Mr and Mrs Gupta. It was, in fact, the much feared culinary critic Johannes van Dam who, in 2005, shot their tiny little business to stardom.
'Did you know our cook initially refused Mr van Dam?,' laughs Mrs Gupta when reminiscing of that moment. 'He didn't recognise the man.'

Luckily for the Guptas, Mr van Dam eventually got in, was granted a look in the kitchen and ordered some of the dishes. Result: a glowing review in Het Parool.

That was three years ago. The tiny place has not changed much since, it seems. There's the Indian flag hanging on the wall, and every now and then, when the kitchen door opens, you get to see the chefs at work, while popular Bollywood songs play in the background. And there's still the bronze elephant-head pegged on the wall, resembling Ganesha, the Hindu god of success.

The magic of Ganesha seems to have paid off indeed. For Indian Express enjoys an enormous clientele and it's chop chop for the bustling delivery boys. Yes, the Guptas clearly have what it takes to run a highly successful catering business. In fact, the Indian couple recently landed the order to do the catering for the Amsterdam India Festival. But despite their Midas touch, they have remained their humble self.

Congratulations. So what's on the menu at the festival launch?
Mr Gupta: I'm not going to give away everything, but this much I will tell you: we have to cater for roughly 250 guests. They are in for chicken tikka grilled on a tandoor--an Indian clay oven which you burn by charcoal--jazzed up with Indian spices. Lamb curry is also on the menu, as is fresh spinach and paneer--a type of Indian cheese. All of this is served with saffron basmati rice.

Who is doing all the cooking?
Mrs Gupta: We have hired help, but the cooking itself is done by our two cooks at the Indian Express. One is our senior cook. The other his assistant. All Indian restaurants, from India to the UK have two cooks. One specialises in tandoor and the other in curries. And don't forget our helpers. They do the cutting and grinding.

Cutting. Grinding. I thought you were an accountant?
Mr Gupta: [breaking into a laugh] That's right, I was working as an accountant in India, but in the catering business. Numbers are my thing, as is food. I guess it was only a matter of time before I would combine the two.

And when did that happen?
Mr Gupta: Not until 1991. When I first came to the Netherlands in 1981, I started working as a manager for one of the biggest Indian restaurants. We catered for KLM, the Indian embassy, other embassies, the Indian film festival and so on. But after some ten years, I had enough. I wanted to start my own business.

Mr Gupta: I had already made quite a name for myself. So, I knew I would have enough customers. I believed it was possible to offer good quality food at reasonable prices. I began various restaurants, in 's-Hertogenbosch, Hilversum and Amsterdam. We were even a regular supplier for Media Park in Hilversum. Yet due to my declining health, everything came to a standstill. Or so we thought. Then, some five years ago, we came across this appalling rundown place on the Pieter Langedijkstraat. My wife and I decided to fix it up and start a new takeaway. It heralded the birth of Indian Express.

No beef on the menu?
Mrs Gupta: Correct. We are Hindu, so no beef. We draw the line there. Muslims need not worry either. All our food is halal.

Indian cuisine has become quite popular over the years. Why is that?
Mrs Gupta: Here in Amsterdam, you have many British people who are used to Indian food. And lots of Dutch people have British colleagues, which is how they were introduced to Indian cuisine in the first place. Then they develop a taste for it.

What is the secret of Indian Express in particular?
Mr Gupta: What can I say? It's in our blood. We Indians are businessmen. I got myself two of the very best cooks from India and we use original Indian spices, not the imported stuff from countries like Indonesia and Sri Lanka. But our best ingredient is the love and care we have for our customers.
Mrs Gupta: My parents used to say, 'Jaisa khaye ann waisa hoye mann,' which is Hindi for 'your food influences your way of thinking'. I do believe that food does have influence on man's behaviour. Good food gives vitality, contentment, resulting in relaxation.
And last but not least, don't forget our portions. Ours are much bigger than the competition while prices are low.

Any chance of opening up another branch?
Mrs Gupta: Actually, we might. We are thinking of opening up another takeaway in Amstelveen, where we have a lot of fans as well.