Emerald Garden’s Chef Rana Rahul compares the food industry to fashion and style as he strives to bring the “wow factor” to every meal he creates and plates.
It’s probably going to be a good story when it begins with– “This time when I cooked for President Gaddafi…”
We are meeting Chef Rana Rahul of Emerald Garden (soon to be known as Pan Asian Yao) , a Pan Asian restaurant located across from the United Nations in Gigiri. We sit by the bar, on sisal-woven stools that allow us clear view of the entire space. A stone’s throw away from us, a staff member arranges a set of silk covered cushions in an overlapping and precarious line on a sofa. Two hours later, when the restaurant opens for lunch, this perfectly organized line of cushions will almost certainly be one of the first casualties as the arrival of lunch guests fills this little nook off United Nations Avenue with chatter and clinking forks.
Luckily for us, that gives us more than enough time to learn more about Delhi-born Rahul Rana and how exactly he ended up cooking up a storm for the late Libyan ruler Muammar Gaddafi. At 37, the soft-spoken Rana is the new Corporate Executive Chef and Food and Beverage Director of the Good Earth Group, a mouthful of a title that is embroidered on the sleeves and pocket of the shirt he wears. He’s also in charge of the restaurants rebranding.A role that was a natural fit for a chef who spent ten years working across Asia, everywhere from his home country of India to the Maldives. The latter was where he encountered Gaddafi, back ‘in 2006 or 7’.
“We didn’t know who he was before he arrived. Our bosses just told us that he was a big deal.” Quickly, Rana and his colleagues discovered just how big a deal when they were required to eat every single meal in front of his guards before they would be allowed to serve it to Mr. Gaddafi.
Unlike chefs who tell childhood stories of tinkering around with ingredients in their parents’ kitchen, Rana had hardly any interest in cooking before college. In 2000, he left his hometown for the very first time to go study at the Swiss School of Hospitality and Tourism Management, with vague aspirations of doing something in the food and beverage industry. One day, when he was cooking for a few of his older schoolmates, “it clicked to me that I really wanted to do… this… What played an important role [in the decision] was the creativity that it entails,” he says.
Rana compares the food industry to fashion and style. Practically, this means that he is constantly maintaining a precarious seesaw weighted by the forces of external validation on one side with a desire to ‘be very authentic’ on the other, a dilemma that ails many a fashionable person, too. In his line of work, praise is inevitable, he tells us, but it is not his main goal. Rather, he strives to reach a “wow factor”, relying on an internal sense of what works and what does not. “Your inner self says to you, this looks awesome.”
Is the voice ever in disagreement with the praise he was receiving? “One time we were cooking for a football club, the sauce went a little haywire… A lot of people liked it, but we [the chefs] all were completely disappointed.”
Chef Rana stresses the importance of criticism: “Critics are always important. You have to learn from your mistakes.” But in a universe of diverse palates, there will inevitably be someone who is unhappy with what he creates, whatever his inner voice says. By constantly seeking feedback and tweaking meals to fit the client’s desires, he is able to find a satisfying spot upon which to rest the seesaw. He has been able to put this into practice this in the few months since he took over Yao Pan Asian, developing systems through which he and his staff can solicit feedback from their clients and learning how best to personalize his recipes to suit the different tastes of his audience. As a manager of the restaurant, Chef Rana also strives to build a culture of communication and feedback amongst his team, “Everyday I make sure that I speak to everybody just to make sure we have that healthy day.”
Chef Rana admits that he is a stickler for perfection: “I like things done in a particular manner”, however long it takes to get it right. “I never see time,” he says, and would probably tell a younger version of himself to have endless streams of patience and a complete willingness to put in the hours without complaint.