It is defined as the power to give delight or, to control or achieve as if by magic. Our friend Chindi Varadarajulu, executive chef and co-owner of Pumpkin Tales in Chennai, is full of charm.
Perpetually smiling and caring for others, she’s a bubbling fountain of energy who gives delight to all who know her. She makes her achievements look effortless but the truth is, she’s earned every success with persistence and the power of hard work. Her food is truly a reflection of her life and here we’ll reveal how the globe ended up on her table.
From Singapore to Vancouver
Born in Singapore to parents of South Indian origin, Chindi grew up in a Tamil-speaking home, the youngest of five children. “I was truly raised by our village,” she says. “My parents had to work, my older siblings were at school so I roamed the neighbourhood until I was old enough to go too. It was okay.” she laughs. “Everyone looked out for me.”
Later, her family began to disperse to all corners of the globe. Her oldest sister went to Brazil and the other to the United States. One brother went to Australia and the other, eventually, to Canada. After her own school years, Chindi did an office administration course, worked odd jobs and saved up money to visit her own dream destination – Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.
When that dream trip finally came, a few weeks turned into a six month stay. Chindi was awestruck by mountains.
“I grew up surrounded by the ocean and I loved that Vancouver was also on that same vast ocean but, I had never been so close to so much nature and it was like the mountains cast a spell on me.”
Chindi spent the next few years travelling back and forth between Singapore and Vancouver in alternating six month stints. Finally, she decided her heart belonged to Canada and she applied for permanent citizenship. “It was tough because it meant I had to give up my Singapore passport. There was no dual citizenship.” The consolation? Vancouver is consistently voted one of the world’s best and most beautiful cities to live in.
Chindi’s permanent move to her adopted home came in 1995. She found employment in chain brand restaurants and worked her way up the ladder to a managerial role in the one where a manager took her under her wing. “My boss said, she chose to train me in the role because I had moved from Asia as a single woman. She thought if I could manage that, I could manage anything.” She enjoyed the job and the people she worked with but, ten years later, when a recession hit, she was handed a pink slip saying her services were no longer needed. It was a great blow.
The making of an entrepreneur
Every kind of loss brings with it a grief reaction and Chindi experienced all grief’s stages with the loss of her employment. Sadness, anger, depression and anxiety led to acceptance within a few days for this adaptive individual. And, with acceptance came the epiphany that she never wanted someone else in control of her working life again.
Chindi yearned to become her own boss. As part of Canada’s Employment Insurance program she was able to enrol in a British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT) entrepreneurial small-business course for women. She had researched the food business and dreamed of having her own restaurant. She had never worked as a cook in the “back of house” or made up a menu, let alone set up a commercial kitchen. “That course taught me financial planning, marketing, how to make projections and do financing. They taught me to write a solid business plan.” Next, she applied and got a Women’s Enterprise Society of British Columbia start-up loan.
“Restaurants are considered a huge risk. Banks would not look at me. But, this group lent me money and also mentored and encouraged me. I was able to pay them back in three years. Then, I took another loan from them with a lower interest rate to update equipment and decorate the restaurant.”
Chindi impressed a lot of people with her success. She got an award in 2005 as the best new entrepreneur and was listed in the book, 100 Pioneering Women of B.C.
Genuine inspiration – the key to success
In her decade of living in Vancouver, before opening her restaurant, the one thing Chindi had lamented about her life in her city of choice was the lack of South Indian food. “There was one Sri Lankan restaurant. They had decent sambhar (lentil and vegetable soup) but they couldn’t make a dosa.”
Vancouver had, and still has, oodles of North Indian restaurants due to the predominance of a North Indian immigration pattern that started in 1905. Chindi thought that despite only being exposed to North Indian cuisine, Canadians were open-minded eaters and so she saw an opportunity to introduce their palates to her ultimate comfort food, the flavours of her mother’s Tamil table. She would establish a niche in the market with a South Indian restaurant.
2003 – Chutney Villa is born
While Chindi’s restaurant management experience came in handy, developing and cooking a menu involved many a phone call to her mother in Singapore for recipes. The South Indian staple of dosa (thin, crispy lentil and rice flour crepes) and the batter needed to make them took a solid month of experimentation to get the fermentation process and consistency of the batter to a standard she was proud to offer to her guests. South Indian ingredients like fresh curry leaves, drumsticks and snake gourd were initially hard to find but suppliers eventually sourced what she needed.
Persistence pays off
With her ability to speak well and teach, Chindi became a popular chef interview with the local media. Nathan Fong, the celebrated Vancouver food stylist, chef and journalist loved her food. He mentioned Chindi to a fellow journalist and in July, 2006, Chindi’s Chutney Villa earned a mention in a New York Times article. “It was Nathan who told the reporter about my food,” says Chindi. He proved to be a great friend.
Chindi’s business thrived. Food lovers just had to try her food and when they did, Chindi’s cooking earned their taste buds’ respect while her affable personality created the kind of comfort and care that kept them coming back. The culinary curious became patrons.
“Vikram Vij was another generous mentor. When his restaurant was lined up down the block, he’d suggest people try my place. He was generous with his praise and friendship. Once, when he was interviewed about ‘Where chefs eat’ he told the reporter he liked to go to Chutney Villa when he had the chance.”
Once Chindi’s business took off and she was able to hire a solid team, she started leading culinary trips to South India each year. She did this for about five years. The first trip had eight guests, then 20 and one year she did three trips because of the interest her patrons had in travelling with her.
“Every time I came to India, I liked it more and more. I realized how much of this rich culture I had missed growing up in Singapore. The history and how old the country is, it made an impression on me about my own roots.” During this time, Chindi formed a strong friendship with the family who owns the Mammalla Hotel group in Mamallapuram and began talking about possible partnerships with them.
In 2011, Chindi sold her Vancouver restaurant, gave away her belongings and moved to Tamil Nadu with only three suitcases. She came to South India to invest in and become managing partner for a new restaurant venture, L’attitude 49 (a nod to all the support she’d received in Canada and Vancouver’s position on in global latitude degrees) at Grande Bay Resort branch of the Mammalla group – and, to return to the roots her parents had given her.
When people from Chennai want to escape the city to rest on weekends they head to the beach in Mamallapuram. Chindi worked around the clock at the resort in Mamallapuram, training staff and developing menus and, ironically, the ever-bustling Chennai became her place to retreat from her work at the resort. Chennai was also a chance to spend time with two women friends, Rajarajeshwari and Bhuvaneshwari (Raji and Bhuvana), that she’d met at a resort in her early days leading culinary tours in South India.
The three friends loved to go out and talk about food and business ideaas. They talked of opening a juice bar or a food truck and then settled on a coffee shop with great pastries. This idea stuck and Chindi started discussing it with her friend and business partner Sethuramen of the Mammalla group in Mamallapuram. “I knew I wanted to create again and with Sethu we started searching for a building.”
“When we found this big huge place that is now Pumpkin Tales our concept evolved again. We loved the site but the building demanded more than just a coffee shop. The development of Pumpkin Tales took a year and a half because our ideas kept evolving. It became wonderfully clear when I realized I wanted to do food from my two homes – Singapore and Canada. When I lived in Canada, I missed South Indian food. Now I was in South India missing the global dishes of Canada and Singapore’s multi-cultural populations. I wanted to bring great baguettes, sourdough, croissants and desserts to India and to offer the noodles, congee, stir fries, healthy bowls and the comfort food of my childhood. I wanted to keep up with food trends and take care of people with special dietary concerns. We decided together that Pumpkin Tales would be a place where there would be opportunities and a happy environment for the team and healthful, tasty food that we would love to eat, for our patrons.”
The Pumpkin Tales management group has lots of plans for the striking white multi-storeyed structure in the upscale Alwarpet district of Chennai. They’ve developed a take-out spot on the ground floor and have a catering division and chic banquet hall on track to open in late 2018 on the third level. Look for an outlet featuring the best gelato in India because Chindi has also recently returned from taking an ice cream making course in Italy.
“Soon we’ll offer monthly long-table dinners for 40 to 50 guests. I’ll do the cooking. It could be Asian or mixed-global food. We could also cater this kind of event at someone’s home.”
Chindi is frequently asked to consult on South Indian and Pan-Asian cuisine around the globe and she seizes every opportunity to share her savoir-faire. “If the path is there in my head, if I can visualize it, I can make it happen,” she shared. “I ask for help and people respond to that very well. And, with today’s technology, it is so much easier to reach people around the globe. I do most of the research for our menus on the internet and I follow the trends continuously.”
We have no doubt that if you one day find South Indian dosas are as ubiquitous as North Indian naan, much of the credit will go to Chindi and the charmed-life she so joyously creates everyday of her life.
Pauli-Ann and I were only in Chennai for a few days when we visited Pumpkin Tales but, we couldn’t stop going back for more of the food. We are pleased to be able to share two of our favourite recipes here: Pumpkin Tales’ signature Pumpkin Soup and the layers of flavour in their Morning Glory bowl.
Bonus: Chindi Varadarajulu’s Top 5 Things to do in Chennai
- Take a walk in the morning on Marine beach to take in the sunrise. After living in Vancouver, a city that faces the Pacific Ocean to its west, I was used to daily sunsets. Now, on the east coast of India, it was an epiphany that I should be looking for sunrises instead of sunsets.
- Go to the fishing harbour around 5:30 a.m. This is where you’ll see about 3000 fishermen’s boats bring in their daily catch of seafood each morning. And, all the fish sell out daily.
- As a chef and food lover, I also recommend visiting the Koyambedu Wholesale Market to look at all the fresh fish, flowers and vegetable markets.
- There are also entertaining Story Walks in Chennai. They bring you to the Mylapore temple, walk you through to Old Chennai or you can take a food tour with them.
- There’s always a great art and classical dance and music scene happening here. The Taj Coromandel is a favourite place for a drink and a bit of dancing. A couple of nights stay in Chennai is enough to get the flavour of the city.