From Law To Food: The Story Of Sriram Aylur
Image Credit: Sriram Aylur

It is a fairly incontrovertible opinion that food is generally an extension of the cook’s or chef’s personality. Each cuisine and dish has a story to tell. So, consider the story of Sriram Aylur, a man who abandoned his law studies to pursue his passion for food.

Born in Palakkad, Kerala, and raised in Mumbai, Aylur’s love for food began at a very young age when he started helping his dad out in the kitchen. Reminiscing those fond times, he told India Today, "I remember being fascinated by the smell and aromas that used to come from the kitchen—it was my first love." A major part that shaped the chef in him was the Sunday feast ritual, which he explained in an interview with The News Minute, saying, "When I was young, every Sunday we would have a lunch called "tamasha" (in Hindi). Family and friends would all drop by, and people used to look forward to this great celebration of food.

Another amazing instance that kick-started Aylur’s journey in the culinary world was when his father encouraged him to give up law and study hotel management instead (truly a non-brown parent move!). Though food was his first love, he had always been keen to pursue a career in law. However, when things didn’t feel right for him, Aylur’s father stepped in and told him to pursue hotel management, as he understood his son’s love for food. This proved to be a significant stepping stone for Aylur on his path to becoming a world-class chef.

After completing his course at the Institute of Hotel Management, Catering Technology, and Applied Nutrition in India, Aylur relived his childhood by helping out his father at his restaurant. After that, he started working at the Gateway Hotel in Bengaluru, where, in just two years, he became the executive chef. On the website for his restaurant, Quilon, he wrote, "It was here (at the Gateway Hotel) that I solidified my ideas and decided I wanted to show what South Indian food could be."

Eventually, he opened an authentic South Indian restaurant, Karavalli, in 1990 that specialized in seafood from Kerala and Goa. Karavalli soon made its way into the top five restaurants in India, and Aylur was ranked among the top five chefs in India. Explaining the challenges faced, he said, "The challenge was to make ethnic food without sacrificing too much in the recipes." The recognition paved the way for bigger opportunities, and in 1999, Aylur was invited to open Quilon in London.

But with great power comes great responsibility, which was proved to be true with the inauguration of Quilon. It was difficult for Aylur to introduce this south-western coastal Indian cuisine to an unfamiliar audience because there were few authentic Indian restaurants in London at the time. And as expected, the restaurant did not do well in its initial years, as he explained in his interview with Big Hospitality: "It didn’t do well for the first couple of years." It was a new cuisine, and we were doing something not many people knew about. We were the first serious West Coast Indian restaurant in the country. "So, my initial two or three years were a great learning curve for me." But soon Aylur drew the restaurant out from under the sceptics' radar and managed to make Quilon one of the best restaurants in London.

Soon the palates of Londoners began to understand the nuances of Indian flavor and started appreciating the signature dishes of this global restaurant. Every dish in Quilon, from the Mangalorean chicken to the coconut with asparagus and snow peas to the fish in a banana leaf, was very tasty and tempting.

Subsequently, Quilon added many feathers to its cap, be it the "Best Indian Restaurant" Good Curry Guide Award or the "infamous moment," when in 2008 the restaurant won its first Michelin star, making it the first South Indian restaurant in the world to do so. Elucidating the moment, Aylur told Outlook, "It feels great to know that we have rewritten the perception of South Indian cuisine, especially cuisine from the west coast." The fact that the restaurant has been given a Michelin star every year since 2008 shows that Quilon would not be the same without Aylur. "The greatest strength of Quilon is our unblinking focus on what we do." Mine is a great team that believes in our quest to be better than we are. "We tend to set our own benchmark constantly and then chase it," he added in his statement to Outlook.

This 52-year-old has really changed coastal Indian food for people all over the world, and Quilon's success will always be proof of that.