What does it take to create a new experience of regional food in your home state? Aysha Tanya meets the women who create and run the business of the Bengaluru Oota Company.
House #5 on Cambridge Cross road is hard to miss — with a red door and yellow walls, the colours of the building call out to you as much as the smell of cooking emanating from the inside. On the other side of the door is Bengaluru’s favourite open secret: the Bengaluru Oota Company, a tasting room that has been reintroducing Bangaloreans to the many delights of their home state’s cuisine.
I ate my first meal here in March 2017 and have been coming back every few months, with a new person in tow every time — old friends, new friends, each friendship strengthened by sharing a delicious meal, and cemented by strong filter coffee. Here’s how you sign up for a meal at Bengaluru Oota Company (BOC) — You call Divya (or make a reservation online) at least a day in advance, and tell her whether you’re in the mood for a four or five course meal. She’ll ask you about your preferences and allergies, if you have any. Soon enough, she’ll text over a menu for you to approve, and you will spend the rest of the day counting down the hours. The anticipation of the meal is part of the appeal, and over the course of the day, you may find yourself eating one less French fry in the hope of making more space for the veritable feast that awaits.
It’s been two and a half years since BOC opened its doors to the city of Bengaluru. Its founders Divya Prabhakar and Vishal Shetty came up with the idea for Bengaluru Oota Company one afternoon in Vishal’s kitchen over glasses of gin and a delicious home-cooked meal.
In many ways, the partnership between the founders, who are childhood friends, seems like the law of opposites — they even lived on opposite sides of the same road for most of their lives! Vishal is the quieter of the two, the one who loves to cook and feed people. Divya lives so close to her parents that she never has a reason to cook, and as with Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City, you may find a scarf in her oven. Vishal describes Divya as “the more adventurous one, even when it comes to menu-planning. For example, there’s a jackfruit-based dish called pelakaai gatti and she’ll happily put on the menu. I’ll be like ‘Diyva, not everyone will like it!’ and she’ll respond with, ‘No ya, they need to try it! They need to experiment with food, that’s what it’s all about.’” It is obvious the common thread that binds them is a passion for food. What becomes more evident spending time with them, is that despite their chalk and cheese personalities, their values are very much aligned. Every decision that is made in the Oota Company is based on two core philosophies: To only use fresh food, and not make more food than is needed to feed the number of bookings, so that waste is minimised. There is also the decision of pace, that the two feel very strongly about. “We both believe there is something really nice and beautiful about being small. You don’t have to be large and all over the place,” adds Divya.
Bengaluru Oota Company is unique in the food scene not just because of the unusual format, but also for the cuisines they showcase. The food is a mix of both heritages — Divya is a Gowda, and Vishal is from the Bunt community of Mangalore. Their formula has been simple — serving traditional food that pulls no punches. That’s not to say that the food at BOC has ever been boring. The cuisines they draw from are much too rich and varied for that. The Gowda style of cooking is meat-heavy, with emphasis on mutton, and a proclivity for green chillies, tempered with coconut milk. The Bunts on the other hand, are known for their seafood preparations, and fiery red gravies. The mix of the two styles of cooking complement each other both visually and in flavour profile.
The Bengaluru Oota Company may be a modern take on the restaurant outfit, but its heart and values are old-fashioned. This is a business that relies heavily on its community, and is very much a Bengaluru institution — Dunzo is availed of in moments of distress; the grocer that Divya frequents is a 4th generation shopkeeper; and her father, a mutton connoisseur, shops for meat every single morning. The space itself is a testament to the friendships in their life — Divya's best friend donated the dining table, and the rest of the furniture was designed by another friend, from wood restored from around the house. A lot of businesses are propped up by their communities, but at the Bengaluru Oota Company, it is tangible — the seats you’re sitting on, the table you’re eating at, the lights that illuminate your food.
The best part of the experience however, is the food. And this is put together by seven women including Vishal. Divya and Harry, the only man in the whole operation, work the front end of the business. Interestingly, all the women except the main cook are single women, and excluding Divya, have children to support. Many of them hold other jobs in addition to working at BOC.
As with most restaurants, there are days when shit hits the proverbial fan and there is a shortage of staff. Ever resourceful, Divya has perfected a way to deal with the dire situation — “There have been times when someone’s not well or a relative died, and I have literally stood on the road and looked at women passing by and been like ‘Will you come and work for us? I just need you for this weekend.’ And it works! Everyone in the area now knows that if I stand on the road and I’m looking, it is because I need help!”
Over the course of the two years, Bengaluru Oota Company has made a name for itself both in the city and around the country. Late last year, a BOC popup at The Bombay Canteen introduced the city to lesser-known Kannadiga favourites. The catering arm of BOC has also fed crowds that were as large as 400 people. How daunting was this to someone who’d only cooked in a home kitchen until two years ago, I ask Vishal. “I would get hassled, but what I’ve learned is that in the end it’s all possible. Women are great at multitasking. I run a home, have two adult kids and then I come here and cook and then we go into service. We’re doing multiple roles, but it’s always possible.”
Find Bengaluru Oota Company's recipe for Gowda-style Mutton Chops here.
Words and images by Aysha Tanya.
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