TD Conversations: Chef Tarun Sibal

The chef and co-owner of Goa-based Titlie culinary bar and restaurant and Bangalore-based Street Storrys talks about his food philosophy, the impact of the pandemic on the industry, and the road ahead
Tarun sibal for inside
Chef Tarun Sibal, co-owner of Titlie culinary bar and restaurant in Goa

“I am a story teller. I tell stories whether through my food or my restaurants,” says Tarun Sibal, the 39-year-old chef-entrepreneur as we meet for lunch at New Delhi’s Olive in early April before the city went into lockdown. Titlie, his culinary bar and restaurant in Goa is one such story. A beach front property at Vagator, Titlie is a casual, relaxed place during the day. “It’s a sangria, gin and tonic, flip flop kind of place – like a caterpillar,” says Sibal. But come evening and the whole vibe changes. “The butterfly has a full flutter. It’s about black dresses, high heels and having Negroni at the bar,” he smiles. This is the story of essentially an Indian international hospitality brand for the beach front that Sibal had thought of almost a year and a half before he spotted the right opportunity in 2019.

His other venture, Street Storrys in Bangalore that was set up in 2018 tells another story. The restaurant serves vegetarian global street food. “I had a story to tell with vegetarian food, with street food and how it could be elevated to restaurant-style dining,” says Sibal as I look at bewitching pictures of blue pea rice, a new dish on the Street Storrys menu.

Street Storrys was conceptualized a few years ago when Sibal won the “World on a Plate’ competition presenting jamun chaat, his take on the som tam. The seed of an idea was sown then. But it was a few months later when he was in Bangkok that it struck him. “I still remember it was over a bowl of morning glory and I said I wanted to open a vegetarian restaurant dominated by global street food as a concept, but it is all avant garde and our take on street food,” he says. So, while street food from across the globe became the thought process, it was his interpretation that became the crux of the menu. So you have jackfruit galouti burger, mushroom shwarma, beetroot dimsums, etc.

While Sibal admits that he had a story to tell with vegetarian food, there was also market research that went into opening the restaurant. “We did an analysis and realised that while Bangalore had a lot of places providing traditional South Indian vegetarian food such as dosa and idly and several serving north Indian like dal makhani and paneer, there was no one doing eclectic, contemporary food for vegetarians in the city,” he explains. Sibal’s stories seem to work as both Titlie and Street Storyys are extremely successful having won several awards, but more importantly a repeat clientele. “We have got so much love,” smiles Sibal. “The reason my restaurants are doing well is because of the intent. You might have the best service team, or the best people in the kitchen but if the intent is not to take care of the guest then it’s all a sham. For me, the idea is to wow you, to give you warmth and joy.”

Titlie food
Sibal describes his food philosophy as gourmet casual –making the familiar more exciting

So what’s the future like? “I have three more story concepts in my head and had the second wave not hit, we would have been finalizing a location. But the hunt is still on,” he says, adding that the priority is to reopen Titlie whenever the government gives the go ahead. “Right now we are sitting tight. I just came back from Goa, ensuring that post the cyclone the place is covered again. There is limited staff there for upkeep of the restaurant. As soon as we feel that the time is right to reopen, it could be August or September, we will need around a month to reset the operations,” he tells me on the phone. Sibal who describes his food philosophy as gourmet casual — “Non-pretentious yet gourmet food, that makes the familiar more exiting, and the non-familiar approachable. Food that is about great taste” — is designing a whole new menu for Titlie but favourites such as the butter garlic poached prawns and chlorophyll pizza with pesto sauce will continue. Around 30 per cent of the menu at both the restaurants has been constant since they opened. “These are dishes that even if they are not on the menu people will ask for it. Sometimes you don’t have to reinvent. If things are working for you, stick to that.”

Prawn
Butter garlic poached prawns are a favourite of guests at Titlie

When Titlie reopened in October last year post the first lockdown, it was met with huge success. So much so that October became their best month ever, only to be overtaken by November and then December. “We were not expecting a lull season in Goa this year but unfortunately the second wave hit,” says Sibal. He is hoping guests will be back with the same fervour this time when he reopens. Though he admits that things are tougher this time round. “Customer sentiment in this lockdown is very different. We are not scared about whether the consumer will ever come back to dining. For sure he/she will. It’s just that it will take some time.” Sibal believes vaccination will play a key role as only when people are vaccinated will they feel comfortable enough to travel.

Sibal feels that a lot of restaurants that shut down because of the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns may not open again. “If you were an investor and this was not your core competence then you would probably move out and look at other avenues.” He believes the clutter will clear and only those interested in hospitality in the long-run will stay.

He believes the lockdown has also been beneficial in some ways. The market needed correction in terms of rentals and that has happened. Also the delivery space has boomed with a lot of chefs branching out and setting up cloud kitchens and delivery models. “A lot of shifts have happened. You cannot now open another me-too restaurant. Every restaurant will need to be distinct and have a USP. There have to be enough reasons for a consumer to go to a particular restaurant and then go back to it,” he says.

Tortilla chaat

Sibal who loves popcorn and hates working with blunt knives is rather hands-on in the kitchen at Titlie. “Not because I have to, but because I want to,” he says. Every once in a while he goes into the kitchen and prepares a dish from a particular order. ‘I like to do it because it is my menu. I know that there are 14 ingredients that go into that dish. And if the team will not have all 14 in the manner that I want them then there is something wrong. It won’t change the dish drastically but it’s not a dish that should go on the plate.” He believes that “guests can spot lethargy on a plate”. “From the time you open to the time you close, the plate should be similar looking and similar tasting,” he says.

Sibal is a third-generation chef (his family is in the catering business) and started his culinary journey in the year 2000 at IHM Pusa Delhi. He worked as an industrial trainee at the Oberoi and management trainee at the Habitat World. In 2006 he pursued an MBA and ventured into the marketing of food and beverage. He worked with international food boards and wine companies including Fratelli and Berenetzen Spirits. In 2015, he decided to come back to the kitchen when the German alcohol company he was working for changed its growth plans and he did not see a fit. Sibal took a six-month sabbatical and opened One Fine Meal, which is basically a resurrection of his family’s catering business. He then started consulting for restaurants and several such as Sidecar, Loft, Urban Deck, saw his food signature as a food and beverage consultant. A year later he set up Café StayWoke in Gurgaon, his first restaurant. Unfortunately, during the lockdown last year he had to let go of it. “We exchanged hands with another partner in the sense we gave it up in running condition.”

A self-confessed wine geek and Bollywood fan, Sibal believes that the pandemic has impacted us all and we need to do our bit. He recently held a fundraising drive for the Good Food Project that is providing meals to crematorium workers. “A little bit of kindness goes a long way,” he says.

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