Mahela Jayawardene says their restaurant Ministry of Crab started as a gamble but the worst case scenario wasn’t too bad. “We would run it for six months at worst but at least we would have a place to eat,” he says, smiling.
The former Sri Lanka cricket team captain, who formed a long-standing partnership with Kumar Sangakkara—first in the national team and then off it as business partners—shared a love for food with his friend. The two would often scout for places to eat during their travels, an experience he says, that helped them later in the hospitality business (their third partner in MoC is chef Dharshan Munidasa).
On 4 January, at the announcement of a Ministry of Crab franchise in Mumbai—to open sometime in May-June—Jayawardene spoke about the food business, in between sipping a glass of red wine. Edited excerpts from an interview:
The plan to open in India has been brewing for a while now, isn’t it?
If you had asked me five years ago, when we were starting Ministry in Colombo, if that (opening in India) was going to happen, I would have said you must be crazy. It was (already) a risk (serving in Colombo) because Sri Lankan crabs were getting exported to Singapore and Dubai and none of the five-star hotels were serving them. Price points were also high. But there are a lot of Indians who come to Colombo and Ministry and all they ask is when will they see it in India.
How involved are you in the business?
Whatever we (Sangakkara and he) have done, whether its cricket or other businesses, we have always been hands on. We make sure we give it all the attention. Dharshan is a workaholic; we knew that we were in safe hands. But at the same time, we manage the business model, the marketing, and how to evolve… Sri Lanka did not have that kind of a culture.
How are the roles divided between the three of you?
We don’t interfere with Dharshan’s food concept. We don’t go to his kitchen—it’s as simple as that. Kumar and I have been foodies and we have a palate and we will give him constructive criticism of what we can do. The restaurant is his. Where we come in is the marketing strategy with our teams, how to take this to the next level.
Dharshan does these pop-ups, like in London, Australia etc. When he did Australia, we made sure it was during the ICC World Cup in 2015 in Sydney while we were there.
For us, the ingredient is important—we have to make sure we can source the ingredients, the crab especially. If it’s a cricket-playing nation, that’s an icing on the cake as well.
How difficult is it to run a business after playing competitive sport for years?
It’s difficult, but credit is to Dharshan. We do other businesses, Sanga and I, and if you have the right professionals, it’s easier. We get daily updates on the restaurant, revenues etc. wherever we are in the world. We go and sit at the bar (at MoC) when Dharshan is travelling sometimes, just to see how the staff is managing.
How did sport prepare you for this business?
The aspect of service—of what I expect from restaurants—came from my travels. I am not ‘high fancy’ but just the courtesy—how to serve with a smile, can we do anything extra, can we give the children something different—those kind of little things make a huge difference. About 80% of our staff did not have any experience, apart from the guys in the kitchen. We trained them from Day One.
How hands-on will you be here?
Dharshan obviously will shuttle (between his various restaurants). We will train people in our restaurant in Colombo and send them here initially so we make sure we run smoothly till we are settled here. At the same time, I will come to India often and make sure it’s smooth. It’s not just about giving the franchise away; it’s to make sure consistency is maintained.
We understand the palate here is different and there are lots more vegetarians in Mumbai. But we will try and keep the same concept—the main ingredient is crab. We will try and play around with the local ingredients. The Lankan concept is based on local ingredients and produce—we want to try and push that and see how to use local produce in India. It will be great for us to cook Indian crab.
Sri Lankan cuisine is spicier…
Usually it is, because it is coconut based, but south Indians are used to a bit spicy food. We might have to go a bit mild here but we do serve foreigners in Colombo. So our food is quite mild because we don’t want to burn their palate and leave them unable to taste the food.
How did you manage to control your diet—as required for a sportsperson—while being a foodie?
It’s about the taste not the quantity. Whenever we travelled, we found good restaurants, just to taste different flavours. It’s been our habit and we appreciate the talent of certain chefs.
There was this restaurant in Cape Town called Aubergine—very cosy, small cottage-like, with a hands-on chef. We ate some game meat, it was subtle. Some think game meat is hard and raw but the way he had done it was special. If you are willing to try, there is plenty out there. It depends on how you want to perceive it and appreciate it. In Mumbai, I am a huge fan of Table and Sassy Spoon.
What are your expectations with the Ministry of Crab in Mumbai?
We want to bring that Colombo experience here. We see there is a market for us, a competitive one. But we want to evolve and create with local produce. Mumbai has a rich culture, the street food is amazing. We just want to add some flavours to it.