A new chapter begins for Iyer’s

As we continue our series on ‘The Spice Kings of Cork’, KATE RYAN talks to Gautham Iyer about the ethos behind his South Indian vegetarian restaurant and his plans to open a new place
A new chapter begins for Iyer’s
Gautham and Caroline Iyer at their South Indian Cafe, Iyer's, Pope's Quay, Cork. /Picture: Denis Minihane

COIMBATORE is a sprawling city at the foot of the Blue Mountains in western Tamil Nadu, India.

Its reputation for jewellery precedes it, and was the trade Gautham Iyer brought with him when he left and settled in Cork in 1997.

Not food, and no intention to become one of Cork’s brightest culinary figures, selling Samosa Chaat by the thousand from his seven-seater restaurant on Pope’s Quay.

He opened his South Indian Vegetarian restaurant in 2012, and admits: “If I thought it was going to be a successful venture, I wouldn’t have started it! It was the last thing I had prepared for!”

Who Gautham Iyer is could be summed up in that one sentence. Humble, surprised by his own success but not blinded by it. He has a desire to change perceptions of what food is, what business should look like, and how hardship in life is natural and necessary for growth.

“I suppose you could call me a very spiritual person. I hold different philosophies because there are many facets of spirituality bringing that holistic-ness to you. Food is a huge part of that.”

By 2010, his jewellery business was slowing down — a recessional inevitability. He felt a need to do something different: to share his South Indian Vegetarian Cuisine via mail order, of all things.

“While I was still in the shop, and probably out of desperation to pay the rent, I decided to start a mail order for food with a list of just eight email addresses of people interested in vegetarian food. It was weekly, emailing the menu on Tuesday, book in by Thursday and collect the meal on noon Saturday.

Some of Gautham's food, served at Iyer's Cafe
Some of Gautham's food, served at Iyer's Cafe

“By week three, I had about 200 people on that subscription list, and by week four I had to stop doing it because it wasn’t logistically possible to fulfill the orders. That was a game- changing thing for me: I realised there was definitely a market, and I could do better to satisfy it.”

Gautham’s determination to succeed was steely.

“I was eager to get going, I had the impetus, and wanted to prove that vegetarian street food was something that was very much needed.”

One day, on the school run, he spotted a ‘To Let’ sign go up outside an old French café on Pope’s Quay.

“That side of the quay had a reputation at the time for being quiet, a bit unsafe, not good for business, but I prefer the northside; I prefer being on the fringe. It had a good aspect facing the river, quiet but two minutes from Patrick Street. If I was doing something good, I knew people would come.”

On a shoestring budget, Gautham took receipt of the keys to Pope’s Quay in October, 2012. For three months, he and his wife cleaned, painted and made wooden benches, staining them with chai tea.

“I prefer to put my money in food and ingredients, and we enjoy the goodwill of our customers because we never marketed Iyer’s. I still don’t have a website, I never printed a flyer, and my opening times on my door are completely wrong to when I am open. My wife tells me I do everything to make sure my business doesn’t succeed!

“I opened in December, 2012, just by myself – no staff, no nothing. I just cooked and opened and the very first day we had an incredible response from the people who came. Quite a lot of them had seen me work the building for three months and chatted while I was painting, and most of those who came in my first week are with me at least twice a week even now. They call to tell me they are going on holiday so if I don’t see them for two weeks not to panic about them! It’s like a family, and this is exactly why I do what I do.

“I really like food. My core philosophy is this: you could eat poison, but if it is served in an attitude of love and you consume it in an attitude of calm, you will digest it. You’re not allergic to food, you are allergic to stress, or just raw emotion that leaves you with a lump in your stomach. It’s the Prana, or life force, in the food and in your presence that matters: it either costs you effort or it gives you power.”

Another flavoursome dish from Iyer's Cafe
Another flavoursome dish from Iyer's Cafe

Brahman, Gautham explains, is the Hindu priest class — a sacred, historically orthodox, community versed in the ancient Vedic texts and following a strict discipline of do’s and don’ts extending heavily into food. An outside person can’t enter a kitchen; Brahman shower before entering a kitchen and must be, in mind and body, very pure.

“Because,” says Gautham, “food is a very sacred thing, and feeding people is a very big responsibility.

“Food has to be first of all pleasant, this is what the Vedic texts tell us: in the preparation of food, first the person should be clean of mind and body, they should cook with an attitude to nourish. If they are angry, don’t cook; go for a walk or do something else. So I find running a commercial kitchen without extreme stress a serious meditation. Often, now, when I am losing my calm in the stress of a busy service, I realise the problem is the model: commercially doing food — it’s not meant to be.

“We could have gone for an expansion two years after our opening, but I’m not in it for that. Of course I need to pay my bills like everyone else, but I think I am accumulating a lot of bad Karma doing food like that. My belief with food is very different: it’s a very healing experience, it can integrate society; it can help people be better. A good meal is really powerful.

Something sweet, from Iyer's Cafe.
Something sweet, from Iyer's Cafe.

“I want to resist growing, except in a way that I think still stays true to my original ethic and philosophy to food. The demand is there of course, but unless I can satisfy it in the right way, I’d rather run out of food and apologise to my customer. I am still making my Samosas by hand, I’ve probably made over 70,000 by now, and I am still the only chef.

“It’s a difficult thing for people to comprehend: why such limited opening hours? But know that I am working from 3.30am on a Saturday to make sure we don’t run out of food by 2pm. I wouldn’t have a mechanised kitchen: a grinder and a blender is as much sophistication as I have. It’s very hands on because that is truly part of my belief: the ingredient has to be worked from scratch and the more human input, the better the value in that food.”

Gautham suggests we would all benefit if we viewed our food as something that sustains us and helps us achieve health. He also questions whether our lives, despite our personal perceptions, have gotten too easy.

“It’s easy to do what we are meant to do — everybody can do that, but to override that design and say no — I have a choice, is the true exercising of free will. So I think this is a hugely important part of my food as well, without me vocalising it, is what keeps people happy when they come in and eat. They know I’m not out to get them! I keep my pricing in a very low scale way, good food should not be elitist. I don’t even think you can put a value on food.

Another one of Gautham's dishes.
Another one of Gautham's dishes.

“My actual aim in life is to do a community kitchen, and Iyer’s is a step towards that. I don’t have the resources or the cash to do free food, but that is exactly what I want to do! Hunger and debt are great levellers: a beggar and a king both feel hunger the same. They satisfy it through different means, maybe one can and one can’t, but that is the unfairness of the society we have.

“But in the place where we eat, we should drop all judgements. This is my value of food: for the person who is starving, the value of a slice of bread is not 2c, it is life and death. I don’t think food is about money at all. I think that’s where on a grass roots level we need to change. If food was a basic right, society would be different.”

The rumours are true: Iyer’s 2 is in motion. In fact, Gautham has had the keys for over a year, but the decision to move forward has been a fraught one. Was it the right time, right thing to do, right course?

“It was a dilemma. That’s why for about a year, even though I had keys, I didn’t do anything with it. One day I think I want to do it, and then next I don’t; probably our customers would still be willing to wait in a queue outside in the rain of a seven-seat place than enjoy the space in a forty-seat place — I don’t know! But I hope that we still stay true.

“At the moment, I am clear on what I want to do and how I want to achieve it, so work has begun. Whether financially it will pay off or not, I don’t know and I don’t really mind, but I don’t want to change who we are based on the expectation of what a food business is, or lose what the customer feels now when they eat my food or the personal connection we feel with our customers. This is very clear for me. It is the only thing worth the trade-off for all the other personal losses of this business.”

Gautham is at pains to send the message that it will still be unmistakably Iyer’s when they do make the move. Iyer’s is about experience and that’s what matters to him more than anything. Iyer’s 2 is simply about that experience reaching more people.

This bigger, wiser Iyer’s will be located on Pope’s Quay, just a few steps away from where they are now. Seating around 40 diners initially, growing “as and when my kitchen is strong enough to accommodate more”.

There will be more room for families, children and also wheelchair accessibility; and a small craft beer and wine menu too, now that there will be space to allow people to linger.

In Gautham style, Iyer’s 2 (name to be confirmed) will open in a few months, all going well. Keep an eye on the door for some hastily scribbled opening times that may or may not be correct! Or just join the queue, and cross your fingers that there is a portion or two of Samosa Chaat left when you are seated. Because now you know that all of this is worth the wait.

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