"I never wanted to be the number one guy," says P.K. Ahluwalia. Over a glass of wine in his charming second floor restaurant Dhaba, he explains that even after five years, his greatest joy is still working hard at pleasing his patrons, and he adds, "I'm a happy man"
P.K. followed a circuitous route to get to this point in his life, and he has certainly found his niche. The restaurant business was not what he had in mind during his formative years. In India, he studied economies, psychology, law and hotel management but these fields held no fascination for him. In the 80's, while still in India, he joined a division of the Hyatt Company and became as he calls it, a "foodservice guy." His next move was to the U.K. to continue his studies and there he joined the Marriott.
Working in the flight service kitchens for American Airlines first class passengers, he was offered a sponsorship to train as a chef, and a job at the same time. "I'm a foodservice guy," he protested, "not a kitchen guy." Still he was drawn to food preparation and enjoyed the creative aspect of it all.
In the mid-90's he transferred to Toronto, but there was no meeting of the minds at Marriott. Instead, he went to work for CARA food services. Unfulfilled, he chose the open road. He obtained the appropriate license and drove a rig to and from New York State. At the point, P.K. had not yet found his true calling.
In 1988, he took a sharp turn onto the right road, and opened a tiny restaurant in North Etobicoke. Holding true to the theory, "build it and they will come," his small eatery attrached people from far and wide. The ever-hungry food media noticed him, and good reviews brought him an even larger clientele.
Owning a restaurant taught him important lessons, and he learned what Toronto was all about. "I learned what people expect," he said, "and what they want to eat and don't want to eat." P.K. was quite content but ambitious. A client found the King St. space and concurred that he'd do well in the midst of the entertainment district in downtown Toronto.
P.K. took the challenge as if he were to the manor born. Enthusiastic, affable, well versed in the idiosyncratic, finicky demands of the downtown Toronto diner, he customized menus with aplomb. Gluten free, dairy free, fat free, sugar free, vegetarian he creates delicious Indian inspired dishes that meet everyone's tastes.
The wine list of about 80 bottles in personally selected to match well with teh robust Indian flavours. There are wines from India, fron the celebrated Cakebread winery in California and old world wines as well.
Of prime importance is that each patron should have the best, total dining experience. P.K. feels that he is the key, the connection between kitchen and floor. When he customizes a menu, he conveys what needs to be done to the kitchen. Since he has personally trained all the kitchen staff, he is confident that his instructions will be carried out to the letter.
Cutting corners is not his culinary vocabulary. His suppliers bring him the finiest lamb and chicken, the best quality shrimp and the freshest fish. There prime local ingredients get his unique blend of Indian spicing and seasoning. Incendiary heat is not what his kitchen is about, he provides exciting flavour. And that's what has turned a transient clientele into a loyal following.
He smiles, "people have told me this is different from any Indian restaurant in town." The foyer is filled with signed celebrity photographs and glowing media reviews, but he says, "We treat everyone the same, celebrities and the man in the street."