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The San Francisco Bay area throngs with Indian restaurants, with a new one cropping up almost every month. While some have successfully cultivated a loyal customer base, a few have managed to consistently attract a sizeable Indian as well as non-Indian following. Amber India is one of these—not only because of its history as a pioneer in fine Indian dining, but also due to its distinctive and delectable cuisine. Consistently rated the Best Indian Restaurant in the Bay Area for the past seven years in the San Francisco Chronicle Top 100 Restaurants survey, this externally unassuming strip mall restaurant is a refreshing surprise once you enter. The ambience is rich and the food has a unique favor.
For founder and owner, Vijay Bist, Amber is the crystallization of a long career, peppered with numerous ups and downs. Having trained in hotel management in diverse places like Pusa (New Delhi), Switzerland, Germany, and France, Bist came to the U.S. in 1985 with no long-term plans of settling here. But destiny willed otherwise. After an MBA from San Francisco State University he worked at prestigious hotels like Fairmont and Gaylord’s and then decided to start an organic food store. Unfortunately organic products were not such a rage 10 years ago as they are now and the store closed. Bist decided to switch to a higher gear and start Amber.
Named after the color, Amber India opened in February 1994. The focus was on providing good quality food and ambience for fine dining. The contention was that good Indian food, if offered in the right form and quality, would be happily lapped up. Bist is all praise for the Californian palate. “People here travel a lot, have Indian colleagues, have been exposed to novel things, and have an open mind. Earlier, everything Indian would be clubbed as curry, but now people are more discriminating and aware and that helps Amber.” After looking around for three months, Bist chose to open a restaurant in Mountain View in the heart of Silicon Valley because of its proximity to various corporate offices and affluent towns like Palo Alto and Los Altos. His capital comprised of some personal savings, bank loans, and some input from a partner who is a nuclear scientist.
Bist inherited an old kitchen and bare walls from the previous inhabitant: Louisiana Territory, a Cajun restaurant. He then wrote the menu, designed the décor, and took off to India for five months where he got chefs, carpets, and artwork. Other groundwork involved getting licenses for serving liquor and food and certificate of fire safety.
Bist’s arduous journey has demanded sacrifices from his wife, Anita, who is a scientist. The early stages were especially tough recalls Bist, “I would be the first to come and the last to leave; I did not take a single day off for a year. My wife helped tremendously. We were both so busy that we had to send our year-old child to India, to be with her grandparents for a year.”
Within a year of its existence the restaurant was doing well enough that he could afford to hire a manager. Bist started Amber with a staff of nine with five of them being devoted to the kitchen. Today Amber employs 39 people—three are managers, one hostess, and 12 others are in the kitchen. What was Amber India’s lucky break? Just six weeks after it’s opening Amber received a glowing review in The San Francisco Chronicle. Since then the restaurant has worked consistently on getting all the accolades it could land, most importantly, from its patrons.
Food has always been a passion for Bist. He writes about food in trade and food magazines, travels extensively to sample new cuisines in India, and changes the menu every six months. Through Amber, Bist helped repopularize a 2,000-year-old genre of cuisine known as Dum Pukht. This genre involves the slow cooking of food in steam handis (metal pots) or steam from the oven; the absence of direct heat ensures that the food is healthier and flavor retention is consequently better. Nevertheless complacence is not for him. “I still work very hard because I know that all this can be wiped away in two months. The best china and art notwithstanding, in the end the food has to be good for people to want to come back.” When quizzed about the higher end prices entrée’s, Bist is defensive; “Most of the higher-end restaurants in the Bay area peninsula have similar prices. Besides I have to take care of overheads and look after the staff well, as the food industry is very competitive.” His management style is still very hands on; Bist keeps a firm grip on the menu and does all the grocery for the famed Sunday Brunch.
Amber India caters to parties and offers a variety of service options: drop off or full service. “All the host has to do is to give us the date, choose from the menu and … ” Bist pauses and adds wryly “ … write a check!” Their catering for 1,200 guests at the Fairmont Hotel for the TiECon dinner got them a lot of recognition.
The Indian community has been a huge support for Bist and he talks fondly about Amber having been the discussion place and rendezvous during the formation of many high tech companies including Junglee, Duet Technologies, Aspect. “Many people have an emotional bond with Amber. It’s not just a restaurant for them anymore.”
Bist does have a few regrets. Amber India has been unable to host performers due to space constraints and has a rather plain looking exterior due to city diktats. He hopes to make up for it in his new venture—Amber India in the Santana Row Mall in San Jose.
His favorite oft heard compliment? “The food is as good as always!”
Checklist for new entrepreneurs:
• Hard work! Love your work; be creative and experimental.
• Get training in a good professional school in your specific cuisine. The hospitality industry is not for the weak-hearted; turnover’s are high and poaching of chefs and staff are occupational hazards.
• Get the right concept and define it well.
• Hire the best talent: cooks and chefs.
As Bist says, “This is the best time for starting anything Indian, be it clothes, food or movies. The American system favors hard workers and law abiders and allows them to flourish.” So if you have a dream, get started. Now.
Radhika Sharma is a freelance writer based in Milpitas, CA.