(October 23, 2021) He gave up law studies to chase his dream of becoming a chef, and the romance with food led him to launch Quilon, the first South Indian restaurant in the world to win a Michelin star. Meet Sriram Aylur, a native of Kerala who has made Londoners fall in love with South Indian cuisine. The 52-year-old has been casting a spell on food lovers in the UK with his signature dishes and has helped Quilon score not just one but 14 Michelin stars since 2008.
It’s the amalgamation of ethnic and progressive influences that has kept Quilon’s menu unique. Aylur, who started his journey from working with his father in his restaurant, has now become a name to reckon with in the culinary world.
From law to hotel management
Born in Palakkad in Kerala and raised in Mumbai, Aylur’s love for food began early in life when he stepped into the kitchen of his father’s restaurant. “I remember being fascinated by the smell and aromas which used to come from the kitchen – it was my first love,” he told India Today. But it was the Sunday feast ritual that shaped the cook in him. “When I was young, every Sunday we would have a lunch ‘tamasha’ (in Hindi). Family and friends would all drop by and people used to look forward to this great celebration of food,” he told The News Minute in an interview. While food was always his passion, Aylur was keen to pursue a career in law. However, when things didn’t materialise for him, his father encouraged him to take up hotel management as he understood his son’s love for food. This was a stepping stone for Aylur into becoming a world-class chef.
Upon completion of the course from the Institute of Hotel Management, Catering Technology and Applied Nutrition in India, Aylur started his initial training with his father at his restaurant. This paved his way to the kitchens of the Gateway Hotel in Bengaluru, and in just two years, he became the executive chef. “It was here that I strengthened my thoughts and shaped my desire to unfold the potential of South Indian cuisine,” he wrote on the website of Quilon.
Introducing South Indian cuisine to Londoners
He eventually opened Karavali in 1990, an authentic South Indian restaurant that specialises in seafood from Kerala and Goa that was later voted as one of the top five restaurants in India. He added, “The challenge was to make ethnic food without sacrificing too much in the recipes.” Soon the popularity of the restaurant spread wide and far, and in 1997, Aylur was ranked among the top five chefs in India. This recognition opened the doors to an exciting opportunity when, in 1999, he was invited to open Quilon in the heart of London.
Back then, there weren’t many authentic South Indian restaurants in London and it was a challenge for Aylur to introduce this unique South-west coastal Indian cuisine to an audience that was unfamiliar with the nuances of Indian cuisine. The first few years were a struggle for Quilon but Aylur pulled the restaurant out from the radar of skepticism and put into the league of the best restaurants in London.
“It didn’t do well for the first couple of years. It was a new cuisine and we were doing something not many people knew about. We were the first serious West Coast Indian restaurant in the country. So my initial two or three years was a great learning curve for me,” he told Big Hospitality.
A Michelin-star chef
Soon the signature dishes of this Global Indian started to satiate the palate of Londoners. Be it the Mangalorean chicken or the Coconut with Asparagus and Snow peas or the fish in banana leaf, every dish tantalised the taste buds of food lovers. “London is the melting pot of the world and everything is taken with excitement. People are adventurous and welcome and understand the importance of flavours,” he added. And in 2001, Quilon won the Best Indian restaurant Good Curry Guide Award. The word of mouth worked in favor of Quilon and the restaurant managed to add many such feathers in its cap. However, the watershed moment for Aylur came in 2008 when the restaurant won its first Michelin star, making Quilon the first South Indian restaurant in the world to achieve this feat.
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“It feels great to know that we have rewritten the perception of South Indian cuisine, especially cuisine from the west coast,” he told Outlook. But what makes Quilon and Aylur such a great combination as the restaurant has managed to win Michelin star every since year since 2008. “The greatest strength of Quilon is our unblinking focus on what we do. Mine is a great team that believes in our quest to be better than we are. We tend to up our own benchmark constantly and then chase it,” he added.
The 52-year-old has brought coastal Indian cuisine to the global audience like no one else, and the success of Quilon is testimony to his craft.