How an Indian restaurant was born from a 90s fish and chips in Dunedin and became an institution
The writing was on Sukhi Gill’s wall, or at least on the menu of his Dunedin fish and chips in the late 1980s. He wrote “rogan josh”.
Gill presented the Indian Lamb Curry on a Friday night to see how the fish and chips devotees would react.
It quickly sold out.
This popularity encouraged him and his wife, Joanne, a chef, to “take the plunge” and later open a restaurant, Little India, in the city’s CBD in 1991.
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Fast forward three decades and this Little India name is now featured in 11 restaurants nationwide.
Gill and his young family came to Dunedin from the UK in 1986, but the accountant by training did not appreciate accounting work in New Zealand and soon considered a career change.
“Like good Indian, I guess, I bought a dairy and a takeout.”
The success of the take-out rogan josh sale led to the opening of the Indian restaurant – yet another novelty in the southern city.
Gill used recipes from his mother Premjit Kaur Gill, who “is a famous cook in our family”.
The 90-year-old, who lives in Chandigarh, India, was the mastermind behind the restaurant’s spices and dishes, and continues to train the company’s chefs.
The restaurant’s success grew in part thanks to students from Dunedin who quickly developed a taste for Indian cuisine, and who would bring their BYO beers or wine “because of their tight budgets.”
“ We still have these clients … and their children come to see us. ”
While he had served Indian food to some famous people, including the Dalai Lama and Cat Stevens, “it was the local Kiwis who supported us.”
Restaurants include two in Auckland, two in Hamilton, three in Christchurch and one each in Palmerston North, Nelson, Timaru and Dunedin.
Gill said the same dishes that were popular three decades ago have remained the same today: rogan josh, butter chicken, chicken tikka masala and palak paneer.
” These are exceptional dishes. ”
The business is now run by his son Arjun Gill, 36, who started out as a dishwasher and later had to wear a tie when he sat in his father’s office.
Those early days were a family affair and included a momentous moment when one of the sisters was fired by their mother and then rehired by their father.
A few years ago, the company switched to a franchise model, with individual restaurant managers being funded to buy the restaurants, which “gave them a step into the future.”
Covid-19 presented some difficulties, in particular the staff still in India and a few restaurants having to reduce their exchanges to six days a week.
But the secret to the company’s longevity had remained the same: “Getting the basics right,” said Arjun Gill.
This included respecting her grandmother’s traditional recipes and using a tandoor oven powered by charcoal, not gas.
Restaurant Association CEO Marisa Bidois paid tribute to the Gill family, for surviving and thriving in an industry where most businesses have a three-year lifespan.
“So coming to this benchmark is really a testament to the combination of their passion and strong business acumen that are essential parts of longevity in the hospitality industry. “