Among The Seleqt Few

Rajindera Kumar has been steering the partnership between IHCL and the Ambassador, New Delhi, now a SeleQtions hotel, since 1990 — and he seems to be loving it. A partner hotelier’s perspective

FOR MUSIC LOVERS, a restaurant couldn’t have a more evocative name than Yellow Brick Road. It’s the title of what critics widely regard as Elton John’s best song ever -- it’s also the name of his best-selling 1973 album that has the song -- inspired by the imagery of the film adaptation of Lyman Frank Baum’s eternal parable of hope for misfit children, The Wizard of Oz. It’s the road that leads to Emerald City in the land of the Wizard of Oz -- a metaphor for the path that leads to life’s fantasies or even answers to the questions we may have about it (like the ones entertained by Dorothy, the principal character of the story).

Among Delhi’s handful of ‘coffee shops’ with character, Yellow Brick Road (or YBR in popular parlance), is tucked away in one corner of The Ambassador, the historic hotel that started out as living quarters for British soldiers during World War II -- and has been inseparable from the city’s history since the 1940s. A Taj partner hotel since 1990, recently inducted into the elite SeleQtions club, The Ambassador has retained its old-world personality.

The bond between the two was established by the late Ram Pershad, the doyen of hoteliers of the past generation, and it has been nurtured by his son and present owner, Rajindera Kumar. And though it predates the arrival of Puneet Chhatwal into the IHCL universe, it is an example of how a part of Delhi’s living history was given back its pride of place under the SeleQtions umbrella -- a category created by the present CEO and Managing Director.

Yellow Brick Road, unlike what it does in The Wizard of Oz, may not offer you answers to your questions about life, but its old favourites -- from the nostalgia-laden Railway Cutlet, the comforting Mulligatawny Soup and YBR Chicken, and Delhi’s long-time chief minister Sheila Dikshit’s favourite, Fried Fish with Tartare Sauce, to the unbeatable Bull’s Eye -- certainly make life seem better. And it’s been twenty years since YBR acquired its present personality and its playful colours (unlike the rest of the monochromatic hotel), thanks to its hugely talented designer, Iram Mukherjee, and it continues to be as charming as ever.

Mukherjee, incidentally, was also responsible for breathing new life into the Chinese Room, which she transformed into Larry’s China, an ode to an American named Larry Carrington Goodrich, who is said to have photographed Chinese life and culture extensively in the 1930s and 40s. I couldn’t find any references to a Larry Carrington Goodrich even after a long Google search, but there are plenty of them to a Luther Carrington Goodrich, an American Sinologist and professor who was a prolific writer of books on China, where he grew up as the son of missionary parents.

The Ambassador was the result of a partnership between Sir Sobha Singh, one of New Delhi’s builders (and the late writer Khushwant Singh’s father), and Ram Pershad, a visionary hotelier who was Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s adviser on all matters concerning the hospitality industry, and a founding father of the Federation of Hotel and Restaurant Associations of India (FHRAI). It is strategically placed between another New Delhi landmark, Khan Market, and the Sujan Singh Park apartments (which Sir Sobha Singh developed and named after his father) along with the British architect (and associate of Edwin Lutyens), Walter Sykes George.

Ram Pershad helped Sir Sobha Singh transform what were military officers’ quarters into a hotel with the mod-cons of its era. I met Ram Pershad’s son, Rajindera Kumar, the Cornell-trained owner-director of The Ambassador and a former two-term FHRAI president, at YBR’s twentieth-anniversary celebrations, and I got him talking about his father. 

Ram Pershad, his son informed me, started life as a gatekeeper in a cinema theatre and then became the projectionist, before going on to become the manager, in succession, of the two prestigious department stores of the Raj -- Gaindamull Hem Raj in Shimla and the Empire Store in Connaught Place. He was introduced to Sir Sobha Singh by the well-known contractor, Tirath Ram Ahuja, because the builder needed help to feed the British military officers living in his compound and Ram Pershad was already catering to those encamped around India Gate. The partnership led to the re-development of the ambassador, which opened as a 100-room hotel in 1949-50.

“My father was a very hard taskmaster. He would say, ‘If you don’t work hard, your managers won’t’,” recalled Rajindera Kumar, who distinguished himself at an early age, after graduating from Hindu College, University of Delhi. As he was completing his studies at Cornell, the Mecca of hospitality education, Kumar was handpicked at a campus interview by Sheraton co-founder Ernest Henderson’s younger brother George in 1966. Kumar still remembers the words of his future employer: “By choosing you, I am denying an opportunity to one of my own countrymen. Don’t let me down.” The Hendersons were then keenly watching India because they were tying up with the Oberois and they conveyed to Kumar that they were not averse to exploring a partnership with The Ambassador. 

It did not materialise, but Kumar spent two memorable years at the Sheraton in Philadelphia and he got to represent the hotel at a radio chat show with Arthur Haley, author of the best-selling trio of books -- Airport, Hotel and Hospital. An incident he remembers even today, after more than fifty years, is the local sheriff walking up to thank him at the end of a banqueting event. “You must come and meet me at City Hall,” the sheriff said. “City Hall? I have to go there to pay for a speeding ticket,” Kumar replied somewhat sheepishly. “Just come to me. I’ll take care of it,” the sheriff replied -- and kept his word when Kumar met him. Small perks of doing a job well. 

On his return from Cornell, Kumar’s first assignment was to open the nightclub Wheels in 1970. He hired “a very expensive band” named Silences, employed “the best graduates” of IHM-Pusa, who underwent six months of training before getting to actually work at the nightclub, and introduced American pre-plated service, which requires servers to be highly skilled. Wheels shut shop like the other nightclubs of the city because of the unreasonable entertainment tax, and the local government’s reluctance to ease the burden.

The Ambassador, Kumar said, survived on old memories and the passion of the management to “maintain and sustain the exacting standards it has set for itself, down to the art of making a jacket potato stand on its own. “You cannot buy passion,” said the impeccably attired hotelier, sitting in his little corner office crowded with memorabilia and files, from where he guards his family jewel. 

You can feel it in the way he gets charged by his idea of ‘Modified Chinese’, that is, Chinese food presented in the European style. You can see it in the way his eyes light up when an old chef, now working at another Taj property, comes calling and remembers the long hours they spent together tweaking recipes at the Yellow Brick Road. “Whatever you do, you do it for the best,” he said, his eyes twinkling at the thought. 

I asked him about the arrangement with IHCL and he said it happened because his father was keen on the partnership to professionalise the way the hotel was being run. “There were little hiccups at the start because my father did not understand them well, but being a trained professional, I could relate to the Taj management style,” Kumar recalled.

The partnership model works best, Kumar said, when “the trust between the two parties goes beyond the MoU -- you have got to let go”. That is why he calls himself the “third eye operator”. As we neared the end of our chat, he said: It’s been 29 years of enjoyment. It’s been a good journey of understanding each other better.” It’s not often that one hears such sentiments from a partner hotelier.

This article was published in BW hotelier issue dated '' with cover story titled 'The Renovation and Outdoor issue'

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