There’s a new-age group of senior citizens discovering new passions and rekindling their dreams with such renewed gusto that put the younger generations to shame.
One such woman is Smita Surendranath Blaggan, a 62-year-old restaurateur based in Goa who made her foray into the hospitality sector post retirement from her government job. Her Lake View restaurant is the labour of love of both hers and her son Rohit (30).
Born in Karnataka’s Dharwad district, Smita is a Maharashtrian who married into a Punjabi family.
“With such a diverse family background, I have been exposed to so many cuisines and flavours,” she says.
She is well-versed in Punjabi, Goan, Konkani, Maharashtrian and now even world cuisine like Italian and continental. She ensures that all the masalas (spice mixes) are made by her. “When it comes to shopping for the ingredients I do it myself. I do not cut corners, I only buy the best and freshest ingredients and vegetables. That makes such a difference to the flavour of each dish,” she adds.
Setting up the restaurant, however, has not been easy. “We started operations in March 2020 and before we even had time to settle in there was a nationwide lockdown announced. The months that followed were spent in anxiousness and a sense of unease since we had no idea what to expect,” adds Rohit.
Good food to the rescue
The one thing that the mother-son duo was very confident about was delivering good food with great flavours. “We spent the lockdown months waiting to be able to serve people. Having always enjoyed cooking, I was sure that the food would draw people to us,” says a very confident Smita.
Recalling her younger days, she says, “I remember cooking as early as 10 years old, making jowar roti for my father. Even after I got married and moved to Goa in 1986, food played a very important role. I am a foodie and so I’m always on the lookout for new cuisines and foods to try.”
She continues, “My mother and mother-in-law were both wonderful cooks and I have learnt a lot from both of them. My love for good food was so strong that I enjoyed coming into a Punjabi family and learning so many new things. In fact, after eating my mother’s mutton curry, the smell would linger on my fingers for up to three days and I would love that.”
Smita’s house soon became the spot where everyone liked to assemble. Whether it was her husband’s office colleagues and bosses or her children’s friends. The food that she whipped up was the magnet.
Smita’s husband, Surendranath Dwarkanath Blaggan, was employed as an assistant engineer with the Goa housing board department and used to invite many of his colleagues and bosses home for meals. “I always enjoyed hosting people and so many of my husband’s bosses have praised my cooking skills over the years,” she says.
Rohit recalls the aroma of chicken biryani that would welcome him and his sister, Karishma, after school on several occasions. “All my friends were huge fans of ma’s [Smita] cooking. Even after we left home for college, when we would return for holidays with friends, the food was a major attraction for everyone,” he says.
‘60 gave me a new lease of life’
For many people starting a business post retirement happens by chance and not often by design. However, Smita says that she always wanted to run a restaurant. It was a conversation she says that she had often had with her late husband as well. “Every time we hosted people at home, once they left, he would tell me that food is my true calling. At that time, circumstances did not allow me to follow that dream.”
In 2020, Rohit returned to India from Dubai and that was when Smita’s dream saw the light of day. “We found a place about 15 minutes away from our residence and that was a huge plus for us. Given that ma would be at the restaurant every day, I was keen on finding something nearby,” he says.
The restaurant was started with an initial investment of about Rs 25 lakhs. “While we started operations over two years ago, the pandemic and the lockdown hampered the initial growth. By word of mouth, we are seeing an increase in the number of customers each day but we are yet to break even,” he adds.
With a seating capacity of 150, this restaurant is located right next to a lake, which makes it a rather favourable spot for families and groups of friends.
Smita runs a tight ship and says that she is particular about everything that happens in her kitchen. “Nothing is pre-prepared. From making the garlic and ginger paste to the freshly-pound masala, we do everything once the order is placed. I can sense that sometimes the chefs in the kitchen get bugged with my ways, but for me compromising on the flavour is just not acceptable,” she says.
The restaurant is famous for its authentic Goan cuisine and seafood. Some of the dishes that people keep coming back for include the prawn danger, fish thali, rawa mussels and butter chicken. Asked to pick her favourite, Smita says, “How can I choose between my children? I love each dish that I prepare and every one of them is made with the same dedication.”
None of this has come without its challenges, in fact, Smita says that each day there is a new challenge to solve. “Just a few days before our big launch the chef decided he did not want to work here. That meant that the entire kitchen work fell on my shoulders. My son and daughter have many times doubled as restaurant help too,” she says.
“While we can control these problems, we also have days when the taps ran dry. We had no water supply at the restaurant and when everything worked, the electricity would be cut off. That meant I would rush home to use the mixer grinder for my masalas,” she adds with a hearty laugh. In the same breath, she adds, “What is life without some masala and drama.”
From pouring over cookbooks as a young girl to now coming up with various recipes, Smita says she feels accomplished watching her dream come alive.
If you are in Goa and wish to savour this food, you can get more details about the restaurant here.
(Edited by Yoshita Rao)