I waited tables and became 'Jaguar anna' in Bengaluru

New Zealander Jack Marshall dons a panche and a red shirt to experience the life of a waiter at MTR, the 100-year-old Bengaluru restaurant.

I have waited tables at restaurants around the world. However, it was only at Mavalli Tiffin Rooms (MTR), in Bengaluru, that I stepped into the restaurant floor without footwear.

The restaurant dates back 100 years. In 1924, about two lakh people lived in Bangalore, George V was the Emperor of India, and the Gateway of India was inaugurated in Bombay. The same year, four brothers opened a restaurant called The Brahmin Coffee Club, serving coffee and idli.

Eventually the restaurant was renamed Mavalli Tiffin Rooms.

But what was a foreign journalist doing at a beloved south Indian restaurant? Before becoming a journalist, I was a waiter. I have worked in restaurants for over 15 years. In fact, once I finish my three-month stint at Deccan Herald, I have a restaurant job lined up for me back home in Auckland, New Zealand.

I love working in hospitality and have worked in many cities, including London and Melbourne, but India is another ball game altogether. That’s why I gave MTR a shot. I wanted to see if I could hack it as an Indian waiter. The owners of MTR let this bumbling foreigner step into their storied restaurant. My first shift covered the 12.30 pm lunch rush hour.

Lunch hour on Day 1

I arrived at the restaurant 15 minutes early. I stepped in and was greeted by as many smiles as puzzled looks. Restaurant manager Raghavendra Holla (better known as Raghu) took me upstairs to get me into my official uniform

I took off my shoes and a kind waiter helped me put on a panche (the simple white, traditional dhoti worn by all waiters here). Then with cold marble beneath my feet, I was ready.

Stepping into the dining room, I was prepared for a restaurant full of eyes on me. It is something you get used to walking around India as a foreigner. In New Zealand, I am a nobody. In India people stop me on the street to get a photograph with me.

Back straight, hair set perfectly, I prepared myself to be peppered with questions and requests for photographs.

I wasn’t prepared for what followed. I barely got a glance.

It dawned on me I had become so used to attention that I expected it, perhaps even enjoyed it. I was confused and on the back foot. I had to refocus. I was not here for some strange foreigner fame, I was here to wait tables. On today’s menu: the popular oota (thali).

The benefit of serving thalis is that it is a set menu. No messing around with orders or dietaries. All I had to do was put food on the tray. Simple, right?

The restaurant was full, with a long line waiting outside. This was quiet compared to Sunday, I was told. Oota plates went down in front of the customers and intensity had started to build quietly. Customers fidgeted and the waiters were running about. I stood awkwardly next to the wall and waited for something to do.

I felt the same way when I first arrived at Deccan Herald. I came to India on a journalism scholarship from the Asia New Zealand Foundation. I had visited India twice before, in 2013 and 2016. I had fallen for this chaotic and friendly country and was looking for any excuse to return.

Before I could get too introspective, a waiter scrambled up the stairs and burst into the room, his hands laden with food. The whistle had been blown and the game was on. I was given my first task: Place rasgullas on each plate. I picked up a plate full of white balls and a pair of tongs.

"Hello!” I cawed at my first table, waiting for any kind of reaction. Nothing. “Here is your rasgulla.” Then my eyes widened and a bolt of panic went up my spine. PLOP. 

The rasgulla fell from the tongs and straight onto the table. The whole table, the manager and three waiters rushed to my rescue. I put it back onto the plate trying to fix things and the manager intervened, removing the sullied sweet from circulation. I persevered, placing ball after ball after ball until everyone was served.

There are 21 items on the thali and I was just one member of the team placing things on plates. There is a place for everything and everything goes in its place. The pickle goes in the far left corner, rice in the middle, and the salad at the back.

When lunch service was over, I don’t know who was more relieved — me, the customers or the waiters. But this was just the entrée — training day for the championship: Sunday morning breakfast.

Running the business

The restaurant is deeply woven into the fabric of the city, said co-owner Hemamalini Maiya. Hemamalini, along with Vikram Maiya and Arvind Maiya, are the third generation in the family business.

“MTR represents old Bangalore and nostalgia,” she said. “The place has seen three or four generations of customers.” From a mere restaurant, it has become a landmark. “And we haven’t changed much since those days. The signature dishes haven’t changed much since those days. The signature dishes haven’t changed either,” she told me.

One of the most popular dishes is the rava idli. It was invented during World War II, when rice was in short supply. The restaurant tried making idli with semolina and the rava idli was born. I asked Hemamalini what makes the Lalbagh Road eatery such an important spot for Bangaloreans. “Nostalgia plays a role with many. Old patrons keep coming back. It may be a habit too with a lot of coffee customers,” she said.

Weekdays are busy, but it is the weekend when the restaurant really goes into fourth gear. Raghu told me they serve at least 4,000 customers over the weekend when people take a short stroll through the sprawling Lalbagh Botanical Garden and wrap up their outing with an MTR breakfast.

One of the first customers I served on Friday was an elderly woman, Padmini Amble. She has been coming to the restaurant longer than I have been alive.

“I was around four or five years old when I first came in with my grandfather, who was friends with Yagnappa, the owner of this place. We would have a cup of coffee, jamuns and rava idli,” she said.

Breakfast shift

On Sunday morning when I arrived, there were already crowds outside the restaurant. There was a dull pain in the back of my skull. I had been out the night before imbibing and selflessly supporting the Royal Challengers Bangalore against Chennai Super Kings. Perhaps their win would be my downfall today, I thought.

But this was not my first rodeo. As a hospitality professional of 15-plus years, you grow accustomed to working with a few damaged brain cells.

Today my guru was Prashanth P. He has worked at the restaurant for nine years. I followed him like a puppy. Our tables filled up and Prashanth quickly took everyone’s order, with the skill and stoicism of a samurai.

Then we went into the fire. Down, down, down into the kitchen. Steam ovens and grill plates and boiling pots. Yelling, mixing, frying, steaming — a kitchen is a dangerous place for a waiter. Just as fishermen must visit an ocean with sharks, a waiter must enter the kitchen.

First we grabbed two trays full of chandrahara, a deep-fried sweet covered in a custard-like sauce made with khova. They are only served on Sundays and every table orders them. I made a mental note to eat this later.

Then up, up, up the stairs and back onto dry land. I put the plates down in front of the customers, occasionally in the right place. I was not going to drop the ball today. The Sunday shift is fast paced but I have my head in the game. RCB’s win may also be mine. 

For the next hour, this carried on. Up and down and up and down. Prashanth and the other waiters probably climb Everest twice a week.

“Two hands!” Prashanth scolded me. I would carry a tray with one hand like I was in a relaxed New Zealand restaurant. Here, I reach for a rugby metaphor because this is no cricket match. No siree, working a Sunday at MTR was like being in the middle of a scrum. Bodies clashed and bounced off each other in a kitchen the size of a postage stamp.

Smoke and steam

A chef opened an oven and filled the kitchen with steam. A tray of idli came out. In seconds, eight waiters had them on plates and were rushing up the stairs. Prashanth handed me a tray and I held it with both hands.

Up and down and we were back in the kitchen again for the dosa. 

HISSSSSS. The batter hit the tawa and sizzled. Wisps of moisture rose into the air, creating pockets and dimples throughout the batter. Below, one could sense a crispness slowly forming, before the master cooks showered on them a generous amount of ghee.

There are two kinds of dosa in the world: wonderful extra crispy dosa from south India, and the rest. No one should have to suffer a pale white limp dosa in their lifetime but sadly it’s a fact of life, and some people aren’t lucky enough to live in south India.

Then the dosas were given a healthy heap of spiced potato mix and Prashanth began stacking them into a tower of plates. With his spare hand, he passed me a tray with three dosas — it was a token task. In reality, he had everything under control without me.

Then out of the kitchen and back up the stairs with two hands, dodging waiters coming down, and the customers standing on the stairs. In the midst of the chaos and clatter, regulars would walk through the kitchen and chat with everyone and anyone, like it was their own home. 

In my short time at the restaurant, it wasn’t the food, the decor or the history that left the greatest impression, but the good vibes. It felt like I had walked into a family home where everyone was invited to eat. I felt like I belonged, with the waiters addressing me as ‘Jaguar anna’. Like in any family, there were a few stern words, but there was genuine affection throughout the building. But more than anything else, I was impressed with the work ethic.

In the evenings and on his days off, Prashanth drives an auto. In his free moments, he likes to draw and sketch.

We made it to the top of the stairs with the dosa intact. With the help of my guru, I had made it through the match, and we were nearing the end. One more trip below to collect coffee in the restaurant’s iconic silver cups, and I was done. 

Raghu popped up from the ground floor to check in on me. “So what do you think? Can I have a job?” I asked.

Raghu laughed and gave me a good pat on the back and carried on with his work. It wasn’t a no, I told myself.

My shift over, I sat down with the DH photographer and ordered half the menu. The idli, dosa, chandrahara and a couple of coffees. My hangover was gone and I had made it as an Indian waiter. Not bad for a Sunday. 

Something tells me I’m not going to get a phone call about the job, but at least for a few hours, I felt like I was part of the family.

This piece was first published in the Deccan Herald and reappears here with permission. Jack Marshall was a recipient of an Asia New Zealand media internship.

Banner image: DH Photo/Pushkar V