Love is not a four-letter word, but a hardbound, magnum opus. And it spans countless chapters, ranging from adjustment and compromise to understanding, trust, faith and giving up your side of the bed. Love, despite what Colbie Calliat will have you believe, is not easy, because nothing good comes easy. So, this Valentine's Day, we chose to speak to two people in what is ostensibly (and at least by the book) the hardest kind of relationship. One that involves juggling romance and finance.
10 years ago, when chef Alex Sanchez and his partner Mallyeka Watsa met at the workplace, they hardly had any idea that it was going to blossom into a long-term romantic relationship, much less a business liaison. Now, the two manage to find time to tuck into sushi on date-nights after closing for the day at their co-owned restaurant in Kala Ghoda, Mumbai Americano.
And because February brings with it big love energy, we thought the best people to ask if love is in fact possible, are the ones, who have stood the test of time. And also the tests set by the highly demanding industry that is F&B.
Edited excerpt from an interview:
Tell me a little bit about your love story: how did you guys meet and decide to be together?
Alex: I met Mallyeka many years ago, when she worked for me briefly in the kitchen before moving to Paris to study pastry. Years later, we met and quickly became friends. That friendship slowly blossomed into the relationship we have today.
Mallyeka: Yes, that may be how we met, but that's not how our relationship started. Soon after we met again, Alex very quickly found me on Facebook and casually started messaging me. It was all so innocent and not-so-innocent at the same time. There is some debate between us as to who made the first move, but I guess we'll never know for sure. Some things are best left to the imagination.
Opening a restaurant in itself can bring a lot of apprehension. In this case, there was also the added factor of you both being romantic partners. At what point did you both realise, "It's ok, we can do this together?".
Alex: The nerves and the stress of opening new restaurants can be tremendous. It is actually the best feeling in the world to be able to turn to your partner and be vulnerable and to know that they have your back. We are very supportive of each other in that way and it makes all the difference in the world.
Mallyeka: I agree with Alex. Being in a relationship eases the stress and apprehension. In the year leading up to the opening of Americano, we were nervous wrecks. Having each other to lean on was a huge relief and made the process much more enjoyable.
Are there any guidelines/rules/little things that you both follow to ensure that work life and love life—which in your case can be a thin line—don't clash on a daily basis?
Alex: I'm not the best at knowing when to keep work life at work. It's all too easy to fall into the habit of talking about work during our personal time, and it's a hard habit to break. But I'm working on it! I am learning from Mallyeka that it is important to keep the two parts of our lives separate so that we can enjoy being together and enjoy our time at home.
Mallyeka: I want to make sure we have two very distinct relationships—personal and professional—but, of course, that is easier said than done. We have tried setting some ground rules, but the last two years of the pandemic have forced us to work much more from home, making it all the more difficult. Lines tend to blur, but, thankfully, we work well and live well together.
The food industry is stressful—this is a known fact. Especially in the last two years of the pandemic, things have been more challenging than usual. How did you guys navigate it as a couple and as business partners?
Alex: When things get difficult and stressful, we are really good about tackling the problems head on and supporting each other through the process. You would think this pandemic situation would put tremendous strain on a relationship, but, if anything, I think it has made our relationship stronger.
Mallyeka: We learned a lot over the course of the pandemic. It brought us closer together with our team and strengthened our relationship as a couple. In that way, it has also been instrumental in helping us grow our company.
Food is so central to romance; think date nights, cooking for each other and so on. Has that taken a beating because you both are anyway surrounded by food? And then, what does a date look like for you guys?
Alex: We have our favourite restaurants and we still take the time out to go out on dates, even if they may be fewer and farther between than the average couple. We spend a lot of time in a restaurant, true, but we are still just as excited to eat out as we ever were.
Mallyeka: We love eating, talking about food, and going to restaurants. So in no way has our date night taken a beating—in fact, it makes us appreciate it all that much more. A typical date night for us is sushi at Izumi and it never gets old!
Are there things that you both don't agree on professionally and how do you tackle it such that it doesn't mess with the personal?
Alex: In non-romantic business partnerships there are typically very clear boundaries with regard to control, whether that's related to being creative, practical, financial or operational. With us, we make most of these decisions together. I may be an experienced chef, but I value Mallyeka's input on the menu. Even in cases where we disagree, we are happy to hear the other's perspective and find compromises.
Mallyeka: Honestly, there isn't much that we disagree on professionally. And if such disagreements do arise, Alex is very open to listening and hearing me out. The best part of being in business together as romantic partners is that we never hold grudges.
While most say to never mix business with pleasure, my guess is that there is a heightened sense of security and trust in getting into business with family/someone like family. I am assuming there are several advantages here, too. Do you agree?
Alex: Of course, there is always a risk when getting into business with lovers, friends or family. The risk being that if things don't go well, it could also permanently damage a valued relationship. Or worse, you may get into business with someone who lacks the experience or expertise of a more appropriate partner. In our case, it has been the perfect business partnership and it has strengthened our relationship. So, I only see it as a win-win.
Mallyeka: Yes, absolutely. My ability to confide and trust in Alex is a huge professional advantage. You hear of business partners stabbing each other in the back and quarrelling over petty matters, but that doesn't exist with us because of our care for each other.
What kind of future do you envision for yourselves as business partners?
Alex: For as long as we have the energy, we will continue to open F&B projects. With expansion, we will have the ability to give better opportunities to the people who have worked with us and give them more responsibility. I would like to see us be able to take more of an overseeing role and let the team do what they do best.
Mallyeka: Having a restaurant empire, of course!
What is your guilty pleasure food?
Alex: Oreo Cookie ice cream
Mallyeka: Triple Schezwan Rice
Which one of you is the risk taker?
Who's more likely to spend their money on something stupid?
Alex: Definitely, Mallyeka!
Mallyeka: I only buy the things I 'need.'
Who asked whom on a date first?
Alex: I'm pretty sure she asked me, but she'll tell you differently.
Suman Quazi is a Writer, Host and the Food Editor with India Food Network and Start2Bake. She believes that while food is cultural, societal and intellectual, it is also deeply personal and is keen in contributing towards a dialogue around food in India that's meaningful. Her work has appeared in leading Indian publications like Midday, Living Foodz, Zee Zest, Deccan Chronicle, 101India and DailyO.