‘Thattu’ restaurant in Chicago: Making waves with authentic Kerala cuisine

'Thattu' restaurant is run by Kozhikode-native Vinod Kalathil and his US-citizen wife Margaret Pak. Photo: Special Arrangement

If Kerala’s own fluffy soft ‘appam’ (kind of pancake), not-so-spicy egg curry, rich chickpeas curry and yummy chicken curry had left food connoisseurs and others in the US smacking their lips, then the succulent chicken fry sandwich, aromatic Malabar chicken biriyani, flavoursome fish ‘pollichathu’ (roasted fish in banana leaves), crunchy tapioca snacks, tasty mussels, crispy masala biscuits, piping hot coffee and lemon tea had left them floored. These mouthwatering dishes and much more are served meticulously with love and nostalgia at ‘Thattu’, a restaurant run by Kozhikode-native Vinod Kalathil and his US citizen wife Margaret Pak in Chicago. The food outlet, which opened its doors in the month of April and dishes out authentic Kerala food, earned itself a much-deserving place on The New York Times’ list of ‘America’s Best 50 Restaurants’. The stupendous recognition is a reflection of Margaret’s 20-year-long deep affection for Kerala and its delectable cuisine.

After the remarkable achievement, the restaurant is attracting huge footfall as people want to know more about Kerala, which is nearly 14,000km from Chicago, its culture, food habits and cuisine. They are in awe of the south Indian state where the traditional ‘sadya’, which is predominantly a vegetarian feast of 20 to 25 dishes, is served on plantain leaves. Make sure to reserve your seat well in advance as the rush to the food outlet is pretty heavy.

When the idea of opening a restaurant germinated, both Vinod and Margaret were novices in the food industry. Vinod had been working in the US since 1996 after completing his BTech (Bachelor of Technology) and MBA (Master of Business Administration) in Kerala, and Margaret, who has Korean-American roots, had been associating with the corporate sector. Vinod and Margaret have many common interests such as music, travel and food, and they met in Los Angeles in December 2002. After a courtship of three years, they came to Kozhikode to get married in February 2005.

The taste of Malabar
Margaret learnt the nuances of Kerala cooking from Vinod’s mother during her one-month stay in Kozhikode after marriage. She also sourced scores of invaluable recipes written by her mother-in-law since 1970 and they are displayed with great pride at the ‘Thattu’ restaurant. One of Kerala’s snacks that Margaret loves to have anytime is the masala biscuit that was bought from the popular Delecta Bakery in Kozhikode by her father-in-law as an evening light meal. The unique sweet-spicy-salty biscuit is made with 20 ingredients and is a treat in itself. Now, there are many takers for masala biscuits at ‘Thattu’ in Chicago.

The origin of ‘Thattu’
Both Vinod and Margaret weighed the options of quitting the corporate job and chasing their dreams. Finally, Margaret quit her job and decided to become a restaurateur in 2017. She worked in many Korean-American food joints as a chef to learn the rudimentary of the restaurant sector. In the meantime, Margaret was the toast among her friends and relatives as she dished out scrumptious Kerala delicacies. Vinod also quit his job to join Margaret’s culinary journey in May 2019.

Later, the couple started a small food outlet – the first ‘Thattu’—in Chicago but it was closed down in the wake of the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. During its short life, ‘Thattu’ was one of the semi-finalists of the James Beard Award, which is known as the ‘Oscars of the food world’. The new-look and full-fledged ‘Thattu’ restaurant started to receive diners in April this year after months of diligent planning and preparation. The outlet, spread across 2,900 sqft, has 45 seats and 18 employees. In a freewheeling chat, Vinod throws more light on ‘Thattu’ and shares his food experiences in the US.

Why ‘Thattu’ and what’s the story behind the name?
When the outlet was opened in 2019, it was a small one with just four food items on the menu like a ‘Thattu kada’ (wayside eatery) in Kerala. That’s why we decided to name it ‘Thattu’. The first ‘Thattu’ had a great fan following in a short span of time though it was operational only for 10 months. We found it difficult to meet the food orders. For Americans, Indian food revolves around chicken tikka masala and ‘naan’ (a flatbread), among others. And South Indian food means ‘idli’ and ‘dosa’. We decided to exclude these dishes from our menu and our aim was to introduce authentic Kerala food to Americans.

What’s the Kerala touch of ‘Thattu’?
There is a Kerala touch in every dish served at ‘Thattu’. For example, ‘peralan’ sauce is the basic ingredient while preparing pork chop ‘peralan’ and is served with tapioca, which is synonymous with Kerala. The Kerala fried chicken sandwich, which is served for lunch, is a magical fusion of Kerala and American cuisines. We served ‘Onam sadya’ with 18 dishes on fresh banana leaves to the delight of many food lovers. The washroom symbols of the restaurant are figures of man and woman clad in traditional ‘mundu’ and ‘sari’ respectively.

The lounge is adorned with a ‘nettipattam’ (a glittering artwork used to decorate the foreheads of elephants). The boards at the restaurant have messages both in English and Malayalam. The steel tumblers used at the restaurant were brought from Kozhikode to give an ethnic twist to the whole setting. Our sincere effort was to create a mini Kozhikode in Chicago. Even the paintings on the walls of the food outlet have a traditional Kerala tone. It is worth noting that more than 70 per cent of ‘Thattu’ customers are Americans. We formally introduce each dish to the American diners and explain to them how various delicacies should be eaten. If they are interested in having food with their hands, we also give a demo on that.

Why a big no-no to tipping?
The pay has been structured in such a way that employees get close to 24 dollars per hour and this pay structure is much better than the average wage (9 to 12 dollars per hour) in the US. The tipping system in the US is pretty skewed and there have been bitter alterations between employees and customers on various occasions. Usually, the employees who are getting tips have lower wages. The sad part is that these workers would find it difficult to make ends meet in the winter season when the business is dull. But we decided right from the beginning that our employees should not face such precarious situations.

As per our pay structure, a fixed percentage of profit is added to the wages of the employees and that’s how they get nearly 24 dollars per hour. Though we don’t encourage a tipping system, some customers are particular about giving tips to their waiters and that amount would be put in a common fund. And when that common fund swells, the employees go on a trip or utilize the money for some common purpose.

What changes have you noticed in Kerala over the years?
There has been a giant leap in the development of basic infrastructure. A sea of change has happened in this sector for the past 10 years. Another sector that has witnessed drastic change is the food industry. During my college days, the food items that were available across the state were quite similar. Now things are different as more varieties of food have been added to the Kerala platter. The restaurants across the state are serving dishes that have diversity and uniqueness stamped on them. Foreigner chefs are roped in by many food joints to dish out exquisite delicacies. The novel experimentations on food are also paying rich dividends to the glee of people with discerning palates.

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