Passing down family restaurants: The Passage Thru India story


Despite having taken over the family business, Gaya still looks to her dad for final approval. —YAP CHEE HONG/The Star

In Kuala Lumpur, Passage Thru India has a long-standing history as one of the bastions of Indian food in the city. The restaurant is also recognised for its artwork and creative flourishes, courtesy of founder Panirselvam Suppiah, 74, an artist or “dreamer” as he describes himself.

Panirselvam opened Passage Thru India back in 1996, having spent a career working first in advertising and then as the marketing head of a menswear brand. He launched the restaurant when he was in his 40s and freely admits that he wanted to use it as his canvas and art space.

“I wanted to have a place that was my canvas. Thankfully, we had a good support team like we had a chef who came from the Taj group so he set up a system for us and we had good staff, so that is how we grew,” he says.

In their formative years, his children Gayethri Selva, 42, and Siva Selva, 46, also helped in the restaurant. In fact, Gayethri or Gaya, as she is better known, recalls her daily routine involved going to the restaurant every day after school to help out.

“I was still in primary school when my dad started Passage – he started it purely out of passion. What I tell people is that it is his life-size canvas – the walls, ceilings and everything in the restaurant represent his creativity.

As a family-run business started by her dad, Gaya says it is important to her that all her restaurants maintain a personal touch.As a family-run business started by her dad, Gaya says it is important to her that all her restaurants maintain a personal touch.

“So for my brother, sister and I – that was literally our second home. I started out as a cashier because I was still too small to take orders and then eventually when I was 15 or 16, I started clearing tables and taking orders

“We grew up there. My siblings and I started our careers in F&B there,” she says.

When she grew up, Gaya pursued a degree in computer science but after completing it, she realised it really wasn’t her passion. So she turned to her first love: cooking.

“What happened was eventually I got into the kitchen one fine day and never left. And dad was so supportive, he never said ‘No’ to anything.

“I think he was also secretly happy because cooking is a creative thing and in that way, I was following in his footsteps. He just kept telling me, ‘Do what makes you happy.’ And I was just lucky that we have the restaurant so I learnt how to cook professionally in a restaurant kitchen from our Indian chef. And my dad was really happy about it!” she says.

Panirselvam also finds it difficult to disguise his delight at his daughter’s creative foray into the world of F&B.

The Chettinad biryani and chicken curry was inspired by Gaya’s travels to India with her father and both are now firm favourites at her new eatery Veranda.The Chettinad biryani and chicken curry was inspired by Gaya’s travels to India with her father and both are now firm favourites at her new eatery Veranda.

“She’s got a lot of potential – she is very creative. In fact, people say that after me, she is the creative one in the family,” he says, chuckling.

These days, Gaya has completely taken over as the culinary head at Passage Thru India while her brother Siva handles the operational side of things. Panirselvam meanwhile has more or less retired but maintains a studio at the restaurant where he continues to work on his art, which now adorns every possible crevice of the restaurant.

“I have a little studio there, I come there to do my work. If the paint is coming off the wall, I just go and touch it up here and there and turn it into a piece of art and the whole thing blends together – that’s what I do. They run the restaurant now,” he says, simply.

Gaya meanwhile says that even though her father has stepped back, she and her brother still seek out his approval when making major decisions.

“My brother and I have a hundred meetings, but for the final say, we still turn to him. He will say ‘You guys decide’ but we still want that approval based on his experience and career,” she says.

While one restaurant was enough for Panirselvam, his children are more ambitious and have long been toying with the idea of expansion. Last year, that tenuous idea came to fruition with the advent of Veranda in Bangsar, the siblings’ first specialised south Indian restaurant.

Once Gaya and her brother took over the running of Passage Thru India from their dad, they began toying with the idea of expansion. Veranda marks a new chapter in the family business and is a south Indian specialty restaurant. — YAP CHEE HONG/The StarOnce Gaya and her brother took over the running of Passage Thru India from their dad, they began toying with the idea of expansion. Veranda marks a new chapter in the family business and is a south Indian specialty restaurant. — YAP CHEE HONG/The Star

“Actually this restaurant was inspired by trips to India with my dad. There is this particular Chettinad restaurant that he would take us to and they had this yummy Chettinad chicken and biryani that we would always order and this is now one of the popular dishes that we serve at Veranda.

“It was always in our mind to expand, we were looking at different areas and then when this lot came along, it so happened my brother and I had the exact same idea of wanting to do a south Indian specialty restaurant. My dad was like ‘Go for it!’. We had a good feeling about it,” she says.

With Veranda, Gaya says she has a space to express her own ideas and thoughts about food and this tiny little taste of expansion has galvanised the siblings so much that they are exploring the possibility of expanding further.

With Veranda for instance, they may take over a lot next door and expand the restaurant into a bigger outfit. With Passage Thru India meanwhile, they are contemplating replicating it somewhere else, but since it is a family business, this is not a decision they take lightly.

“It’s not a place where we just go to work and come back. It is very close to our heart. We are so particular about having a personal touch to everything – the thing is we want to give you that hands-on feel, because diners will know it if it is a family business or a franchise. With a family business, the personal touch is there,” she says.

Although he has mostly retired from the business, Panirselvam still maintains a small studio at the back of Passage Thru India, where he still puts together art pieces to adorn the restaurant. He is pictured here with his granddaughter Aarti Laxmi. — GAYA SELVAAlthough he has mostly retired from the business, Panirselvam still maintains a small studio at the back of Passage Thru India, where he still puts together art pieces to adorn the restaurant. He is pictured here with his granddaughter Aarti Laxmi. — GAYA SELVA

For Panirselvam though, there is a clear sense of pride in the fact that his children are now running the business he started and taking it to whole new levels.

“People ask me ‘Where did you work?’ And I say, ‘Actually I never worked – all my life, I just enjoyed what I did – even until today.

“And while it was my journey when I started Passage Thru India, they got into it and they are now moving it forward,” he says, smiling.

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