Though barely 30 years of age, Vijay K. Pillai has achieved plenty. He has degrees in accounting and management, and commercial law. While doing his postgraduate studies in London, he started a property development business rejuvenating old properties. He has worked in the banking sector, is currently helping the family business expand into oil and gas investments, and lived in Mongolia for a year to work on a mining project. He has also taken over the reigns of the family’s F&B arm of business – Caerus Holdings, which manages restaurants in Malaysia and Singapore, and a wine distribution business in India and the Maldives. “The phrase ‘ants in the pants’ describes me – I just can’t sit still!” he says in jest.
Don’t take him for a silver-spoon luxury traveller, though – Pillai has done his fair share of rough-and-tumble backpacking trips as a youth, and remembers slumming it out at a trailer park near the airport when he first visited Venice. “These days, I would rather pay to experience a destination in full than stint!”
How often do you have to travel for work?
I travel every week without fail, but largely to Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok, where the offices for our oil and gas company are. In London, I have a three-man team for the property business in which we buy over old flats and modernise them and now have a sizeable portfolio. I visit London only every quarter.
What is one place in London that you always return to?
My wife knows this: Whenever I’m there, I go to 34 South Audley Street. This is going to sound terrible but they make some of the best onion rings – and, no, it isn’t something I “inherited” from university days, because I couldn’t afford it back then! I head over for a serving the minute I touch down – they are so good. I actually got them to give my wife the recipe for the onion rings but she hasn’t got around to making it. Also, they grill their meats on a parrilla grill and make a very nice spiced chicken – I want to do something similar in Singapore. London is my favourite gourmet destination; there is something new all the time. In fact, it was there that I started developing a taste for dining out. During my postgraduate days, the people I worked with started taking me out to the restaurants in central London. London is one of the best places to be adventurous, in terms of dining out, because it has all kinds of cuisine. On one trip, I went to Goya and had Peruvian food that was so outstanding that I went back twice during my stay. The cuisine had so many layers of flavours and I am enticed to go to Peru. I am now trying to bid for jobs there so that I have an excuse to go!
Do you still take time out to travel for leisure?
Twice a year, between June and July and in December, I block out a few weeks just to travel for fun. I try very hard to go offline but it is very difficult. That said, my wife and I went to Yosemite for five days in June 2015. There was no telecommunications signal or television, so we just played games, talked and had a good time. I also love Venice in winter, which I visited in December 2014 on a tour during which I took my wife to Venice, Florence, Milan as well. I proposed in Morocco. The city is quiet and even more beautiful without tourists at every turn, and the locals have time to talk to you. It is so nice that I am planning to return later in 2015.
Do you seek out good eats on your travels?
I won’t do research on the history of a place but I would research the restaurants, and I make all the hotel and dining reservations – everything else is as it goes. And I always have backups because I get very upset by bad meals. In Florence, I left a Michelin restaurant halfway through the meal and a mosquito went into my wine and there were flies all over the place. Our backup was a panini from the Proccaci deli. I go onto the Internet to cross-reference reviews, in order to determine which are the good places. A great restaurant we went to in Venice is Osteria alle Testiere, run by two brothers; and in Florence, I recommend Zeb, which is operated by two sisters. We also notice that you have a taste for sake. At Bam, they even know your favourite bottle! Yes, the Minanogawa Muroka Junmai Hitachi by Inaba Sake Brewery is exclusive to Bam. I probably developed a taste for sake over the last two or three years. I’ve always loved white wine and sake is such a good substitute. The fragrance is so lovely and it goes down so easily. Twice a year, I go to Japan for about three days purely to eat and drink – Kyubei in Tokyo is one of my favourite restaurants for the wonderful sushi.
What are some restaurants that have never failed you for business entertainment?
Zuma in Bangkok is one – and it has a great sake menu! But a lot of my business entertainment is done in Singapore, and I like Bam, because chef Pepe Moncayo is very creative – he makes some random pasta dishes like a capellini with a bit of spice and Japanese clams. The dishes are simple but so well done. The casual setting is more conducive for talking and building relationships. I entertain at least four times a week, and always like to be surprised. My tip for dining at Bam: Ask for Mr Teo’s Menu. Among the many things you do, you also brought in Lady M. Do you personally have a sweet tooth? Yes, and my favourite place is still Lady M – and, no, I am not contracted to say that!