Cockroaches, cross chefs, court costs and a reality TV star: the saga of the fine-dining restaurant that crashed and burned
A fine-dining Ponsonby restaurant overseen by a Michelin-starred chef allegedly underpaid its chefs, then left them and other creditors, including a former reality TV star, out of pocket after it collapsed and the owner went bankrupt. Steve Kilgallon reports.
When Epicer opened on Ponsonby Rd in 2018, it won favourable reviews from restaurant critics such as Jesse Mulligan, who described it as “beautiful, art-on-a-plate-style dining”, while Dish magazine called it a “mouthwatering dining experience”.
Epicer’s Facebook page described owner Aditya Sudan as a “seasoned hotelier” with eight years in hotel management, worldwide experience as a chef, and three masters degrees, and the restaurant as the culmination of his “hospitality journey”.
But issues began almost immediately, and Sudan left an unhappy trail behind him. A former business partner, Yousuf Paul, said investing with Sudan was “the biggest mistake of my life”.
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And among four chefs left owing money by the demise of Epicer was one who was sacked after reporting “the worst” cockroach infestation he’d ever seen to Auckland Council health inspectors.
Sudan, 38, brought in Manjunath Mural, who had won a Michelin star for his Singapore restaurant ‘Song of India’, to launch the restaurant, but Mural only stayed for a few weeks.
The head chef at Epicer was actually Makarnd Karkhanis, former head chef of Viaduct restaurant Urban Turban and the giant 350-seat Manukau restaurant D’Grand Haveli.
Epicer owner Aditya Sudan, right, with Michelin-starred chef Manjunath Mural, left, and Epicer head chef Makarnd Karkhanis, centre.
Karkhanis says he was owed $8500 in unpaid wages when he quit after running out of patience with Sudan.
Three other chefs made similar allegations over unpaid wages and entitlements, and all but one took their cases to the Employment Relations Authority.
Sudan denied most of the men’s claims, and said he had paid them as much as he could, even foregoing paying his own household rent to cover wages.
“I paid everyone, whoever I could,” he said. “If I had kept money for me, and not paid these guys, that could make a story. But I am standing here without a car and without a family, I have got maybe $30 in my bank account, and that is from WINZ.
“I’ve got absolutely nothing, other than the benefit, I have nothing to my name, I’ve got no assets… what do you want me to do?”
Sudan’s company Ryan Investments is in liquidation and Sudan himself has been bankrupted.
Another of his companies, Castle Investments, was liquidated in the High Court on the application of former Bachelor television star Naz Khanjani, who alleged she was owed around $10,000 for promotional work for the restaurant.
Khanjani hosted a glitzy VIP launch night for the restaurant when it opened in November 2019 and appeared in a promotional video showing people drinking and eating at the venue.
She said Sudan was a “horrible, horrible man”.
“I tried to peacefully ask for my money multiple times, but he made an excuse every time, or would just not reply to my messages or not show up to meetings I had arranged with him,” she said.
Khanjani said when she posted on social media about her experience, Sudan sent a series of emails alleging she had defamed him. He didn’t turn up to court and did not pay the debt when ordered to. “He is a disgusting, conniving thief who deserves to be behind bars.”
Former Bachelor reality TV star Naz Khanjani posted about Sultan on social media.
Sudan’s former staff described him as a fantasist and an inveterate liar, and said he would frequently blame heart problems on his failure to pay them properly, or on time.
“Initially, it was fantastic, amazing,” said Karkhanis.
That soon changed. “It was not an environment where chefs could work happily. It was very demoralising.”
Karkhanis said he was recruited for his experience in molecular gastronomy, and that to run a fine-dining kitchen a minimum of six chefs were needed. He said he began with eight, but Sudan kept cutting numbers without consulting him and wanted to run with just three.
“We started having arguments – I said ‘this is not the way to run a Michelin-star restaurant’ and he would say ‘I don’t have money, I have heart problems’.”
Karkhanis told him: “Either run a typical Indian curry house, or run a Michelin-star restaurant”.
Makarnd Kharkanis says Sudan is the worst boss he’s ever worked for.
He said Sudan would often ask him to take half wages, and eventually he dropped to half-time hours to try and help the business survive and then quit when he realised he would not be paid what he was owed.
Yousuf Paul, a DJ, was introduced to Sudan by a mutual friend and worked on the restaurant’s accompanying nightclub. He said Sudan persuaded him to invest $50,000, promising a shareholding that never materialised. “I am cursing the day I met him. He puts on this innocent face that he’s a victim, and a lot of people fall for it.”
Paul said he also shelled out to pay some suppliers who had been left unpaid.
Paul’s friend, property developer Jesse Singh, was another investor. He said he brokered a $20,000 loan to Sudan, on which he quickly defaulted (Sudan doesn’t deny this), leaving Singh to pay it off. “I thought he was a good guy,” he said. Sudan stopped paying, then stopped taking his calls.
Epicer served high-end Indian fusion cuisine created by Kharkanis, like this Mumbai fish fry.
If the business side was going badly, the kitchen was even worse.
“I’ve never in my life seen an [infestation] as bad as this,” said experienced tandoori chef Vipin Kumar. “You wouldn’t think this is in New Zealand, it is crazy.”
Kumar and fellow chefs Pankaj Rana and Karkhanis said they had all asked Sudan to take action about the colony of cockroaches living in the kitchen without success.
Karkhanis said the pest exterminator wouldn’t come without upfront payment, having learned of Sudan’s reputation.
A frustrated Kumar took a series of videos of the roaches running around the kitchen as customers dined, and tipped off Auckland Council.
The council shut the restaurant after a food safety officer visited, but it was re-opened after “the identified risks to food safety were satisfactorily addressed,” said Alan Ahmu, Auckland Council’s team leader for food safety and health enforcement, in a statement.
While Sudan claimed the council cleared the restaurant, Ahmu said a prosecution file was prepared and forwarded to the council’s legal services, but didn’t proceed after the restaurant closed.
Karkhanis and Kumar both said Sudan gave Kumar 14 days’ notice without consultation immediately after the cockroach incident.
Sudan then emailed Kumar saying he planned to serve legal papers on him demanding a payment of $150,000 for breaching the business’ confidentiality.
Sudan claimed Kumar resigned, and was not sacked, and said the sacking was not because of the cockroach infestation.
Kumar reached an agreement with Sudan to pay him $1705 in lost wages, but said Sudan then reneged.
Another chef, Pankaj Rana, said he was forced to take his family back to India because of the financial stress of losing his job at Epicer. He’s now working at another restaurant, but his wife and child are left in India.
Rana said in his nine months at Epicer he was routinely paid late and expected to work extra hours. He noticed Sudan had fallen behind on his IRD payments, but was told not to worry about it.
He said one day when he felt ill at work, Sudan and a relative threatened him, saying if he didn’t keep working they would cancel his visa. His doctor signed him off work for three days, and when he returned, Sudan sacked him on the spot.
Rana said he struggled for money and had to take his wife and child back to India before returning in April to a new job and is angry and frustrated that he won’t get his lost wages back. Sudan said he had actually paid Rana extra money to cover two car accidents he’d had while working for him.
A fourth chef, Janardan ‘Jerry’ Kumar, said he quit after three months because the business was so badly run, and he could see that the other chefs were also owed money.
He described Sudan as a dramatist who consistently blamed a heart problem for non-payment, and refused to take his phone calls as he chased lost wages, so he visited Epicer to confront him. He found Sudan in the kitchen working, saying all the chefs had gone, and asking him to return to his job. Singh refused unless Sudan settled his debt.
The ERA claims add up to a substantial amount – but will likely never be paid.
Vipin Kumar claims $30,000 in penalties, plus wages and costs, arguing his employment was unfairly terminated, he was underpaid, and didn’t receive his holiday pay or public holiday allowances.
Rana claims over 250 hours of unpaid work, and wants his wages, holiday pay, costs, $15,000 compensation for ‘hurt and humiliation’, plus $90,000 in penalties.
Karkhanis also claims unpaid hours and penalties of $30,000, and says his resignation “amounted to constructive dismissal”.
Their advocate, May Moncur, said Sudan had never denied the debts when she had met him, but simply argued he had no money. He had hung up halfway through an ERA meeting, saying he was too busy, and several dates were rearranged when he said he was too ill to attend.
But while a final hearing is set down for November, Moncur, said it would likely be cancelled as she had run out of options to hold Sudan to account.
The Companies Office declined Moncur’s request to reinstate Ryan Investments to the register, while the Insolvency Register shows Sudan was adjudged bankrupt in July, when he told the court he was on an unemployment benefit.
“It’s likely the proceedings will now be abandoned because we literally have no respondent,” Moncur said. “The company is in liquidation and the employer is now bankrupt, so we have no more options.”
She said investigating whether Sudan truly had no assets was too costly, and even if they did obtain an ERA order against him, her clients didn’t have the money to then enforce it.
“The system is so toothless that [people] can play games in the grey areas – there are always loopholes,” she said. “It’s very frustrating that from time to time we run into a case like this.”
Sudan said he had been honest. “I’m not going to say 100 per cent of their claims are wrong, and I’ve said that to the ERA. It’s not intentional.
“I told their lawyer not to spend money, because I have absolutely nothing for them to chase. I have been honest with them from day one.”
Sudan, centre, with ex-business partner Yousuf Paul, who says he wishes he’d never met Sudan.
Sudan said that before Epicer, he had a successful hospitality career. “I had no stain on my record in 17 years,” he said.
Epicer’s failure, he said, was due to “market inflation, Covid, wrong staff, and some of my bad decisions: there were a lot of factors involved in going wrong.”
The doors closed after about nine months with court documents showing that landlords Samson Investments took Ryan Investments to the high court to regain possession of the property. Sudan said Samson also drove his bankruptcy, saying the company had twice taken bankruptcy action against him over $4,000 of unpaid rent.
“If I had money, I wouldn’t have gone bankrupt over $4,000,” he said.
Samson chief executive Daniel Friedlander declined to comment, saying it was before the courts.
The Ponsonby Rd site was later taken on by Ravi Singh, owner of the Raviz chain of Indian restaurants, and turned into another high-end Indian restaurant, Gymkhana, where Kumar now works in a kitchen he said had been completely re-fitted.
Sudan kept going, forming a new company, Cantt, with Paul’s wife Tunisia Angell-Kea, which briefly ran East Tamaki restaurant called Jalwa. He was also involved in a Whanganui restaurant, The Castle, with Paul and Angell-Kea, which was soon sold.
Sudan and Paul blame each other for the short-lived ventures. Paul said he and Sudan were very close. “I feel I am the stupidest person to keep believing. He got me good.”
Paul said The Castle was quickly sold after running up significant debts with suppliers. “Every time I have asked for money he would say I don’t have it, I’ve lost it all.”
Sudan, in turn, said he regretted ever meeting Paul. He said he was merely an employee at The Castle, is owed wages and other money by Paul, and is planning his own ERA claim.
He said he hadn’t worked in six months. “I have no idea [what I will do next],” he said. “I’ve lost money, I’ve lost family, I’ve lost just about everything. I am trying to find the will to live.
“I’m not a bad guy. I didn’t do this intentionally.”