3 Leaves opened one April weekend in 2016. A small restaurant in Blackrock Market, it was the perfect place for Santosh Thomas and Mile Mathew to kickstart their dream restaurant.
Offering food from a variety of different regions in India, 3 Leaves adapts to three different forms of dining, from lunch to restaurant-style 3-course dinners on Thursday nights and an exploration of Indian Street Food and elaborate curries at the weekend.
Running the business together, the husband-and-wife team work to produce the very best food and service, something which keeps their customers coming back again and again.
For Santosh, becoming a chef was a dream of his from a very young age: “I always wanted to be a chef. As a teenager, I remember watching cooking shows by Celebrity Chef Sanjeev Kapoor in India and experimenting in the kitchen. I grew up travelling and living in different regions of vast India. There was always an abundance of fresh ingredients from the local fields around me that inspired me a lot.”
I persuaded my parents to let me study Hotel Management. In India, at that time, you either get a government job or pursued some medical studies for job security. Finally, I joined the Oriental School of Hotel Management, Wayanad, Kerala to start my journey in the hospitality industry.
After working in all aspects of kitchen life, he moved to Ireland 12 years ago with his wife Milie, a trained hospice nurse. Working full-time in hospice care, Milie helps out with the restaurant on her days off. With her parents owning a successful restaurant in Keral, Milie always felt that she was “supposed to end up in the hospitality industry”.
I am well versed with the passion, hard work and the long hours needed for this industry. Seeing my parents’ journey helps me to understand and support Santosh in his dream.
Setting up 3 Leaves in Blackrock came from Santosh’s desire to work as a chef and prepare dishes which highlighted India’s vast and diverse cuisine: “It dawned on me that to showcase my ability, I must start my own place.”
The restaurant’s name finds its origins in the three herbs most commonly used in Indian cuisine – mint, coriander and curry leaves.
So it’s no surprise at all that Santosh can’t live without spices: “My vision is to offer my customers a pure taste of India, a symphony of taste for them to experience the depth and flavour of the spices. I believe the soul of any Indian dish is the freshly ground spices, therefore every morning I prepare these spices myself. Each curry I make in 3 Leaves has its own blend of spices, which in turn, gives them a unique character.”
Even though things were slow in the beginning, the couple persevered and overcame the initial challenges in order to grow their business:
“In the beginning it was only me and Milie doing everything. It was a challenge but we dealt with it together and moved forward.”
Agreeing, Milie commented: “I remember the first few weeks of our opening, standing outside the door and asking people if they were interested in trying our dishes. It was frustrating and disheartening when people walked by, but I kept my smile and persisted. Soon I started offering people a taste of the curries inside the restaurant. I said they could taste and if they didn’t like it, it was ok and there was no pressure to buy.”
We just wanted people to explore our food and that seemed to work. Once people started tasting Santosh’s curries, everything changed.
Describing their favourite dishes on the menu, Santosh picks the “mouth melting Gaulouti Lamb Kebabs”, while Milie prefers the Palak Pakora Chaat. Her favourite “hands down”, this dish is made with crispy fried spinach dressed in five different sauces that Santosh has made from scratch in order to highlight spicy, tangy, sweet, cool and refreshing elements.”
The “freedom to be creative with my menu” is Santosh’s favourite part of his job. When he started 3 Leaves, he wanted to “change the perception of Indian cuisine as a hot and sweating meal” and make it an enjoyable experience for everyone.
Making customers happy is also Milie’s favourite part of the job, commenting: “The tiredness after a long day’s work is something I find difficult, but it goes away quickly when I see our customers enjoying their experience at 3 leaves. It inspires me to keep going.”
Of all of Santosh’s highlights over the years, which includes winning Best Student Chef in his culinary school, he is immensely proud of winning the award for Best Chef in Indian Cuisine at the Irish Curry Awards, something he is “grateful and honoured” to have received. He praises the award as “a turning point in our journey” and is delighted that “more and more people have wanted to come and experience my cooking”.
An extremely supportive wife, Milie describes Santosh’s win as a very proud moment: “I was the proudest wife present that evening. I was extremely happy to see Santosh winning the award and this encouraged both of us to push forward.”
Acknowledging the support his wife has given him over the years, Santosh explains: “Milie has always being my support both in hardship and good times. I don’t think I could fulfil my dream without her. It’s great to have someone who understands you and your dreams and has similar aspirations. Whenever I’m unsure, she gives me a pep talk and brings me back to my zone.”
In terms of working together, Milie appears to have it figured out, saying: “When we got together we made a pact that if I’m annoyed or angry, he will remain quiet and vice versa. It seems to have worked for over a decade, but our differences never last longer than 5-10 minutes. We smile at each other, patch up, find a solution and move forward.”
However, the search for a work/life balance is something of a struggle, with Santosh admitting: “We are still trying to find a balance, both of us work long hours and finding time to spend quality time with each other eludes us. Both of us like the sea and when we get a chance, we go for a long walk by the sea.”
Milie added that she enjoys spending time outdoors and will often “listen to mediation music and try to calm my mind down. We spend every minute available together.”
Despite the struggles to find a work/life balance, Santosh believes that if you’re passionate and determined enough, you will succeed:
“Anyone can cook, don’t let others say you can’t. My advice to young chefs is to believe in yourself, have a goal of what you want and constantly work towards it. There was a time when I was not given an opportunity to work as a chef and when given, was made to work long hours without pay for many months.”
I was afraid to talk about it at that time, but I endured. I had the passion, the dream, and the dedication to put in the long hours and when the opportunity finally presented itself, I seized it.
In terms of the Irish food industry, Santosh and Milie are impressed and excited by the food offering in Ireland, with Santosh commenting:
“We are excited about Heron and Grey, the team there are a great inspiration to us. Their take on using the best seasonal produce from their allotment is interesting. Chef Damien’s artistic and technically ambitious food constantly motivates me a lot.”
Milie added: “Recently we also got to experience a lunch at Patrick Guilbaud by Chef Kieran Glennon. I was impressed by the service and the food, it was a great experience and we even got a chance to meet up with Monsieur Patrick Guilbaud and Chef Kieran Glennon.”
Looking to the future and the pair are not planning to sit back and let the world pass them by, with Santosh saying:
“We are thinking of doing sets of special dinner evenings maybe every few months, where I can let my imagination run wild. This also addresses the issue of bookings. Currently, as we only open on a Thursday for dinner, sometimes there is a waiting list of a few weeks, but doing a 4-night dinner event occasionally will solve this difficulty. Also, in the future, I am hoping to collaborate with some well-known chefs in order to create something innovative.”
Milie echoed these sentiments and added: “We cherish every minute of our journey and there’s some exciting news in the works. We are hoping to open up more evenings, possibly by June. We also want a work/life balance, which would mean that we get time to spend as a couple.”
Sarah has always had a great love of travel, food and photography. Following her journalism degree at DCU, she developed a passion for travel writing while living in Spain.
Sarah loves exploring new places and sampling the local cuisine. Working with TheTaste.ie combines her love of food and travel.
A big people person, especially when it comes to hearing other people’s stories, Sarah loves interviewing chefs, food producers and more.