The man who made CGH Earth a hospitality brand of repute is back with three new ventures — a guest house, a tribal art gallery and a homeware line
“Kenny used fish as bait and I took it,” Jose Dominic says, his laugh filling the foyer of AB Salem House, his new 10-room guest house in Kochi. He is describing how he got seduced into a second innings as an entrepreneur, just a year after he stepped away from the leadership of the CGH Earth hotels group, which his father founded in 1954. AB Salem House is a historic building, just down the road from the famous Paradesi Synagogue, in Kochi’s Mattancherry or Jew Town area. And the Jewish meal Dominic refers to was cooked for him by the owner of the house, in an effort to convince him to buy it and turn into a guest house. It did its job.
AB Salem House is not your average 350-year old home that needed saving. It was the residence of a late elder of the Jewish community. Abraham Barak Salem, a descendent of the Sephardic Jews who migrated to India from Europe, was a lawyer and politician. He fought in the freedom struggle and negotiated the emigration of Cochin Jews to Israel in 1955. As a result, this home has seen much activity — both political and cultural. Evidence of this: a black-and-white photograph of Salem with then Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion that hangs in the foyer.
The facade of AB Salem House on Synagogue Lane, Jew Town
“It came about as an accidental venture. But having got into it, I saw enormous historical context and potential,” Dominic, 69, says. “It is not just about building a place to stay. The house has a story; it is about how that builds into the experience we offer.”
Back to the glory days
To make that offering authentic, Dominic reveals he quizzed Kenny and his sister, Linda, on various aspects of the house — including the placement of furniture. The research is seen in the four lovingly-restored bedrooms, two on each level, with the original living room acting as a common area. Each room is furnished with antiques, from four-poster beds to writing desks. A modern kitchenette offers guests the opportunity to make themselves a quick snack, but proper meals will have to be had elsewhere, at least till a kosher vegan café opens later this year.
One of the bedrooms at AB Salem House
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The café and six rooms (of the total 10) will be in Ezekiel House, a few doors down from AB Salem House. It was the residence of Rahabi Ezekiel, another prominent Jewish community elder who donated to the renovation of the Synagogue; his effort, Dominic tells me, is visible in the tile work we see today.
It is evident that Dominic is also influenced by nostalgia, and feels a strong urge to restore the area to its former glory. “When we were kids, people used to have tables out on the street in the evenings. There was a lot of eating, drinking and dancing. Today, many have emigrated and rented their homes to shops selling Kashmiri handicrafts. When these shops shut down in the evening, it is deserted. I want to make Jew Town a place where even locals will come post sundown.”
Doubles from ₹3,000. Details: facebook.com/ABSalemHouse.
Master of it all
In an attempt to create more “places of interest”, the entrepreneur has opened a tribal art gallery, Desiga, on the upper floor of an old spice warehouse nearby. “There are plenty of modern art galleries, but none that mirrors the art of the original inhabitants,” he says. Curated by former Kerala Lalithakala Akademi chairman, TA Satyapal, the galley sources works from groups such as the Bhils, Gonds and Warlis. “Initially, I wanted works from tribes in Kerala, but it wasn’t possible. So, we had to expand our palette.”
The lower floor of the warehouse will be dedicated to yet another venture: the flagship store of Madukakunnu Estate, a farm and plantation that Dominic’s wife, Anita, manages. While the estate also offers a four-bedroom property, The Estate Bungalow (estatebungalow.com), the store will retail organic produce grown there, including pepper, nutmeg, turmeric and rice. But Dominic’s favourite part is the one housing his live edge homeware line.
The venture — created under the estate’s Maduka brand — also came about by accident. When he had to cut down an old mahogany tree gone to rot, the cost was too prohibitive, so he had it hand sawn into pieces instead. A visitor at the Bungalow, on seeing the natural, curvy edges of the wood, suggested he turn them into live-edge furniture. “As I read about it, I realised there was so much more I could do with it. So I have everything from table tops to cheese platters polished with food-grade materials like linseed oil,” he says. He is now sourcing trees that were victims of infrastructure projects or left to waste by the timber industry. “Now that I am no longer worried about building a career or furthering a legacy, I have the freedom to look beyond the obvious, and take up opportunities that need nurturing,” he concludes.
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