Ambica Jain's journey from U of T Scarborough student to celebrated restaurateur

Ambica Jain sitting in a chair in her restaurant
Photo by Matthew Volpe

Celebrated restaurateur Ambica Jain (BSc 2018 UTSC) has come a long way since her first year at U of T Scarborough in 2014. As a young undergrad who knew she wanted to follow in her entrepreneurial family’s footsteps and pursue a business career, she had her eye on a joint MBA/JD post-grad degree.

But first, she needed to decide on an undergrad major. She chose mental health studies, which was then a fairly new program at UTSC. “At that time, there was such a stigma around mental health, especially in the South Asian community,” she says, noting that this stigma compelled her to want to learn more.

She found her major very interesting – and, later, found the lessons she learned to be surprisingly applicable to running a restaurant. “You really learn about interactions with other people, which for me applied to staff, guests, you name it,” says the owner of Adrak Yorkville, a high-end Indian restaurant in Toronto’s Yorkville neighbourhood, which also has a sister location in Richmond Hill, Ont.

“In mental health studies, I was able to learn that we have to appreciate each other's differences. I think that really changed my perspective towards people.”

Grateful for U of T Scarborough

She says this was important for her in particular because she was a shy, self-described “sheltered” girl from the suburbs before attending university. “I'm grateful that I chose that program, and I'm grateful it was at UTSC. I think it was a really good platform and a really good university to introduce you to the world,” she says, adding that for her, U of T also “reinforced that you have to remain on top of your game, be focused and not get distracted. I'm lucky that I was able to get that from U of T, and I was able to apply those lessons to where I am today.”

Three dishes of food at Jain's restaurant
At Jain's restaurant, she strives to ensure the Indian dishes are as authentic as possible in terms of flavour and presentation (photo by Ben Ehrensperger)

In 2017, as her undergrad years were nearing an end, she was debating whether to apply for that post-grad degree or gain hands-on business experience first. When her mother suggested she try taking on a leadership role at one of the family’s many business ventures, an Indian restaurant in Richmond Hill (her family had owned the first Adrak location since 2014), she decided to go for it. “We renovated it, got a new team, and it had a new jazzy vibe. It was this refreshing new take on it, and I started liking it a lot,” she says.

So, as soon as the opportunity arose to open another Adrak location in the trendy Yorkville area, Jain jumped at the chance open a new restaurant on her own – and her quick success at the helm of Adrak Yorkville has led to her becoming a big name in the Toronto restaurant scene.

Since opening in 2022, Jain’s Yorkville location has had countless glowing reviews: it was named one of Toronto Life’s best new restaurants in 2023, has been mentioned in the New York Times, and even earned a coveted spot in the Toronto Michelin Guide, which is no easy feat.

The restaurant’s success is in part due to its authenticity, believes Jain. She wants her guests to not only have a flawless dining experience, but also absorb some aspects of Indian culture along the way.

Authenticity is key

“If you're walking into an Indian establishment, you should be able to learn something new and take away something about the culture,” she says. “With Adrak, it's all about this upscale dining experience where we remain as authentic as possible when it comes to flavours and presentation.”

This philosophy of cultural authenticity applies to every aspect of the restaurant, she says, including the decor. “In our Yorkville location, all the elements have been hand-picked from India. So, whether it's our furniture or our wallpaper, they each have a storyline that has relevance to our culture and our heritage.”

Interior of restaurant
The decor of Adrak Yorkville features authentic elements hand-picked from India (photo by Ryan Emberley)

Jain believes it's important to reflect on and celebrate her own South Asian roots, but also to spread knowledge about her culture with others. And what better way to do that than through food?

“When it comes to our culture, I think it's very important that you don't lose the authenticity and the traditions of the dishes you're trying to showcase to the guests,” she says. “And you must explain it as well. You can't just serve them a dish and be like, ‘Here you go.’ It’s very important to tell the story behind it all.”


Read more stories at U of T Alumni News