Saturday, December 10, 2016

Going local: Chefs can show the way

I am at the idyllic Vedic Village, an hour’s drive from Kolkata. This weekend, this otherwise quiet, close-to-nature spa resort is alive with the buzz of The Market Place, a gathering of farmers, celebrity chefs, Ayurvedic healers, yogacharyas, dedicated to natural living. Curated by writer and food lover Salmoli Mukerji, it’s designed to be an event that creates awareness, educates and enables interactions that will all eventually lead to a sustainable, holistic way of life with food at its axis.
I’m aware that ‘organic’ has increasingly come to mean elitist, expensive or plain wacko. But when I interact with the women from Nayagram, which lies in the red corridor, who are reviving rice varieties in danger of becoming extinct and turning them into the most delicious muri, or puffed rice, and taste the fantastic kiwi from Mirik – you will never eat the imported version in supermarkets once you do this – and chat with  the simple farmers who’ve grown them, it seems local and natural is so within reach. It’s a direction that can enrich our food, our lives and the planet.
One of the highlights of this unique venture – and it went way beyond the staged farmers’ markets we see pop up in cities from time to time – was the presence of celebrity chefs and their interpretation of the Market Place theme. I sat down to an al fresco locavore lunch created by Chef Sujan Sarkar, the avant garde chef known for his edgy, but purist style. There was soup, a silken Pumpkin Veloute enriched with local Bandel cheese, which also featured in the accompanying cauliflower croquette; a perfect salad of beetroot, radish and local greens, some of them bitter (in picture); and the most delicious and unusual risotto I’ve tasted, made of five ancient grains and tomato. For dessert, Chef Sujan took inspiration from a French classic, but owned it and made it local, serving up a Banana and Jaggery TarteTatin. The jaggery was nolen gur, now in season. It was a simple, sophisticated, spectacular meal.
At a quick demo Chef Abhijit Saha, of Caperberry, Fava and his signature restaurant Saha in Singapore, infused Bandel cheese with smoke, added the kiwis I mentioned earlier and stirred in popped black rice to create a superb salad, elegant enough for any gourmet table.
Dinner with ‘Revival Food’ as its theme was created by Chef Sabyasachi Gorai, Saby to his many fans and friends. Memories and stories unfolded as he served Sil Batta Yam, a Bengali classic, with Baked Sattu Kachori, Kasundi and Yogurt Fish, Black Chicken, marinated in black sesame paste and cooked over charcoal, Long Bean & Local Asparagus Jhaal and Chinatown Beggar Pouches with fantastic Portobello mushrooms, again from Mirik. He carried the local ingredients into dessert with a Crème Brulee of Govindabhog riced that had everyone raving, Caramelized Farm Orange Upside Down Cake and Mango and Red Rice Payesh.
As a diner, I had met the farmer, seen the produce and watched it transform into utter deliciousness in the hands of talented chefs. You do not have to buy into ‘organic’ concepts; you will taste the difference in food grown the natural way. But there’s a connection there that satisfies not just the taste-buds, it fills the soul. Good food can only come from good ingredients. And you cannot get better than local, natural, seasonal.

My food prayer for the New Year is to see more chefs make conscious, mindful choices when sourcing ingredients and let nature gently guide their creativity.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

The 1000-Rupee question: Is there a perfect price point?

Hear a fact repeated often enough by people who know their business and it acquires a definite validity. We’ve been meeting restaurateurs across the country during the course of research for our next book (watch this space for more) and I could not miss noticing how many of them were convinced that being perceived as ‘affordable’ was the key to success in the current scenario.
Think back to a time when ‘fine dining’ was the buzzword amongst entrepreneurs with big plans. Their restaurants may not have quite fulfilled the criteria for this style of dining – from top class cuisine to refined service – but interiors were swank, menus extravagant and prices high. We kept hearing that vast sections of the population had huge disposable incomes and luxury dining was ‘aspirational’.
Somewhere along the way, the dynamics of this market seems to have altered quite remarkably. So, restaurateurs are now talking of being approachable and attractive to a clientele that wants food and drink in a casual setting and NOT pay too much for the experience. How much is too much? From our interactions with restaurateurs we’ve learned that most of them believe an APC of Rs 1000-1500 keeps the customers coming and, more importantly, making return visits.
Look at the restaurants that are now considered trendy or ‘happening’ in the Metros. The Socials across the country are packed with youngsters and even older professionals evidently enjoying the easy vibe, the cocktails that spell fun, the desi food with funky twists and, most off all, the perception of the whole experience being inexpensive. Most people spend around Rs 1000 during an outing to a Social anywhere in the country.
Zorawar Kalra made his mark as a restaurateur with the upscale Masala Library, but his focus is now on expanding the Farzi Café and Pa Pa Ya brands, all of which make the proposition of affordability and great value for money. Seasoned restaurateur A D Singh of the Olive Bar & Kitchen also told us his expansion plans included taking the affordable Olive Bistro brand to more locations. In Bangalore, celebrity chef Manu Chandra has introduced an edgy style at Toast & Tonic with its focus on local, seasonal ingredients, but has taken care to peg prices in the super value-for-money range. Mainland China is also growing its less pricey Asia Kitchen brand.
Clearly, even the most adventurous restaurateurs have come to terms with the fact that this is an increasingly price-sensitive market and that the volumes game is the one to play. The ITC’s restaurant specialist and veteran Gautam Anand put it nicely when he said ‘the dining experience must end without any post-prandial distress.’ Most restaurants seem now to have figured out that Rs 1000 or thereabouts per head is the average spend to aim for if customers are to be spared the distress of having overspent on a meal or a round of drinks. Best of all, it encourages them to come back and relive the experience.