I thought I’d take a break from the standard Rude Food this week and write about something that sounds like rhyming slang, but is actually a fast-growing movement in much of the restaurant world: Dude Food.
What, you may well ask, is Dude Food? Well, the term has Australian origins and given that I ate my way through Sydney last month, that is probably why I’m so keen on the idea. But though English and American food writers are only just catching on to the idea of Dude Food (it turned up in the London Sunday Times last month), I suspect that the philosophy has been around for a while.
To understand Dude Food, think of a fancy restaurant with tablecloths, expensive crockery and haute cuisine. Now think of the exact opposite. That is Dude Food. Think also of the food your parents served at parties at home. Dude Food is the exact opposite of that as well.
Dude Food is, as the name suggests, an essentially masculine cuisine consisting of simple, street-food-like dishes that are associated less with full meals or home cuisine than with snacks or quick bites at cafes or pavement stalls.
The quintessential Dude Food dish is the hamburger. The burger has always been a roadside dish, made popular by snack bars and casual restaurants. It is not haute cuisine and is rarely served at fancy restaurants. If people do make it at home, it is either to feed kids or because they cannot afford steak or a more expensive cut of meat and keema is the cheap option.
Over a decade ago, long before the term Dude Food had come into vogue, chefs seized on the hamburger as a simple, masculine dish which could be gentrified for expensive restaurants. At New York’s 21 Club, they kept the hamburger off the menu but supplied it to knowledgeable insiders at fancy prices, usually without the bun. (That scene in Wall Street where Michael Douglas tells Charlie Sheen to order a hamburger before walking out of the restaurant because ‘lunch is for wimps’, is set at 21.) The theatrical restaurant Joe Allen copied the idea of an off-menu hamburger at all of its branches.
And that should have been that. Except that the Michelin-starred chefs got in on the act.
Daniel Boulud did an overpriced hamburger at his DB Bistro Moderne in New York, throwing in foie gras and truffles – essentially a Tournedos Rossini made with minced beef and served on a bun. Gordon Ramsay did his own version at London’s Boxwood Café with more foie gras. And so on.
The chefs followed one essential principle of Dude Food: take a simple masculine dish and elevate it with imaginative touches. But they diverged from what was to become Dude Food by trying to turn a classic dish into poncy haute cuisine.
The current Dude Food movement tries to take the hamburger away from McDonald’s, Burger King etc. But it stops well short of turning it into a fancy, very expensive Michelin-starred dish. A Dude Food hamburger will be made with good quality meat, will be cooked medium rare, will have enough beef for you to bite into it (unlike say the slender McDonald’s patty) and will be served on good bread. But there will be no foie gras, no truffles and no overpriced nonsense.
Though the Australians claim the Dude Food name, the idea has been floating around New York for a while. That city is now bustling with upmarket burger joints. The great New York restaurateur Danny Meyer has hit gold with his Dude Food-style Shake Shack chain. The Le Parker Meridien even has a burger joint that takes the 21 off-menu burger idea a step further: you can’t even find the restaurant, which is hidden away in the hotel behind a curtain, unless you know where to look. (Yes I know it’s silly but then, that’s New York!)
The burger-as-Dude-Food idea has come to London too with such places as Burger & Lobster and Meat Liquor (both reviewed in these columns some months ago) and such chains as Dylan’s. The idea of American-style Dude Food flourishes in England with places like Pitt Cue Co. offering pulled pork sandwiches and Meat Market taking the Meat Liquor formula forward.
But Dude Food goes beyond burgers. At one level, there are Dude Food restaurants: consciously gritty places in unfashionable areas serving tacos, burritos, macaroni-cheese etc. The best known of these is the faintly ridiculous Shrimpy’s opened on the site of a petrol pump in London’s King’s Cross. And all over New York, similar restaurants are mushrooming: no formal dining (often no proper tables), no standard three-course menus, basic (ie. usually rubbish) service, no reservations (not always, but usually) and edgy décor. The menu consists of junk or comfort food dishes elevated to something much more by the use of quality ingredients and the skill of the chef. You can usually tell a Dude Food restaurant by the queue at the door: because it takes no bookings.
You could argue that David Chang’s hip Momofuku restaurants in New York offer a fancier take on Dude Food; the famous pork bun seems pretty Dude Food-like to me except that one of the Momofukus now has two Michelin stars so Chang may not want to identify himself with the term.
Dude Food, in the Western sense, has yet to come to India but you find elements of the tradition in some of the newer restaurants that have opened in Bombay: Café Zoe and the lunch menus at The Table and especially at Ellipsis, where you even get a variation on the Momofuku pork bun. (Café Zoe and The Table have already been reviewed here; I’m working on a review of Ellipsis, which I like a lot.) Delhi, however, seems to be lagging behind. The top openings of recent times (Chez Nini, Tres etc.) stick to more traditional styles of food.
No doubt the fashion for Dude Food will reach all of India sooner rather than later. But here’s my idea: why do we need to follow the West and do Dude Food hamburgers in India? Why don’t we just do Indian Dude Food?
This is not as difficult as it sounds. Think of all the masculine snack-type dishes that you like, which require a bare minimum of cooking brilliance to make. Let’s see: a good samosa is hard to find these days. A Nizam’s style kathi-kabab roll could do with some polishing. What about Chicken 65, a great Southern dish that strong men eat when they down their whiskies? How about the shami kabab, a wonderful street snack that is now lost forever as over-ambitious chefs try and make galoutis? Or even, how about tandoori chicken? By that I don’t mean the flabby broiler painted red with artificial food colour that you get at most restaurants but a nice juicy, tasty bird that comes out fresh from the bhatti.
I could go on and on. When is the last time you had a good ragda pattice in which the patty tasted of good quality potato and the ‘khattash’ of the ragda filled your mouth? The stuffed parathas made by most roadside guys have now deteriorated to the stage where they are just deep-fried in animal fat so that they have a crunchy texture. What I wouldn’t give to have a flaky paratha, filled with melting keema or even chunky gobhi, soft in the right places and crisp where it needs to be?
Even roadside egg dishes have now fallen into a rut of mediocrity. When I was in my teens, you could go to a dhaba and eat bhurji with rotis and have the meal of your life. Why can’t somebody make a great bhurji – or even a Parsi akuri, glinting with slivers of onion, little leaves of kothmir and tiny shards of chilli – with orange-yolked, free-range eggs? And what about the railway station masala omelette, on which you smeared tomato ketchup and then ate with slices of white bread and oodles of Amul butter? Nobody bothers to take trouble over that any longer; not even at railway stations.
So here’s my plan: let’s throw away all those standard Indian restaurant menus with their eight kinds of paneer, one navratan korma, six bakwas kababs and 12 oily chicken curries and go back to the things people really want to eat.
Let’s find the simple, snacky foods that Indians truly enjoy. Let’s cook them with high quality ingredients and let’s put them on restaurant menus. Speaking for myself, I know that I will be much happier to go to an Indian restaurant that serves me an authentic Nizam’s roll and a killer kulcha-channa then I will be in some ghastly air-conditioned place that pipes in filmi-type versions of ghazals and offers me greasy butter chicken and disgusting paneer pasanda.
It is time for Indian Dude Food. If the West can do it, then we can produce an even better version.
From HT Brunch, October 21
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