I usually end each year or begin the following one by listing all the food trends I have observed over the last 12 months. This year, for reasons too tedious to recount, I neglected to do such a piece.
But here – either many months after I should have written it or a few months before – is the annual trends round-up!
The End of Courses: In the West they like dividing food into three or four courses – starter, main, pudding and possibly one other (soup? cheese?). That idea first came under attack with the Tasting Menu which was supposed to be a line-up of the chef’s greatest hits spread over many (sometimes, too many) courses. Then came the whole Small Plates and Big Plates thing.
Now, the idea that meals have to be served in courses is under such attack that I think it will be dead (in trendy restaurants, at least) by the end of this decade.
More and more restaurants encourage diners to order a variety of dishes in any order and suggest that rather than individual portions, everyone should share everything.
It is easier for us in India to understand this concept because there is no order to our food anyway and everyone does share everything. In the West, however, it’s pretty revolutionary.
What we will get eventually, I think, is the sort of menu that offers Big Plates, Small Plates, Sharing Platters etc. There will be no individual portions and no specified order of courses. Some Indian chefs are already doing it: Manish Mehrotra, Manu Chandra, all of Zorawar Kalra’s chefs at his casual places, etc.
Young Chefs/Outliers: There will always be the big-name chefs. But all over the world, a new generation of chefs has appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, and caught the public imagination. In the UK, for example, the big boys still keep their stars but the attention is on people like Isaac McHale (whose Clove Kitchen has some of the best food in London) or James Lowe of Lyle’s.
It’s the same in India. The era of the hotel chefs is passing. Manish Mehrotra was the first to break the hierarchy but all the hot chefs now are non-hotel chefs: Gresham Fernandes, Julia Desa, Jatin Malick, Prateek Sadhu, Manu Chandra, Sourabh Udinia, Jaydeep Mukherjee and Anahita Dhondy. Usually they are people who don’t have PR departments to promote them, but their talent shines through anyway.
Cloning: It is now an article of faith that any restaurant, no matter how off-beat and individualistic it may seem, will be cloned. Zuma started as a single-restaurant operation in London; it now has branches all over the world. It followed the lead of Nobu which was just one New York restaurant owned by Robert DeNiro, Drew Nieporent and the eponymous Nobu before it became a global empire. For years and years, Le Petit Maison was a Riviera restaurant, popular only with people who could afford to pay high prices for simple food. Now the London and Dubai versions are so successful that few of the patrons even realise that there is a Nice original.
When outliers take a city by storm as David Chang did many years ago with Momofuku in New York, nobody realises that the Momofuku empire will eventually straddle many countries or that the chef will become a TV star. But nothing breeds excess as much as success.
India has followed the cloning trend. AD Singh, India’s original restaurant pioneer, has many kinds of Olives in many cities. Manu Chandra, who is part of AD’s group, has Monkey Bars and Fatty Baos all over India. And AD’s Soda Bottle Openerwalla (helmed by Mohit Balachandran with Anahita Dhody in the kitchen) has taken India by storm. Zorawar Kalra now has seven Farzi Cafes up and running and plans several more. Anjan Chatterjee’s Mainland Chinas are urban institutions.
Interestingly, the foreign chains have done less well in India. Ping Pong may pack them in at its London outlets but it flopped here. I’ll be polite and not name the other foreign restaurant chains that have failed to meet the expected response in India but with the exception of Yauatcha in Bombay, there are no stunning successes.
Contrast this with homegrown talent. Mamagoto is a great Indian success story. The Cafe Delhi Heights people are on a roll. Partners Navneet Kalra and the Bajajs have rewritten many of the old rules at their Delhi restaurants and Riyaz Amlani continues to reign over his Smokehouse empire.
Outside Financing: In the US and the UK, the process of raising money for a restaurant is not unlike the process of financing a movie. In both cases you go to people outside the industry and entice them into investing by offering them a slice of glamour. Even people with a ten per cent share in a dining venture will pretend to outsiders that they are the owners of a glamorous restaurant or the producers of a new movie. So great is the return in terms of glamour and showing off that even if the financial returns are not as high as promised, the investors don’t mind. They got what they came for.
Something like that is finally happening in India. People are willing to put money into restaurants only because it seems glamorous. This comes as a relief to restaurateurs, some of whom have fallen out of love with the private equity boys, who can be hard taskmasters. Now, a new source of funds has opened up.
Food Trends: Contrary to the general view that a global food revolution is coming, I don’t see much change, just gradual evolution. Molecular cuisine continues its downward slide. Foraging is all very well for Noma but most Western chefs have not really taken to it. Forest mushrooms and wild leaves are as far as they are prepared to go. In India, foraging for food is probably a health hazard anyway.
There are some trends that we should adopt here however. In the West, seasonal eating is bigger than ever, which should come as no surprise to Indian home cooks who have always been constrained by the seasonal vegetables our farmers can grow anyway.
But Indian chefs have ignored the wisdom of their mothers. For instance, thanks to cultivation in Peru, asparagus is available all year around. But Peruvian asparagus can be tasteless and good Western chefs are picky about using it. Not so in India where it routinely turns up on menus. The same is true of so many ‘imported’ vegetables.
Our chefs have not yet learnt to distinguish between quality vegetables and rubbish. For instance, an Asian cep/porcini imported fresh from Bangkok may well be a member of the Boletus family and can be cultivated in those months when there are no ceps in Europe. But Asian ceps are horrible and taste nothing like the real thing. But our chefs use them anyway because they sound fancy.
In the West, the cleverer chefs are the ones who understand seasonality and then turn it on its head. At dinner at The Clove Club in London this summer, I was surprised to discover that the chef was using high-quality black truffles. I knew for a fact that they were out of season and that the summer truffles served elsewhere in London were bereft of flavour.
So how did they do it? Finally I went and asked. The truffles, it turned out, were from Australia, where they cultivate them (in Tasmania, apparently).
But this is June? I asked the chef. So how did the Australians grow such flavourful summer truffles?
He smiled. “No they are winter truffles. It is winter in Australia, now. They are in the Southern Hemisphere.”
Oh yes, silly me!
So what should you expect? Well, basically, an aggregation of the trends of the last few years: the winding down of formal restaurants; the growth of casual, multi-cuisine standalones; a flood of new entrants into the business who have raised money from private individuals and a greater uniformity in restaurants all over India.
There will no longer be “a famous Delhi restaurant”. If it’s that famous, it will open clones/branches in Bombay and Bangalore too.
Will this lead to the development of better restaurants? Or an end to gastronomic diversity and the growth of boring identikit restaurants?
We shall find out!
From HT Brunch, October 16, 2016
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