Is Mumbai on the cusp of a fine-dining revolution?

  • Meenakshi Iyer, Hindustan Times, Mumbai
  • Updated: Apr 15, 2016 15:09 IST
Chef Phuong Tran’s signature chlorophyll house yogurt at Ellipsis

Less than a month ago, Phuong Tran moved to Mumbai to take over the kitchen at Ellipsis, a modern American restaurant in Colaba. This is the Vietnam-born chef’s first trip to India, and his most defining culinary adventure so far. Since his arrival, Tran has already set up meetings with vendors, made several trips to spice markets, changed over 70 per cent of the restaurant’s menu, and tucked into biryani, a dish he finds “quite interesting”.

“India had been on my personal travel list for a long time. I am glad I get to stay here now,” says the 38-year-old chef, who was raised in New Orleans and ran a restaurant called Croft Alley in Los Angeles.

Culinary homecoming

So, what makes a chef leave behind a successful set up and move to India? The answer lies in the fact that the Indian food and beverage industry is gearing up to earn Rs 3.8 trillion in sales by 2017 (source: Grant Thornton). Naturally, Tran isn’t the only chef who’s woken up to that. Chefs from across the world are eager to make the most of the opportunity, and, in doing so, satiate Mumbai’s growing appetite for global food.

At The Table in Colaba, American chef Alex Sanchez has been dishing out his take on modern European cuisine for over five years (barring a gap of a year, a stint with the New York institution, Eleven Madison Park). One of the early movers, Sanchez chose to return to Mumbai. “When I first moved to India in 2011, cuisines were strictly defined: traditional Indian, Chinese, continental, and so on. Now, there is a broader approach towards food. Chefs, myself included, are experimenting with things we have grown up eating back home. America is a big melting pot of cultures. So, my influences reflect that,” says Sanchez.

Chef Alex Sanchez’s signature dish - shrimp dumplings, spicy ginger broth, scallion oil

For Sanchez, and for other international chefs working here, Mumbai seems like an ideal market: large, and nascent, enough to make room for all; diverse and ready to lap up anything thrown its way. “In San Francisco or New York, the restaurant market is oversaturated. So, it is tough to make an impact. In Mumbai, I feel I can bring about a difference to the way people eat,” says Sanchez. This tangible ‘impact’ translates to international trends being replicated for Indian plates and palates: focus on fresh and local ingredients, farm-to-table concepts, growing interest in slow cooking, among others.

Read: 5 international chefs you need to know now

Focus on freshness

For instance, Tran (who grew his own produce in the backyard of his LA restaurant) uses the Californian approach of using fresh ingredients — both local and sourced from abroad — in his signature dishes like rice crepes with toasted shallots, and butter garlic prawns served with bird’s eye chilli, mango and red cabbage salad. “I am in love with your coriander. It is so flavourful,” he adds.

While Indian homes have always believed in the freshness of ingredients, restaurants often trade them for inferior, poorly-sourced produce. But this new breed of chefs wants to change that. For instance, Sanchez sources a portion of his produce from the restaurant’s organic farm in Alibaug. At twice Michelin-starred chef Atul Kochhar’s NRI (Not Really Indian) and now Lima, fresh produce is sourced from a farm in Ganeshpuri.

At One Street Over, which opened in Bandra last year, ex-Ellipsis chef Kelvin Cheung (from Chicago) keeps the place buzzing with dishes like burrata with carrot marinara (made using locally produced baby carrots), kung pao broccoli, and cauliflower cashew hummus. And this time, his partner-in-crime is his long-time collaborator and good friend Boo Kwang Kim, a Korean who moved to Mumbai from Chicago to work with Cheung. In fact, during his time at Ellipsis more than a year ago, Cheung introduced the concept of small plates and large plates, now commonly seen at new openings in the city.

At One Street Over, Chef Kelvin Cheung uses fresh and local produce in his dishes

However, for Colombian-Hungarian chef Pablo Agular, sourcing the right produce proved a bigger challenge while setting up Le 15 Cafe in Colaba with his friend Pooja Dhingra. “In two months we had to figure out everything: from finding staff (which anyone in the business would know is hard to find); suppliers; understanding how products evolve with the seasons; and even the importance of seasons in India,” says Agular.

Read: Small plates are gaining popularity across restaurants in Mumbai

What makes Mumbai hot?

With growing disposable incomes, discretionary spending is on the rise. For the urban young, eating out often forms the largest chunk of this spend. According to a food retail study by Grant Thornton and FICCI, food constituted more than half of our expenditure in 2015. “Thanks to the large young population in the country, this trend is not likely to witness a change in the next 20-25 years,” the report states. This lifestyle appeals to urban India. The youth is well-travelled and exposed to different cultures. They want to experience the finest Scotch and drink the best wine. And chefs are leaving no stone unturned to woo this aspirational lot.

People in the age group of 21-30 years eat out regularly

While this urban populace is interested in all things novel and imported, they are also increasingly interested in discovering regional flavours. And Indian chefs (returning to their motherland after successful stints abroad) have identified this trait. And so was born a unique new sub-cuisine: modern Indian.

For instance, at The Bombay Canteen by Top Chef Masters winner Floyd Cardoz, regional fare like arbi tuk (a Sindhi snack) and crispy alu vadi (a Maharashtrian snack made using colocasia leaves) are top-sellers on the menu. “Indians are born foodies. And to have that is a ready-made market for any chef who wants to work here,” says Cardoz over a Skype call from New York. At NRI, Kochhar is reacquainting the subcontinent with the cuisine it lost to migration. On the menu are dishes like bunny chow, Malay korma and gems from the Mamak cuisine of Malaysia.

Arbi tuk at The Bombay Canteen (Photo: Sanjay Ramchandran)

While modern Indian food may be the flavour of the season, chefs and restaurant owners need to find their respective niches rather than follow a tried-and-tested formula. “Mumbai’s food scene is evolving, the ‘me-too’ syndrome needs to go away,” says Nachiket Shetye, co-founder, Cellar Door Hospitality, a culinary consulting firm.

Ask Kochhar what he thinks of this reverse migration of chefs likes him, and he says, “I think we all think alike: there are some amazing home-grown concepts that have paved the way and encouraged people like to me to set up shop here. Kudos to people like Riyaaz Amlani (the man behind Social, nationwide chain of workspace-cum-bar) and Zorawar Kalra (of Masala Library and Farzi Café fame).”

Read: Chef Atul Kochhar is bringing back Indian food that went international

Sanchez of The Table agrees. “Restaurateurs like AD Singh and Rahul Akerkar (both known for setting up one of the first few fine-dining standalones in the country with Olive and Indigo respectively) have set the stage for us to take the movement forward,” he adds. Numerous names like Gaggan Anand (who plans to set up a restaurant in Mumbai this year), Stephen Gomes of Moksha (the man behind the soon-to-launch gastro pub Chemistry 101), and Manoj Vasaikar (who opened Mirchi & Mime last year) have now taken up the lead in making Mumbai a food destination to watch out for.

The Indian food and beverage industry is on a steady rise

Numbers game

Apart from perks and incentives like annual holidays to home country, accommodation and bills, chefs are also offered partnerships. “Earlier, the scene was dominated by owner-driven restaurants. Now, chefs are claiming ownership and committing to the restaurants,” says Shetye.

However, the biggest advantage of working in India is the sheer size of the market. “I think it is easier to be a big fish in a small pond than to be a small fish in a big pond. New York is the biggest pond I know of,” says Cardoz. To put Cardoz’s fish pond in numbers, in 2010 (when the last census was conducted) New York had about 24,000 restaurants. A quick search on Zomato throws up just over 13,000 restaurants in Mumbai. Now, that’s something to chew on.

The writer tweets as @culturecola

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