Carrots lie strewn on the wet floor, a few feet from bunches of wilted coriander. Alex Sanchez, executive chef at Colaba’s trendy European restaurant, The Table, shakes his head as he lifts a plastic crate to reveal smashed lettuce. “Destroyed,” he says. “Lettuce is a delicate vegetable.” He then lets go of a cabbage in passive frustration as a cockroach zips across the inside leaves.
Like a lot of other chefs at standalone fine-dining restaurants, those not part of five-star hotels, Sanchez daily struggles to procure high-quality ingredients, the foundation of good cooking.
“You cannot make an authentic, delicious dish with sub-par ingredients, no matter how much you might try to mask them with condiments and technique,” says Rahul Akerkar, owner of deGustibus Hospitality, which manages modern European restaurant Indigo, the more informal Indigo Deli and Indian restaurant Neel. “A restaurant cannot afford to have a dish taste different even once because of an inferior ingredient. Quality and consistency depend directly on ingredients.”
When it comes to buying ingredients locally, most chefs do the rounds of markets, such as Crawford and Pali Market, to survey what’s in season and if anything new is available. They then return to their kitchens with lists and order what they want from trusted suppliers, most of whom obtain their produce from farms in Pune, Bangalore and Nashik.
“I visit vegetable markets frequently for inspiration, because some of the bigger ones have newer ingredients like arugula, Chinese cabbage, certain varieties of mushroom and so on, but they aren’t stored properly, so you can’t buy them there,” says Nachiket Shetye, chef and owner of 36 Oak and Barley, which serves dishes such as mesquite mashed potatoes and other comfort food. “I’d rather source from suppliers, from whom I’m assured a certain level of quality.”
Even with a network of suppliers, though, there can be problems.
“Mumbai has peculiar challenges,” says Sanchez of The Table. “In Paris, everything is hyper-seasonal. Here, though, even for something as easily available as rocket leaves, the quality may be great one day but terrible the next. So if an ingredient is sub-par one day, I tweak the dish or the menu.”
The quality varies, say chefs, because food suppliers use only the most rudimentary transportation and storage facilities. “Most suppliers aren’t paid enough or passionate enough to care about things such as proper refrigeration in transit,” says Sanchez. “The few who both know how to get the best ingredients and treat them properly end up sending them first to the five-star hotels. Smaller restaurants get what’s left over.”
For this reason, chefs usually have two suppliers for each product, says Gresham Fernandes, group executive chef for Impressario Hospitality, which owns Salt Water Café in Bandra and Smoke House Deli in Lower Parel — both of which serve modern European food — among others. “While I do get fresh seafood in from local markets at Sassoon Docks and Bhaucha Dhakka, it is important to have international options as well, in case something isn’t available here.”
The import riddle
Many restaurants just give up and import their key ingredients from Europe, Southeast Asia, Dubai and Mexico, and charge customers a premium to justify the extra cost. Two One Two Bar and Grill in Worli, for instance, uses only tomatoes from the San Marzano region in Italy because of the unique flavour they lend to sauces. “It takes a few years, but eventually you find importers whom you can trust blindly for quality,” says Sanjay Kotian, chef and owner of Mia Cucina, a chain with branches in Bandra, Powai and Versova, all serving Italian food.
Even here, you need a backup. “If your usual brand of, say, gorgonzola cheese is unavailable, you would need to check the new brand for freshness, taste it and cook with it, before you start to serve it, to make sure the taste of your dish isn't altered much,” says Kotian.
For this reason, as with local suppliers, chefs build relationships with several vendors internationally.
“If there are problems with products coming from a certain country, like after the tsunami in Japan, we have to find reliable vendors from other countries, such as Singapore,” says Farrokh Khambata, who owns Joss, which serves pan-Asian food, in Kala Ghoda, and Amadeus, a Spanish restaurant at Nariman Point.