I woke up in a strange hotel room last Sunday and reached for my morning paper. Bleary-eyed, I worked out that I wasn’t at home, wasn’t even in India and that therefore, I would not get to see that week’s Brunch. Well, yes and no.
As I unfolded the Bangkok Post, guess what fell out? A copy of Brunch. Yes, a Sunday supplement called Brunch. I peered closely. It was larger than our Brunch. And I guess it’s new. I certainly don’t remember seeing it before. Judging by the contents, it also owes something to the original. So I guess we should all be flattered. Imitation is the sincerest form… etc etc.
But the naqli Brunch got me thinking. When the HT first started Brunch (in Calcutta and then Delhi), the idea was to capture the sense of a leisurely Sunday morning. We intended Brunch to be the sort of publication that you lingered over long after you had thrown the other newspapers away.
Obviously, we were inspired by the meal. Something about brunch, the afternoon meal, epitomises a lazy Sunday. You can’t really have brunch on any other day. Have you ever been invited to Tuesday brunch, for instance? Some people try and do a Saturday brunch but it never seems quite right. Brunch and Sundays go together like eggs and bacon, chhola and bhatura, and puri and aaloo.
But what are the origins of brunch, itself? In India, at least, the brunch craze is a relatively recent development. As late as the 1990s, many hotels were serving vast Sunday lunches. The idea was that a Sunday lunch gave the family a chance to get together and some hoteliers sold their lunches cheap so that more families could enjoy them. These days, it’s hard to find a Sunday lunch. Almost anybody who does a buffet on Sundays now calls it a brunch and begins service slightly earlier than is normal for lunch. Nor do people invite you for lunch on Sundays any longer. It’s nearly always brunch.
We’re following the American pattern. Much research has gone into the invention of brunch and as always, there are many conflicting opinions. Broadly though, etymologists are agreed that the term is of English origin dating to the second half of the 19th century. Brunch, a contraction of breakfast and lunch, was invented as a Sunday alternative to the very heavy high teas that English people ate in the evenings.
But while the Brits invented brunch, it was the Americans who perfected it. Many dishes that will forever be associated with brunch were invented in America. Eggs Benedict, for instance, which consists of ham, eggs, and Hollandaise sauce on a muffin, was created at New York’s Delmonico’s. The Bloody Mary, another staple of Sunday brunch, sprang to fame in America. And such foods as waffles which nearly always turn up on brunch menus are essentially American.
Another theory has it that brunch was created by New York Jews who found that they had nothing to do while the gentiles were at church. They could have waited for lunch, of course, but that would have taken too long. By then the service would have been over and the goyim would have returned. Brunch provided a perfect way of enjoying oneself while Christians listened to sermons and sang hymns. This theory holds that the smoked fish which is also a staple of brunch (these days, most often as smoked salmon) is a holdover from the Jewish meals that comprised the early brunches.
Within the hotel business, it is generally agreed that brunch became a phenomenon in New York in the 1980s when restaurants began offering good-value brunch menus. Especially in the summer, New Yorkers loved meeting up in large groups on Sunday afternoons and if the restaurant had an outdoor seating area, this was even better.
There was, of course, another reason for the introduction of brunch. Most chefs work their butts off all week and have no desire to return to the kitchen on Sunday afternoon. Unfortunately for restaurateurs, the rent still has to be paid and salaries are still due. So, restaurant owners looked for a way in which they could turn Sunday lunch into a profit centre without forcing the chef to come in to work.
If they served the full lunch menu on Sundays, then they were committed to upholding the restaurant’s weekday standards – which was difficult to do if the chef wasn’t in the kitchen.
Brunch was the perfect compromise. You served a basic menu of about five dishes, none of which required any skill to cook: Eggs, waffles, steak, fried fish etc. You threw in booze (Bloody Marys included in the price etc) and charged reasonable rates for the package. The punters flocked to the restaurant, the profits rolled in and nobody minded that the chef was off and the food had been cooked by some junior kitchen minion.
To this day, most great chefs will refuse to work on Sunday. Nearly all of them have a deep and abiding contempt for the brunch market. They believe that it consists of people who can’t afford to come to the restaurant when it is charging full price but turn up when there’s an all-inclusive package. In London, there’s an added complication. Chefs reckon that rich people go to the country over the weekend and that the Sunday brunch market comprises out-of-towners who want to say that they’ve been to a great London restaurant even if the only dish they ate there was an omelette.
Ah, the omelette. That’s the other reason why restaurateurs prefer serving brunch to lunch. Anybody who sits down to lunch expects a three-course meal with a high meat content and therefore, a high food cost. At brunch, however, you can fob the punters off with eggs which cost virtually nothing; with potatoes and toast which are cheap; and even when you offer some seemingly elaborate waffle concoction, your food cost is minimal. Sure, there will also be a buffet with lots of expensive items. But the idea is to fill you up with eggs, potatoes, pancakes, waffles and the like so that you’re too full to eat very much by the time you get to the buffet. At stand-alone restaurants, there’s usually no buffet at all. Once you’ve got past the eggs, they’ll fill you up with low-food-cost pasta and pizza. You’ll think it’s a really good deal and they’ll laugh all the way to the bank.
I’m not sure when the brunch craze came to India. As far as I can recall, coffee shops always did some variation of brunch but fancy restaurants considered it to be beneath them. My guess is that the turnaround moment came with the introduction of the Sunday brunch at La Piazza at Delhi’s Hyatt Regency. La Piazza offered a sumptuous antipasti buffet with some genuine high-cost items. But after you had made one trip to the buffet and filled your small plate with carpaccio and salumi, you sat down and waited to be served.
This comprised the bulk of the meal and consisted of lots of pasta and pizza. Even so, the brunch was a hit. La Piazza refused to take reservations and the area outside the restaurant was always packed each Sunday with Delhi yuppies begging to be charged large sums of money for pizza.
Since then, pretty much everybody does some kind of brunch. The liquor companies have realised that it offers a great opportunity to push their booze so you’ll get the likes of Laurent Perrier champagne on the house (the hotel buys it at a discount) or Martinis made with some heavily advertised vodka like Belvedere or Grey Goose (also a promotion). Nobody is really lavish though. Over a decade ago, at Compass Rose at the old Westin Grand hotel in Singapore (now a bit of a disaster area after a change of management) I had an incredibly lavish brunch consisting of as much Sevruga caviar as I could eat; foie gras cooked fresh to my specifications and a seafood buffet full of the plumpest French oysters. And there was Veuve Clicquot champagne.
Indian hotels are reluctant to be as generous. Abhijeet Mukherjee introduced the champagne-and-caviar brunch at Machan when he was general manager of the Delhi Taj and it still remains the best deal in town. Also good value is the China Kitchen brunch where they serve what seems like the entire menu (including the famous Peking Duck); a worthy successor to the same hotel’s pioneering La Piazza effort.
Among stand-alones, opinions are mixed. Ritu Dalmia tried a Sunday brunch at Diva and decided it wasn’t working. Varun Tuli of Delhi’s Yum Yum Tree has just introduced a Sunday brunch about which I have heard very good things. In Bombay, Rahul Akerkar has the brunch market to himself because of the fabulousness of the food at Indigo. And he does breakfast and brunch at the Indigo Deli which I have never been to but which is highly praised.
I used to enjoy the Martini brunch at M at Bombay’s Grand Hyatt when I stayed there and I’m sure it’s as good as it’s always been. The Imperial brunch in Delhi is wonderful when the weather is cool but less wonderful when it’s hot. The Pavilion at the Maurya still has the best Indian food at brunch. And most hotels will offer something that is better value than the normal menu.
Wherever you go, some general rules: steer clear of the eggs, waffles etc; look for the expensive seafood; if there’s caviar on the buffet, never leave that side of the table; and if there’s champagne, drink yourself silly. What the hell! You’ve paid for it all.