For the first course, we’re served a salad. Half a grilled peach, its skin lightly stained, and a pickled beetroot dressing sits on a bed of puffed bajra. It is surrounded by pieces of pickled and fresh mango, capers and microgreens. The next course is a thick, creamy roasted corn soup made from popcorn, with dill and lemon vinaigrette and chaat masala. Course after course, we are presented with combinations that you simply wouldn’t find on a restaurant menu.
But we are not eating in a restaurant. This was the first meal of the Cellar Door Hospitality’s Food with Benefits (FWB) dinners at the Studio Fifteen culinary studio at Elphinstone. Dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, Nachiket Shetye, chef, and the man behind Restaurant Week, is cooking. Before plating up, he explains what we’re being served and, through the meal, he and his team serve refills straight from the pan, clear plates, and top up the wine.
Though you have a roomful of diners, freshly cooked food, and you even pay for the meal (albeit before, not after), this is far removed from a conventional restaurant experience.
Beyond the norm
It’s ironic, but just as the golden age of dining seems to be dawning on Mumbai, we’re also witnessing the birth of an anti-restaurant movement — diners, entrepreneurs and chefs are collaborating to break away from the constraints of a conventional meal out.
A section of diners believe that though there are numerous restaurants, few are offering conceptually stimulating food. Another group would like to experiment with new cuisines and dishes. Yet another wants the restaurant experience to be more personal and interactive.
On the other side of the fence, chefs and restaurateurs have come to realise that most of their customers have set tastes and don’t want to deviate from the norm too much. Shetye, for instance, believes that though many more Indians are travelling abroad and are exposed to new cuisines, few people actually “have the evolved palate to experiment with new foods. People still want a certain level of spice. They may try broccoli, but they want broccoli only in a particular sauce. If you give someone a simple dish, which focuses on the ingredient, it won’t work.”
So, both chefs and experimental eaters have been looking for an alternative space where new culinary concepts can be explored and new cuisines tasted in an informal environment.
The anti-restaurant movement of sorts is beginning to closely resemble the classic French dinner party. Author and journalist Daniel Duane explains this phenomenon in an article in Food & Wine magazine: “At dinner parties, everybody arrives at the same time, has a drink with the cook in the kitchen, then settles around a single table. They eat the same dishes at the same time and linger for hours. There’s no bill to pay when it’s all over, so they can say good night without breaking the spell.”
Globally, this off-restaurant-menu dining phenomenon began in Hong Kong around a decade ago, with chefs and home cooks setting up dinners in their home kitchens.
Closer home, we have chefs hosting meals, as well as home cooks inviting strangers over. For instance, Gresham Fernandes, group executive chef, Impresario Entertainment and Hospitality (it runs Social, Salt Water Café and Smokehouse Deli), conducts Doobious Dinners at the food lab-cum-kitchen studio at the erstwhile St Jude’s bakery, Bandra. “The idea (behind Doobious Dinners) is to cook food that you want and not just what the customer wants,” says Fernandes.
Designed primarily to be a space for chefs to experiment with new ideas and develop new concepts, St Jude is set up completely different from a normal restaurant. “It’s like a house; there’s no kitchen area or service area,” says Fernandes. Everything is cooked fresh. “We’re moving away from packaged stuff. We’re making our own soy, our own miso. Even if I gave you the recipe, you wouldn’t be able to make the dish because nothing is store-bought. When we cooked pork belly once, it was aged in brine for a week, then smoked and cooked at 80 degrees for eight hours,” says Fernandes.
The home dinner invite
But at the heart of every good dinner party is a talented chef who can produce memorable meals. And where better to recreate a home-like atmosphere than at home? That’s the premise of Trekurious, an online platform launched by Sri Lankan Rukmankan Sivaloganathan earlier this year, to connect home chefs with diners. In Mumbai, they have tied up with home chefs like Munaf Kapadia of The Bohri Kitchen, Ananya Banerjee (for African and Bengali cuisine) and Soumitra Velkar (for Pathare Prabhu cuisine).
The home chef phenomenon, says Sivaloganathan, “has to do with the MasterChef phenomenon. There’s a realisation that if you’re naturally inclined towards cooking and put in a bit of effort and study, you can produce good food at home.”
But it’s not just home chefs who’ve taken to doing meals at home. “We’ve had a couple of chefs who’ve worked in big restaurants applying as well. Some of them feel that restaurants stifle creativity…. You have to adhere to the menu requirements,” Sivaloganathan says.
It’s this rigidity of restaurant menus that gave birth to The Secret Supper Project (TSSP), which was launched two-and-a-half years ago. K, one of the founders (he only allows himself to be identified by the single letter), explains the rationale behind it: “Everyone was complaining that they were bored and were ‘eating the same thing’. Plus, everyone was meeting the same people” every time they dined out. So, TSSP decided to organise monthly dinners where the food did not appear on any restaurant menu and the guests, almost always, were interesting strangers. The venues vary. Often, it’s at a private residence but, sometimes, at a soon-to-open restaurant or even a kitchen workshop. Finalising the menu involves a series of discussions and tastings with the chef and the TSSP team. “People come to us to be surprised, so we make sure that it’s not a replication of a meal that’s available in the city,” K says.
But not everyone, who is informed about a TSSP dinner, actually gets a seat. “The screening,” says K, “is not about purchasing power or wealth. We want people who are truly open and adventurous about new experiences.”
The kitchen studio has become a popular alternative space. Silverspoon Gourmet, a gourmet catering company, added a private dining room last year to its catering kitchen. The kitchen, on the ground floor of a commercial complex in Lower Parel, is not easy to find, but Neha Manekia, one of the partners, says they have three-four bookings a week. What customers enjoy, says Manekia, is the “experience of having the entire studio to themselves. The chef is dedicated to you the whole evening, so it’s personal. You’re not one of the many diners at a restaurant.”
Though held in different parts of the city and by different chefs, all of these spaces share some characteristics: it’s usually a five- to eight-course meal, the chef or home cook explains each dish before you start eating, and the service and atmosphere is casual. Group sizes remain small, from 20 to just 12.
The numbers will always be small, believes Shetye, because the client base is not likely to grow large enough to sustain this as a daily business. In the case of the home chefs, Sivaloganathan concedes there is a scalability issue — the chefs are only free to host dinners on weekends.
While restaurants are in no danger of losing business to these alternative spaces, it does mark a transition in diners’ expectations and the potential for more exciting experiences in the future.
(Photos courtesy: thepocketsfactory (for Doobious Dinners), Trekurious, Silverspoon Gourmet)
(The writer tweets as @chezantoine