I remember, clearly, almost 15 years ago, when I was about to open Busaba (one of the first south-east Asian restaurants in India), my friends and family thought I was mad, especially since the only experience I had was running a shack called Busabong in Goa for a year before that. When I went to investors, one of them actually told me to steal the chef from Indigo, Colaba, and start a newer and cheaper one called Next To Indigo. However, I didn’t like the idea of stealing the chef. Passion ruled over me, and I opened Busaba, after hunting down a Vietnamese chef from Saigon, Vietnam, and another one from Bangkok, Thailand.
Suddenly, there were many stand-alone restaurants opening up all over town, serving Italian, Indian, Mediterranean and Chinese cuisines. Our very own “fine dining” was in vogue. The Indian customer wanted to break away from the shackles of the five-star experience. Olive was the buzz word in Bandra (W). Café Zoe (Lower Parel) was booming, and Zodiac Grill was going empty. The Table (Colaba) came in, and showed everyone what good food really was. The patrons were well travelled, their palates were being liberated, and they were demanding more. The market was maturing, and money was no bar. But the big question was and still is — which concept or cuisine will work?
Today, there has been an explosion of food ideas, bar concepts, service providers, etc. People want food on the go as they have less time. They want value, and they want it quick and delivered to their houses or offices. Local chains like idlis.com at the airports to Faasos (making rolls) to all the Wok joints (Wok Hei, Wok Express, Wok This Way) are all making their way into the F&B world. Service aggregators like Zomato, Food Panda and Tiny Owl, who bring you incremental businesses, are in. Delivery services like Grab a Grub and Scootsy that will deliver for you at a hefty price are making the rounds.
I even started BusaGO — a meal-in-a-bowl concept, which offers quick, healthy and inexpensive Asian food. I have three of them in Mumbai. I am looking to open more in the north. Delis are mushrooming all over. Concept bars like Social, Monkey Bar, The Bar Stock Exchange and Hoppipola have become the flavours of the month. Even five-star restaurants and high-end standalone eateries have begun to up their game by hiring expat chefs to make quality food. Modern Indian food is the new thing. Molecular gastronomy is being done to death, chefs have their own TV shows (I had one too), and so on. But what about serving plain good food at your restaurant? Everyone now has become a foodie, and will give you an opinion about how they love good food. Bloggers are the new critics who you must tap dance to. People have unearthly number of hours in the day to write 500-word-long scathing reviews about chefs and restaurateurs.
There are concepts growing a dime-a-dozen and I think, there are too many. Concepts are being flung around like a “hammer throw”. Fine-dine was the buzzword for some time, and chefs have confused that with QSR, and have tried to scale their popular restaurants, but have found it difficult to do so.
Keeping it simple
I may sound like a bit of a cynic, but at the end of the day, what I have learnt is that no matter how you do it, get the food right. If you want to be a star in your city, open a casual Italian restaurant and a French bistro, and it could be successful. But please don’t take your fine-dining restaurant, and tell me you are opening 20. Or serve me pathetic food, and say you have a chain of 100. I am a purist, and at the end of the day, I believe in keeping it simple. Even if it is a simple burger or a kathi roll, just keep it simple and pure. On that good note, let me delve into my favourite Dahi Bata Puri at Status. Bon appétit!
Nikhil Chib is a celebrity chef and leading restaurateur.