Fork in the road: How restaurant R&D is changing what gets on to your plate
Ingredient consultants, sourcing coordinators, supply chains that reach into the Western Ghats — Indian restaurants are intensifying R&D in an attempt to stand out.Updated: Jan 13, 2019 10:20 IST
Every week, Thomas Zacharias, executive chef and partner at The Bombay Canteen, introduces his staff to a new Indian ingredient. They discuss its nutritional value, its use in traditional recipes, and ways to include it in the menu.
Zacharias calls it the Indian Ingredient Programme. Over the last three months, his team at the Mumbai restaurant has researched the Harshil Rajma from Uttarakhand, Kachampuli Vinegar from the Kodagu region of Karnataka, and two types of lime from Himachal.
The first was a juicy, sour lime called Galgal, traditionally used in pickles and chutneys. The team tested it in yogurt and it’s become TBC’s Shrikand & Desi Granola. Topped with oven-roasted strawberries and candied bits of the second Himachali lime, Kimb, it sits on the restaurant’s Sunday brunch menu.
“In the West, a few big restaurants like Noma have their own food research labs. We can’t afford that,” Zacharias says. “This is my way of involving the team in menu development, data-gathering, and in celebrating the diversity of India’s native ingredients.”
“The narrative attached to every dish — whether in terms of ingredients, techniques or recipe — adds to the social and moral cachet of a restaurant. Typically, the restaurants with the best narratives were the older ones… think of Mumbai’s Irani cafés. By investing heavily in R&D, the new restaurants are able to get this kind of cache within three or four years,” says food writer and critic Roshni Bajaj Sanghvi.
As restaurants in India evolve, and diners become more willing to experiment, those looking to stand out in a crowded market are investing in R&D to seek out ingredients with interesting origin tales and unique flavours, combine heirloom recipes with modernist techniques, or shift focus from imported ingredients to unusual local ones.
This is neither easy nor cheap — it requires frequent menu changes, and means forging relationships with small-scale growers far away, sometimes even teaching them how to pack their produce for the road.
Which is why chefs are creating full-time posts for sourcing coordinators; taking ‘foraging’ trips; designing Indian vegetable calendars and hiring menu consultants.
“Restaurants today are more willing to break away from the menus of the past and push the boundaries,” says Manu Chandra, chef-partner at Toast & Tonic (T&T), a restaurant with outlets in Bengaluru and Mumbai. “So it becomes important to add a layer of excitement to your menu, offer something that diners will most likely not see elsewhere.”
At T&T, Chandra’s team makes the concentrated syrups and tonics that are infused in their gin cocktails, in-house — like elderflower and grapefruit, star anise and pear. The restaurant also cures and smokes its own pork for its Andouille sausage, which is served on a sourdough toast made using flour that is milled in-house.
“Earlier, chefs would import a lot. Now, they’ve realised that freshness lies in local produce,” says Delhi-based restaurateur and chef Marut Sikka, who owns Delhi Club House (DCH), which recreates gymkhana and club cuisine.
At the Hyatt hotel Andaz Delhi, executive chef Alex Moser and his team travelled to Uttarakhand for products like the Kumaoni pickles, rock salt and the Timur or Sichuan pepper that are served as accompaniments with dishes like the Barnyard Millet Khichdi, at the restaurant AnnaMaya.
At Masque, a fine-dine restaurant in Mumbai that offers 10-course tasting menus, you’ll find Kalari, a variety of Kashmiri cheese that’s served with rice pancakes and a date-and-walnut chutney. “This is a dish of the Bakharwals, a nomadic tribe with roots in the Valley. We get our Kalari from them, via a friend-cum-trader in Srinagar,” says chef-partner Prateek Sadhu.
The R&D for each dish, Sadhu says, involved identifying flavours that would evoke a memory or create a memory in the mind of the diner. For instance, the Glazed Quail, Yakhni is finished off with salt and oil extracted from the leaves of spruce trees in Pahalgam. It’s the restaurant’s way of recreating the earthy, umami scent of a cold, winter morning in the mountains, Sadhu says.
Taking a traditional dish and adapting it to a restaurant environment isn’t always a straightforward process. To reduce wait time, and give the star ingredient a longer shelf life, restaurants are finding they have to tweak the traditional.
DCH found that its Dak Bungalow Chicken Roast was getting too dry by the time it got to the table, so they’re now combining the roast technique with the sous vide, where an ingredient is vacuum-sealed and cooked in a water bath at a precise temperature. To ensure that the kitchen could churn our kulchas quickly and yet get each one perfect, they’ve also added a temperature sensor to the inside of the tandoor.
Similarly, QSR chain Nukkadwala by Vatika Group, which has 11 outlets across Delhi-NCR, found that it had to tweak the traditional recipes for, of all things, the samosa, if they wanted it to taste uniform and stay crisp as it made its way from their central kitchen to their various eateries and customers.
“For a chain serving in bulk quantities, standardising the taste is important. We did about 100 trials to test the exact amounts of masala and also did numerous trials to get the flour-to-oil ratio in the dough right, so that the samosa crust would stay perfectly crisp,” says CEO Nitika Kapur.
Kapur, incidentally, is a product designer who did extensive R&D to develop the menu for Nukkadwala (Hindi for ‘corner street stall’). The chain aims to celebrate regional street fare from across the country by recreating it as authentically as possible.
Kapur joined as head of R&D in 2014, a year before Nukkadwala opened its first outlet, in Gurgaon. “I put my skills in product design to use -- understanding the market, building price and positioning strategy,” she says. “Since we’re a QSR outfit, we can’t redo a dish if it goes wrong during operations. So I needed to perfect every element at the R&D stage.”
The Bombay Canteen, similarly, invested in a full-time hire for the role of sourcing coordinator. Over the past two years, Garima Pareek has been responsible for creating consistent supply chains that reach into the Western Ghats, Kalimpong, Kohima and the Konkan to bring to the TBC table ingredients like Naga herbs, the karanda or vine potato, and the tree tomato that go into some of the more unusual dishes on the menus of TBC and its sister restaurant, O Pedro.
In order for the complex sourcing to work, the quantities required must remain small, and the menus, extremely flexible. TBC changes its offering every few months. “It works for us because we want to showcase the sheer diversity of Indian ingredients, the seasonal produce, and keep things exciting even for repeat clientele,” Zacharias says.
Keeping the quantities small also lowers the cost of procurement. “It becomes manageable — because the cost may be higher than for an industrially grown product, but you’ve cut out the middleman,” says Chandra of Toast & Tonic.
What restaurants have to invest in then is building relationships with the distant farmers who become crucial to their supply chain. Sadhu of Masque travelled across three Himalayan states to meet each supplier. He also helped them change how they pack produce. The herbs from Uttarakhand now arrive in sealed boxes containing ice packs and hay to ensure they don’t wilt.
Time and patience are key, Pareek adds. “I’ve been trying to source an indigenous variety of red corn from Nandurbar in Maharashtra. The farmers grow it in a remote village and they’ve promised to send it across but it hasn’t happened yet. In a corporate environment, you can reprimand your suppliers, but here, you can’t be rude,” she says.
The payoff is the response from diners. “When restaurants invest like this in sourcing, the quality is usually much higher,” says food writer Anisha Rachel Oommen, editor and co-founder of The Goya Journal. “It helps in the preservation of food diversity too. Plus, when customers come to expect a certain quality, it raises the bar for the industry. And in the end, a better quality of diner is what restaurants and chefs hope for too.
First Published: Jan 12, 2019 18:14 IST