The Taste with Vir Sanghvi: London-Indian food is dead. Here’s why
In this week’s column, Vir Sanghvi looks at how the tides have turned for Indian chefs abroad – led by Gaggan Anand’s success – and what it means for local fine dining restaurants.more lifestyle Updated: Oct 11, 2017 12:33 IST
Last week, Michelin published its guide to London restaurants. Several Indian restaurants got one star each --- there are still no two-star restaurants in England that feature any Asian cuisine except for Japanese, which the Michelin Guide loves. In fact, of the 12 restaurants in London which have two or three stars, 10 serve food that is French-inspired and two are Japanese. Not one Chinese. Not one Thai. Not one Indian. And, not even one Italian or Spanish restaurant. (You could argue that Dinner which deservedly won two stars is medieval English but in terms of style and technique, it is very French-influenced.)
As far as the Indian restaurants went, nobody lost a star. (Actually, this was a boring year for Michelin overall. Nearly every restaurant kept its stars.) The usual suspects remained on the list. Vineet Bhatia, the gifted, pioneering London chef, who first won a star years ago at Zaika, had lost his star when he closed his restaurant. He won it back after he opened again, which was nice, but hardly a surprise.
The one fresh entry was Jamavar, owned by the Nairs of the Leela group. But even that was no surprise. Not only has Jamavar been widely praised by British critics, its chef, Rohit Ghai, had previously won a star at Gymkhana, (Gymkhana retained its star despite Ghai’s departure).
You could argue with the list (isn’t it about time that Chutney Mary got a star?) but it was a pretty accurate listing of the most expensive Indian restaurants in London, most of which are within a couple of miles of each other.
I have been to some of the Michelin-starred Indian restaurants in London and on the nights I went, some were very good. Vineet Bhatia is a class act. Sriram is a terrific chef and his Quilon is wonderful: think of Bangalore’s Karavali given a modern London makeover. I had a very good meal at Gymkhana. The Panjabi sisters, who have two restaurants on the list, run an excellent operation. I am not so keen on some of the others but this is not the time to diss chefs who have just won Michelin stars.
Here’s my question though: are any of these restaurants doing food that is so wonderful and inspirational that we should learn from them? Is London still, as the London chefs used to claim, ‘the capital of Indian cuisine’?
My answer would be: No.
This is fair enough. Would a Frenchman expect to learn more about his cuisine from a French restaurant in London? So why should we, as Indians, need to understand our own food and its potential from restaurants in a foreign city?
I guess we spent so long caring about the London restaurants because a) most Indians who go abroad go to London b) there weren’t that many upmarket Indian restaurants in other cities and c) the restaurant scene in India had not gone beyond a few hotel restaurants.
All that has changed now. Indians travel all over the world, not just to London and back. There are great Indian restaurants in many foreign cities: Everybody I know who has eaten at Floyd Cardoz’s Paowalla in New York has come back raving. If you take Michelin as an indicator of quality, then none of the London chefs is in the same league as Srijith Gopinathan of San Francisco’s Campton Place who has two stars in a very competitive, foodie city. Vikas Khanna (whose New York restaurant Junoon has one Michelin star) is actually better known in America --- a country that has no particular love of Indian food --- than any of the London chefs are in curry-crazy Britain.
And of course, the Indian restaurant scene has now come of age and our homegrown chefs are brilliant. Manish Mehrotra is at least the equal of – if not better than – the best London chefs. (He will open the London Indian Accent down the road from Gymkhana this winter.) There are young chefs, products of the new India who see what is happening all over the world and inject that knowledge into their food: Thomas Zacharia, Sourabh Udinia, Prateek Sadhu, Vikramjeet Roy and so many others.
As for experimentation, once the forte of the London chefs, nobody in India thinks it is a stroke of genius to make a biryani with deer rather than goat (and even in London, the great Cyrus Todiwala did the whole game/venison thing many, many years ago). There is more genuine innovation happening in India today, than anywhere in London when it comes to Indian food. Avartana in Chennai is a brilliant new take on South Indian cuisine. The Bombay Canteen menu is streets ahead of anything in London of its genre. Saurabh Udinia has done more to re-invent the food of India’s North East for new audiences than anyone I know.
For all of these reasons, nobody in foodie circles in India cares about London restaurants as much as we used to, even five years ago. It isn’t London that has changed; it is the rest of the world and India, in particular, that has moved on.
And of course, there is one other factor.
Gaggan is now the most famous and successful Indian chef in the world. His Bangkok restaurant has been Asia’s number one restaurant for three years in a row. More significantly, it is now number seven in the list of the world’s best restaurants. (Yes, I know these lists can be arbitrary and suspect. But all chefs try to get on to them, anyway. And of the Indians, only Gaggan and Manish have managed it.The London chefs don’t even get a look in.)
The measure of Gaggan’s fame is such that his restaurant is now regarded as a must-try across genres. People go to his restaurant for the same reason they go to say, Arzak (nobody goes there merely because they like Spanish food) or Osteria Francescana (it is much more than an Italian restaurant).
I try and go to Gaggan as often as I can. (I’ve known him from the time his restaurant opened so he finds me a seat; otherwise, the restaurant is fully booked several months ahead). I went again last week and he was kind enough to seat me in the Lab, a counter area for about a dozen people where Gaggan serves the food himself and explains each dish. He often also plays loud music to create the mood: The night I went, the very merry diners, lubricated with libations from Gagan’s excellent cellar, joined him in choruses of Hey Jude and Imagine at end of the meal.
Gaggan’s food is to traditional Indian cuisine what say, Rene Redzepi’s food is to normal Scandinavian cuisine or Yoshihiro Narisawa’s food is to classic Japanese cuisine. You know that he can turn out a perfect rogan josh if he wants to. But he’s gone beyond that and tries to do things that others have not: His idli is the lightest in the world, his scallop curry redefines our understanding of curry and his lobster dosa is like no dosa ever made before.
Last week, at the Lab, he talked about his food philosophy and how it had evolved. He started out, he says, trying to imitate the styles of Western chefs he admired. But he soon realised that it wouldn’t work. In the West, he said, a main course is usually a protein with vegetables on the side. In Indian food, there is no such thing as a main course. At every meal, each dish is as important. Who is to say that a bhindi subzi counts for more than the dal or that the mutton korma is less important? They are all equal.
And so, Indian food works to a totally different philosophy from Western food. Any chef who tries to serve plated main courses copying Western presentation is doomed to fail. Gaggan admitted that he had learned this the hard way himself.
As I listened to him talk, I realised that he had just put his finger on what most of the London chefs get wrong. They Frenchify a cuisine that should be immune to Frenchification.
I thought back to the chefs I admired – Srijith, Manish and so many others. At some level (consciously or otherwise) they have come to the same conclusion. That’s why their food is so good. They are not making twenty-five pound curries on silly plates to flog with overpriced red wine in the heart of Mayfair.
So yes, I admire many of the London chefs for their talent. But as a genre, after the rise of our own chefs and of Gaggan in particular, London-Indian food is dead — or at least, of no real interest to me.They may love it in Berkeley Square. But that is where it will remain.
That’s no bad thing. Lots of Brits like their food. And so, more power to them, to their Michelin stars and to their Mayfair prominence.