Chef Manu Chandra explains why good taste can be spotted in unexpected places
TRUFFLES, CAVIAR and foie gras are not staples at restaurants frequented by the rich, the nouveau riche and wannabes in India. On the other hand, Cristal, Dom Perignon, Blue Label, malts and fine wines (not too fine) fly off the shelves and cellars.
It barely came as a surprise when one night, a frightfully wealthy construction magnate rejected my recommendation for a new single malt we had received as too peaty and opted instead for an equally expensive but better marketed brand. He then proceeded along with his wealthy compatriots to demolish platefuls of spicy, well-cooked and char roasted pieces of boneless chicken morsels and several pizzas. The lady perched high on Christian Louboutins who only insisted on overdressed Caesar salad, extra cheese on the side (hold those anchovies and bacon) to fuel her perennial diet (so essential to fit into her slick little Porsche, I presume) also plays to type.
It doesn’t surprise me either when the scooter riding scholarly couple come in once a month and order the quail, rare tuna, salt-roasted beets with goat cheese, a house wine each, after carefully scanning the right side of the menu to suit what must be a tightly rationed indulgence. Rounding off their meal with bitter chocolate, espressos and biscotti, holding hands they recall their days of backpacking and overseas sabbaticals; revisiting memories of bistros in the bylanes of some small European town. The social activist and NGO worker, who would not touch steak if it more than kisses the grill, pass up foie gras as a grudging concession to health concerns. They give me grief for not having enough ripe camembert and grappa on the menu.
THE RICH and the poor are divided in many ways. It exists in dietary habits and taste as well, but not quite the way you would assume. The very rich can have the most plebeian food choices — billionaire CEOs won’t look beyond curd rice — while waiters parcel muesli, parmesan and risottos to feed their children, to develop good taste along with a good education.
In India, the tastes of those who can afford fine dining is still fairly predictable — more sustenance than indulgence. Indulgences, however, remain firmly in the confines of sugar or fermented sugar — alcohol. The very rapid growth of wealth and the wealthy have not been able to gently alter that thrifty skein of our DNA just yet. People come to restaurants to eat or be seen. (Aside to Indian restaurateurs: If your restaurant succeeds in providing both sustenance and style, you are among a very select few to have truly made it to Olympus. If you can provide only one of the two, you should be congratulated. You probably have better business sense. And you have halved your labour.)
I add here my contempt for those who come into aspirational spaces with trepidation, almost convinced the food is not for them, but determined to try what the wealthy are talking about. Something invariably will go amiss. It could just be the jazz playing instead of Abba. They will sulk in a corner sipping overpriced fresh lime soda. They will leave with a sense of being victimised and in a posh space seemingly designed for the haves alone. They will vent their grievances on Twitter, Facebook and elsewhere within an hour of getting home.
Perhaps I should shelve my contempt and make a suggestion instead. Why not embrace different dining experiences as you have embraced technology and social networking. Some more unsolicited advice: if you don’t attempt to have a good time, chances are that you won’t.
The rich have taken to Louis Vuitton (with such fervour that sometimes you walk into a party and get the feeling that you are on an Annie Leibovitz set). The rich have also taken to luxury cars and premium alcohol effortlessly. So when they say, “I’m a dal chawal kinda guy”, all one hears is a statement of their cultural deprivation. Not your cool quotient, and certainly not your attempt at seeming grounded. It’s tantamount to saying that I only watch foreign movies without subtitles. That statement would be more convincing if you were a dal chawal guy, who rides a bicycle, wears only khadi (not Fabindia) and does not have a hectic passion for sashimi and shochu.
The rich have taken to Vuitton and premium alcohol effortlessly. So when they say, ‘I’m a dal chawal kinda guy’, it reflects on their cultural deprivation
Your culinary horizon won’t expand until you cross the need-based threshold. If you have the wherewithal, you should be crossing it just about now. You really won’t know, unless you try. Is this the rant of a frustrated chef? Not as much as you would think after 13 odd years of close observation of every variety of Indian diner.
What I am is an evangelist for this idea: a culinary leap of faith would do wonders for the culture of our urban centres. It would compel the likes of me to not only experiment with creating bolder and more exciting flavours, but also discover newer ways of feeding the not-so-rich and rich alike. It would have our media flashing news about our own restaurants, establishments, chefs and bars across the front pages rather than borrowing from the West and showcasing someone else’s accolades. It would, in short, add some richness to the dining ethos of this country.
Chandra is Executive chef of Olive Beach, Bengaluru and olive bar & kitchen, Mumbai.