On a weekday afternoon at The Sassy Spoon in Mumbai last fortnight, the last of the lunch crowd was lingering over their macchiatos and petit fours. Chef Irfan Pabaney sat down to draft his first tasting menu for the new restaurant. “Maybe we could start with a shot of tomato soup—that’s thick and tangy. Follow that up with two parcels of three-bean ravioli with sherry cream. Then we could clear up all those rich flavours with a lemon sorbet,” he mused. “No, that would be too tart. Maybe a watermelon and mint instead....”
Pabaney was making preliminary plans for the Chef’s Table Week starting Monday. The Sassy Spoon, along with 23 other restaurants across Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore, will participate in the event, organized by Desi Restaurant Week Events (the folks behind the popular Restaurant Week). Patrons who make dinner reservations will get to partake of a six-course tasting menu for Rs.2,500 in Mumbai and Delhi, and Rs.2,000 in Bangalore. Chef’s Table Week was last held in February 2012 (in Mumbai and Delhi, not Bangalore), but the organizers now hope to host it four times a year.
The samplers on offer can be considered a “best of” compilation put together by the chefs, who have been invited to showcase signature dishes as well as to introduce off-the-menu specials. The premise is simple, explains Mangal Dalal of Desi Restaurant Week Events. “A menu with smaller portions and more variety lets diners get a better sense of what the restaurant is about,” he says. “We believe that the chef is the best person to do your ordering for you.”
Abhijit Saha, chef and owner of Caperberry in Bangalore, is a firm believer in the format. At his restaurant, diners can opt for a nine- or 12-course degustation menu, apart from regular à la carte offerings. “It changes the concept of dining from a meal to an experience, and lets the chef showcase his talent and creativity,” he says.
An important aspect of the week-long event is that diners will also get to interact with the people behind the menus: A particularly plump carrot to dangle in front of a growing tribe of “foodies” for whom the chef’s toque has become something of a tiara. “Over the past few years, people have been getting more passionate about dining, and chefs are turning into figureheads,” says Dalal.
Perhaps the chef most synonymous with celebrity status is Vicky Ratnani of Aurus in Mumbai. He is easily recognizable, owing to television shows like Gourmet Central, Vicky Goes Foreign and Vicky Goes Veg on NDTV Good Times. “Nowadays, the chef is nearly always at the front of the house,” he says. “Maybe in a five-star hotel, the brand is bigger than the chef. But in a stand-alone, it’s the chef who makes the brand.”
The chefs, meanwhile, have a lot of creative brainstorming and practical prepping to do before they are free to engage in these coveted tête-à-têtes. Saha illustrates the thought process: “What starches am I using? Which vegetables and fruits? Is there too much seafood?”
Balancing food groups is only one aspect of it. Chefs must also make sure they hold the diners’ attention through the nearly 2 hours it takes to get through the courses. Putting together a cohesive tasting menu involves crafting a series of innovative dishes that showcase exotic ingredients and seasonal produce, and also demonstrates different cooking techniques and presentations.
Churning out a tasting menu puts a lot of strain on the kitchen team and wait staff too. For 10 diners, a restaurant usually fixes 20-30 plates, with two-three service changes of fresh crockery, cutlery and so on. “When you’re talking a six-course tasting menu, that number shoots up to around 60-70 plates,” explains Jatin Mallick, chef and co-owner of Tres in Delhi.
For restaurants, providing a seamless experience to the customer doesn’t just involve a lot of effort; it also comes at a high monetary cost. The chef who wants to showcase imported delicacies such as morels, truffles and foie gras is doing it for the love of cooking, not to fatten his cash till, says Saha. “It doesn’t make sense from the business point of view. For instance, Scottish salmon costs us more than it does our European counterparts, yet we still have to sell it cheaper.”
It’s not just the chefs who have reservations about tasting menus; many believe the Indian market hasn’t fully warmed to the idea either. Some of the participating restaurants have a regular tasting menu in addition to their à la carte offerings, but many others don’t. “Most guests at fine-dining restaurants in India are used to lengthy menus with wide choices, a format that’s making its way out slowly. The average diner doesn’t want to be restricted by limited options,” says Ratnani.
Kelvin Cheung, executive chef at Ellipsis in Mumbai, will chart out a menu for the event, and soon, regular tasting courses too. Cheung has worked at restaurants in Toronto, Canada, and Chicago, US, where tasting menus are firmly entrenched, but he is convinced that India’s food culture will be resistant to the format. “People are accustomed to platters you can share, and lots on the table to choose from,” he says. “Individual plated portions served one at a time is alien. Only a small slice of the population is asking about it,” says Cheung.
There’s also an enduring suspicion of itsy-bitsy bite-sized creations—central to the template of a tasting menu, adds Pabaney. After all, in tasting courses, a big bowl of salad is liable to become two diminutive stalks of greens, balanced just so, and the loaded burger shrinks to a dainty comestible called a slider. Pabaney believes that Indian diners still care about paisa vasool (value for money). “It matters how big the portion appears on the plate, and how full one feels at the end of the meal.”
Mallick clarifies: “How much can one person eat? About 600g of food, on average. If that’s broken up into five or six courses or served in one go, it’s the same thing.” He is of the opinion that it’s the formal, sequential structure of a tasting menu that’s foreign, not the concept of many small plates. “In a normal Indian meal, we have so many components with a variety of tastes and textures. We aren’t used to a single, straightforward dish.”
An interesting point to note is that Chef’s Table Week deviates quite significantly from tasting menu principles in dining hot spots around the world, from Noma in Copenhagen, Denmark, to The French Laundry in California, US. Participating chefs have been urged to create off-the-menu specials and to accommodate, as far as possible, diners’ tastes and dietary preferences. This element of flexibility is increasingly absent in the approach favoured by many Michelin-starred restaurants (eminent food journalist Corby Kummer wrote in last month’s Vanity Fair that this generation of chefs is “no longer willing to take orders”).
A tasting menu might have originally been conceived to give free rein to a chef’s creativity, but the regular Indian diner is unlikely to sign up for such a ride. It didn’t take long for Cheung, who moved to Mumbai to helm Ellipsis in the middle of last year, to realize the constraints he would be dealing with: “When I have a pristine fresh piece of fish in from the markets that morning, I want to keep the accompaniments light. If someone asks me to cover it with a bunch of spices and sauces, I try to steer them away. But if they’re insistent, I have to do it. In the end, we’re still in the hospitality business.”
For tasting menus to catch on in India, the process needs to be more participatory than passive, believes Saha. “There should always be room to offer alternatives within the menu,” he says. In Dalal’s view, it’s largely because people don’t have that much respect for the industry as yet. “Not too long ago, chefs were still considered bawarchees (cooks),” he reasons. “Indian customers don’t want to take grief from restaurants in India—whether it’s a jacket policy, a no-phone policy, or being shown the door instead of a table when they turn up late for a reservation—even if they’d accept the same treatment without a word abroad.”
While events such as Chef’s Table Week will popularize tasting menus, there’s still a long way to go before the majority of restaurateurs endorse their long-term feasibility, in bolstering or even replacing à la carte offerings. “Elsewhere in the world, it doesn’t make business sense to go the tasting-only route, but especially in India the numbers won’t work,” explains Ratnani. Few patrons have the income, time and inclination to indulge in drawn-out dining experiences, and even if they do, how often can they do it?
As he says: “You need the restaurant to be full night after night. You need quick table turnaround. Neither is going to happen with a tasting menu.”
Visit chefstableweek.com to make a dinner reservation at least 48 hours in advance. A token deposit of Rs. 2,000 per table is charged at the time of reservation, which will be deducted from the total bill. Reservations open only for Citibank Ultima or PremierMiles card holders. The six-course tasting menu will cost Rs. 2,500, plus taxes, per person in Mumbai and Delhi, and Rs.2,000, plus taxes, in Bangalore.