Chefpreneurs are on the rise, while premium delivery and DIY kits (almost) make up for the lack of a social life. Plus, there’s inventive comfort food and indie alcohol

If sharing food and drink has traditionally forged closer social ties, in 2020, the year of physically-distanced, active-on-social media lives, this communal partaking has mutated. TV anchor and actor Mini Mathur, for instance, recently told me about a wedding banquet (on Zoom) she and her husband, film director Kabir Khan, had attended, where individual sadyas had been delivered to each of the guests’ homes. As everyone polished off their thoran and olan, and the pièce de résistance paal ada pradaman, while they sat decked up in wedding wear in houses in different cities and even countries, it was a simulation of togetherness that seemed to work.

Eating and drinking have assumed unusual forms in this strange year and, as we have adapted, so have the formats of retail catering to our new lives. As many of our pandemic-induced social behaviours stick well into the new year and beyond, some dining trends will be more visible than ever before.

1. Dining in

It will become not just more innovative but also more luxe, as people rethink the need to have large parties and get togethers. “The thinking, at least in my social circle, has changed. People now feel: is there really any need to have 300 people for a party? Something smaller and more intimate can be beautiful and, by implication, more exclusive,” points out hotelier Priya Paul, owner of The Park Hotels.

Top restaurants, hotels and chefs have already jumped into the fray to cater to this emerging demand — something that brings together luxury and intimacy as the new signifiers of prestige. “With smaller events happening in homes, we have had good business sending our chefs and bartenders to set up at-home dos, and this will continue to be a strong business vertical next year, as lifestyles have changed,” adds Paul.

Regional pulaos and biryanis at the ITC Hotels

2. Premium home delivery

Pricey deliveries are betting on quality rather than mass appeal. ITC Hotel’s extensive range of regional pulaos and biryanis launched just this week can be ordered via aggregator apps like Swiggy and Zomato. Priced between ₹625 and ₹825 for a meal for one, these are not exactly cheap (but much more ‘affordable’ than the ₹1,800 price tag for a sharing portion at Dum Pukht or Peshawri) and seek to turn the conventional delivery model which had hitherto relied on volume and cheaper pricing — on its head.

As this niche delivery segment grows, it will be closely watched even by investors seeking newer options. Already, some substantial investments seem to have been made as the year draws to a close. Unconfirmed buzz tells us about a swanky new cloud kitchen, to service 10 brands, being prepped to launch early next year in Gurugram by the promoters of Tres Ind, the Dubai restaurant. It is to be helmed by Sahil Singh, former corporate executive chef with Massive restaurants, hitherto in charge of the Papaya chain of restaurants.

Clockwise from right: Chef Harangad Singh, and Tawa Bhuna Chaap and Raan Nihari at Parat

Clockwise from right: Chef Harangad Singh, and Tawa Bhuna Chaap and Raan Nihari at Parat
 

“Top chefs who had lost their jobs in the initial months of the pandemic are also responsible for this shift to top quality in deliveries. Forced to the wall, several of them invested their savings in small delivery kitchens (more affordable to set up than restaurants). Chef Harangad Singh, who had earlier worked at the Taj and Prankster, a popular outlet in Gurugram, started Parat, a small delivery business catering royal and street foods, such as Bhopali rezala and tandoori lamb chops. “Soon after we launched and word got out about the food, a family from Delhi drove 30 km to come pick up the nihari [the chef does it from a whole lamb shank]. However, when their daughter saw my small kitchen, she started protesting about how the food could be of high quality in such a small place. So I told them to just stay in their car, while I fed them a meal with all my specials. They were so thrilled that they are my loyal customers today,” says Singh.

3. DIY kits

Prestige DIY kits have come into their own in London and other European cities, and small dinners for friends now sometimes involve cooking signature recipes of top international chefs such as Heston Blumenthal or Massimo Bottura from their kits. Priced at about £100 per head, these need considerable work (often with virtual instructions given live by a member of the chef’s team) before they can be plated. In fact, with restrictions in force in Europe now, publications have been running ‘Top 10’ lists of DIY kits, akin to restaurant rankings of the past.

The idea of convenience has been overturned in favour of exclusivity, and this is a trend that we will see more of in India too. Already a beginning has been made with makery.in, launched by siblings Rishiv and Tarika Khattar, children of restaurateur Rohit Khattar who owns Indian Accent. The new business, built to leverage e-commerce, uses recipes from top restaurants like Indian Accent and Olive, as well as by hand-picked home chefs.

Chef Prateek Sadhu

4. Comfort food

Meanwhile, how will restaurants fare? With lockdowns lifted, restaurants in Goa, Mumbai, Bengaluru and Delhi have been coming back to life. As the action picks up in 2021, get set for a spate of new openings as well as established restaurants tweaking their offerings to meet changed behavioural patterns. The shift to comfort food at top restaurants such as Masque in Mumbai and Indian Accent in Delhi is already visible, in keeping with international trends where even the World’s 50 Best are serving burgers. “I had never offered carbs at the end of a meal at Masque Lab, but this is what diners are seeking now. So I have introduced a traditional Kashmiri yakhni, done in my own way, with a miso rice pulao, as the last course,” says chef Prateek Sadhu, pointing out that even comfort food can be inventive, something that chef Manish Mehrotra agrees with — having recently launched a gentrified chaat tasting menu at Indian Accent. “The kind of customers we are getting has changed, and there are new learnings. People want comfort flavours, so I thought of chaats but done in my own style,” says Mehrotra.

Puchkas, with five waters, at Indian Accent

Raising the bar

  • The bar experience may change from the ‘shots please’ culture to high-quality cocktails and wines, as people gather in smaller circles. What will be interesting to watch is the story of indie alcohol that is having a moment, with as many as six new indigenous gin brands launched this year, as well as the first Indian luxe vodka, Smoke. “While some of the new gins are great, how deep they are able to go in various markets is questionable because of tough policies and competition from MNCs, who have stronger distribution,” points out bar entrepreneur Ashish Kapur of Antares Goa. Though quality gin is as yet a tiny market in the country, the fact that the ‘craft’ entrants have been able to make headway is now apparent in consumer choice and the fact that bigger players are waking up to the challenge. Buzz is that a multinational wanted to buy out a craft gin brand in a strategy similar to what’s happening abroad (where many craft brands are, in fact, owned by the biggest players). The deal, however, did not go through. We may as yet see prices dropping for pouring alcohol in bars as pressure builds up to take control of millennial glasses. This will be a spirited story to watch in 2021, hopefully.

5. The chefprenuer

One of the biggest ways in which restaurants of the future may be different from circa 2019, is in that more chefs will take charge of both kitchens and boardrooms. The era of the chefprenuer is here. For years, there had been obvious tension between restaurateurs and chefs — the latter, whose celebrity status was on the make, felt at a disadvantage when it came to decision making, whereas the former feared that the chef may damage the brand by walking away and sought to clip his/her wings. A recent high-profile exit because of rising tensions, ostensibly, was Thomas Zacharias’ of The Bombay Canteen.

Internationally, most luxury restaurants with the chef as the brand, have silent majority investors (and not two competing power centres). In India, a similar dynamic is in the making now, as more investors seek out chefs directly. “The responsibility of the chef had been widening for a while now, and the only thing missing was business acumen and backing from investors. With the pandemic teaching us that we need to take charge, we are learning to run businesses,” says chef Vikramjit Roy, who got into a partnership with shipping scion and beverages connoisseur, Vir Kotak, in the midst of the pandemic, to build a chain of food delivery brands as well as Asian restaurants with elevated bar experiences. “This means we are more responsible for profits but, in the long term, it will mean more stable restaurants than when products and strategies are developed by people sitting in offices,” Roy concludes.

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