Dining at a posh seafood restaurant in France, I realised that service can be terrible at even the most sophisticated of places. “Arre bhaiyya”, my dining companions, all Indians, had to finally yell —driven to almost climbing up the table to catch the waiter’s attention, before he put down two bottles of water on our table, one sparkling, one still, with an uncomprehending look still in place as to why indeed a) were we not ordering wine instead and b) couldn’t the whole world speak French? Thankfully, the dulcet tones that come in handy at Rajinder ka Dhaba or Giani’s or wherever in India worked in that alternate universe too. But that’s not the point I want to make here.
While good service is an integral part of any decent dining experience, exceptional service is not merely a function of competent waiters, sommeliers and maitre’ds. In fact, the one person who is of vital importance, both back of the house and in front, is the chef. But that’s one thing that most Indian restaurants tend to forget.
Sit back and think: How many times when you eat out do you meet the chef, even at tony restaurants? Does he come out and greet you, ask for your preferences, make suggestions, offer to do you a special? Above all, infuse a degree of warmth into the proceedings? If you are a regular at a suitably enlightened place or a suitably important person (or a food writer, for that matter), the chef may thus indulge you. But a majority of Indians never really get to meet the chefs.
Globally, on the other hand, it is not just the best restaurants that thrive on the personalities of their chefs, but also small mom-and-pop cafes and diners that you will regularly come across in Europe and America and elsewhere, infused with the personalities of their chef-owners.
In India, we do have our handful of celebrity chefs — as well as those who are both celebs and talented — but the growth of our restaurant biz, in all segments, upmarket and mid-market, is headed in quite another direction. Instead of personality-driven restaurants, where you can perhaps hope to be engaged in conversation by a flamboyant chef, most restaurants in India these days tend to be part of larger chains. In fact, even the more snobbish places revolving around particular individuals, eccentricities, edges, genius all in place, have distinctly gone out of fashion with the thought being that “professionally-run” restaurants (read those operated by faceless, colourless retail professionals) are more financially feasible — which they perhaps are.
In fact, even restaurants seeking to play up “brand names” by way of individual, well-known chefs or foodies (think Sanjeev Kapoor’s pan-Indian brand Yellow Chilli, and lately, Jiggs/Zorawar Kalra’s Punjab Grill) are essentially formatted as large chain operations and the experience of eating out in these is an indistinct one.
But while chain restaurants may earn better money for their owners as well as possibly provide better value for money to consumers, there is something lost by way of colour and individuality that can enhance any dining experience if suitably deployed. An obvious comparison would be with assembly-line products vs handcrafted ones. Would you necessarily opt for the former, even if they were cheaper?
There are some exceptions, though; examples that I hope more of our restaurants will follow: One of NCR’s most underrated Chinese restaurants, for instance, is a place called RED (for Rare Eastern Dining) at the MBD Radisson hotel in Noida. Chef Sim, a Singaporean, with fluent English-language skills and infectious enthusiasm, who heads the kitchen here, may not be a household name but word-of-mouth publicity has meant that he has quite a few fans!
Those who meet him always come back — even though there are plenty of other choices available for Asian dining —because they can’t help but be charmed by his manner, his understanding of the Indian palate and the concern he shows to even a small child in his restaurant. It helps that he knows how to cook too!
Is it too much to expect that we get more such colourful restaurants that run as much on personal charisma as on good food?
6 months ago