The economics of your dinner plate
In India, the food we ate and cooked was always linked with local biodiversity, regional food habits and changing seasons. Over the last decade and a half, a boom in the fine-dining sector led us towards homogeneity in ingredients and a standardization of menus across generic European café-style restaurants. Now, a new generation of chefs, hoteliers and importers are devising ways to again make food culturally relevant and sustainable.
This has led to the rise of niche producers, new-age farmers and artisanal cheese-makers, all of whom are part of this burgeoning gourmet-food economy. Our panellists discussed one of the big issues this has given rise to: how to effectively straddle authenticity, sustainability and pricing with regard to both local and imported produce. Magazine Street Kitchen in Mumbai’s Byculla area, an experimental food venue run by Gauri Devidayal and Jay Yousuf that hosts chef’s tables and cooking workshops, provided a fitting backdrop. The kitchen was abuzz with prep for a Thanksgiving dinner and inviting smells of caramelized onions, melting chocolate and fresh bread filled the air. Edited excerpts from the discussion:
Sourcing locally is a fairly new phenomenon for fine-dining restaurants in India. What are the challenges that come with it?
Lawyer: In the fine-dining space, you have certain limitations, at least when you are looking at finished products, so whether you are looking at cheese or charcuterie, it becomes impossible to replicate the same items locally.
Mathew: I think the lack of consistency either due to seasonality or availability is a really big problem.
Raghavan: India has access to several micro-climates and we can grow all sorts of things in our country, but it’s a combination of lack of knowledge and this cold-chain issue that puts a limitation on what we can do. Apart from charcuterie, this limitation extends to fresh meat as there is no real understanding of butchery (in the Western sense) and that is very important in the fine-dining space, where you want good cuts of meat.
Kumar: There isn’t much encouragement for the farmers growing these so-called fancy vegetables and that is why it is not sustainable. Also, the recent FSSAI (Food Safety and Standards Authority of India) notifications have thrown hoteliers back as we didn’t have such stringent rules before regarding clearance of imported food products into India. We could get everything from the international markets to our tables with a maximum lag of 15 days. Due to the change in regulations, we don’t have any other choice but to depend on local contributors. However, that has led to a narrowing of choices and an increase in pricing.
Chandra: The cold supply chain and cost are among the biggest issues in sourcing. How much of this cost could we possibly pass down to the customer, especially one who was just getting accustomed to the nascent fine-dining segment in India? So it was a natural progression to start embracing what was around you. I don’t think people who paid top dollar wanted to see ubiquitous stuff on their plate and that’s why a whole bunch of chefs really upped the ante as they took the domestic produce and turned it into a remarkably fine-dine product. But that’s only limited to a certain point. Jehangir will still continue to be a very relevant player in the market simply because you will never get those kinds of cheeses and meats and certain seafood elsewhere.
Devidayal: When the FSSAI regulations kicked in six years ago... it gave impetus to local-farm businesses. It is a very young market that is being able to provide good-quality local produce continuously and everyone in the F&B (food and beverages) space is fighting for the same ingredients. So the only choice is to have changing menus, which can keep evolving in terms of availability of both local and imported ingredients.
Does that mean there is a greater focus on quality ingredients now?
Devidayal: In California, it is commonplace to name the farm as part of the name of the ingredient in the description of dishes. That is because the provenance of the ingredients is as important as the dish that is finally put in front of you. That is slowly the direction that we are moving towards here as well. Also, rising real-estate prices have led to a new trend of one-off pop-ups featuring regional cuisines which are catering to this new curiosity among diners for hyper-local ingredients.
Lawyer: The elephant in the room is price. Nobody wants to pay the prices for quality ingredients even if they have all the right kinds of certification in place. As a purveyor of imported seafood which is sustainable and line-caught, I am paying more but the truth is most people don’t give a damn and the economies of scale are just not there. And especially if someone is trying to do a similar thing in India with quality ingredients, the prices are so high that it just makes no commercial sense for me as I can import a similar ingredient at a cheaper price. It is a similar case with respect to quality, especially when I speak to the purchase officer in a hotel and have to explain that a more expensive 36-month-old Parmigiano-Reggiano that I have tastes better and only needs to be used in small quantities. However, he is not a chef and the only thing he is bothered about is the per kilo price.
We are a country with a long coastline and numerous rivers. How easy is it to craft a menu with only domestic catch?
Chandra: Contrary to popular belief, sourcing exceptionally good seafood is not that difficult. The mercantile set-up in the country has always been driven by trying to sell to the highest bidder and the best markets are the export markets, as local markets will never be able to match up to them. It’s important to remember that India is one of the largest exporters of seafood and some of the best seafood that you might be eating wherever you travel could have very well come from India. By virtue of being in Bengaluru, which is close to both Kochi and Tamil Nadu, access has been a lot easier for me, but then I struggle to scale up to other cities like Delhi because immediately there is freight cost involved and clearances, so it just keeps adding up and imported products end up being cheaper.
Lawyer: So I buy octopus from Japan and my supplier there sources it from India and Pakistan. He actually asks me why I don’t get it directly from here. And I have tried but I just can’t get it here, simply because no one is willing to sell their produce locally because of the export perks given to suppliers.
What’s the verdict on Indian cheese?
Raghavan: It took 1,000 years to perfect the Parmigiano-Reggiano, so we cannot hope to recreate that. We have good buffalo milk and there are definitely certain styles of cheeses, mostly of the soft and young variety like Brie and Camembert and fresh mozzarella and ricotta that should be made in India. What I would like to do with dairy in India is work with disenfranchised communities in pastoral settlements who have access to good quality milk but no channels to monetize them.
Chandra: We have been using several of the small Indian cheese makers for over a decade now. The issue is about scalability as they are all very small and there is no way that they can supply to all of us.
Is foraging for ingredients even a possibility for restaurants in India?
Raghavan: It’s a way of life and a part of the ecosystem in the North-East and I don’t think it’s something we can mimic in different parts of the country. It’s fun to forage the way people in the North-East do but it’s not scalable. They know which wild herb or insect to pick as they know the life cycles of plants and animals well.
How important is it to create stories around ingredients to understand their provenance and appreciate the quality?
Mathew: I think marketing is extremely important as we all have to pull in the same 10% (of diners) into each of our own restaurants. So we have to sell a story of where our food comes from, its specifics, and reinvent different tried concepts.
Chandra: The beautiful thing about fine-dining stories is that once a particular concept or story is sold well, it trickles down and becomes the mainstream. So, in Karnataka we are working with the government and their millet initiative and trying to push these grains in our own way by putting them on the menu. It’s often difficult to do a grass-roots-up approach, so we had to do it the other way round by creating the demand.
Define sustainability. Who benefits from it?
Chandra: Sustainability, in my opinion, is what is organic for the land—when people say they’re eating organic, it’s a misnomer if they think they’re eating healthier; the idea of organic produce is that you are giving back to the land. To me, sustainability is about establishing practices that are basically set up for the future. Human beings as a species have evolved and live longer because of what we’ve been pumping our bodies with. And while we declare that the feed for our farmed chicken is unhealthy, that may not be completely accurate. That is the future we have to be prepared for because there aren’t going to be enough free-range chickens running around laying eggs for even one city in this country.
Devidayal: You have to educate the consumer about sustainable practices and why that has led to an increase in prices. And it doesn’t have to be at a go but can be something that’s incremental, just like with the whole organic movement, where you are paying more for the vegetables but are okay with it because it is pesticide-free. Since we can’t really rely on government policies for sustainable measures, it’s down to individuals to do small things to make a difference.
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