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The time is right for an Indian Noma

The time is right for an Indian Noma
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First Published: Thu, Apr 14 2011. 08 55 PM IST

Star chef: Madhu Krishnan of ITC, adjudged best by the Food Lovers of Bangalore.
Star chef: Madhu Krishnan of ITC, adjudged best by the Food Lovers of Bangalore.
Updated: Thu, Apr 14 2011. 08 55 PM IST
Does Indian cuisine need to break the shackles of tradition to make its mark globally? Or do we stay true to our heritage? Evolution or revolution: that is the question. It was the night of the Food Lovers awards function in Bangalore. (Disclosure: I was part of the tasting panel.) As usual, Karavalli at the Taj Gateway walked away with the “best coastal restaurant” award, beating Kanua, a solid contender. Free-standing favourites such as Caperberry, Fava, Toscano and Olive Beach all won awards. Rim Naam at The Oberoi was restaurant of the year 2010. Sunny’s brought its owners the “restaurateurs of the year” award. Arjun Sajnani, tall and smiling, walked up to receive it. Vinod Pandey of The Taj West End was judged the best F&B manager, a nice touch, given that usually, it is the chefs who are celebrated more than the managers. Chef Madhu Krishnan of the ITC Royal Gardenia was lauded as chef of the year.
Dakshin and Dum Pukht Jolly Nabobs, both at the ITC Windsor, won best south and north Indian, respectively, but then again, Dakshin has little competition. Chef Venkatesh Bhat left the Leela group to start South Indies and Bon South, which aspire to be stand-alone, fine-dining south Indian restaurants. I am rooting for Chef Bhat, but the meals I have had at Bon South are inconsistent. Sadly, there is no free-standing, fine-dining south Indian restaurant in Bangalore. Is there one in any other city? South Indies won for the best south Indian restaurant and Khansama for north Indian in the “popular” category.
Star chef: Madhu Krishnan of ITC, adjudged best by the Food Lovers of Bangalore.
The lady who owns Khansama, Nisha Nichani, came up with her staff, ebullient and smiling, to collect the award. Later, she came up alone, holding back tears, to collect the “Lifetime Achievement” award that was given to her late husband, P.B. Nichani, founder of the BJN group, whose restaurants offer great value. Some restaurants came with a staff entourage and it was lovely to see the young sous chefs and waitstaff stand shyly on stage to be applauded. It would be hard for a functioning restaurant to pull out junior staff for an awards function but that would be a good way to build up their confidence. I wish more awardees would do it.
To me, the most interesting part of the evening was not what was present but what was absent. Bangalore, and indeed India or even the world, has no revolutionary, path-breaking Indian restaurant. Our cuisine is evolutionary, more a child of engineer-like tinkering, rather than wholesale out-of-the-box thinking. Will there ever come a day where an Indian restaurant can go head-to-head with the likes of El Bulli (Spain), the Fat Duck (England), Noma (Denmark), or Alinea (the US), which are so spirited that they defy being slotted into country or even region? Is this even a desired goal for a cuisine so rich in heritage?
Thanks to brands such as the ITC’s Bukhara and Dumpukht, the Taj group’s Masala restaurants and stand-alone restaurants such as Veda (Mumbai) and Kainoosh (Delhi), Indian fine-dining is no longer an oxymoron. Even globally, there are restaurateurs such as the Panjabi sisters (Camellia and Namita), Atul Kochhar, Sriram Aylur, Vineet Bhatia, Rohini Dey, Suvir Saran, Hemant Mathur, and others; Indian cuisine has garnered Michelin stars and gone haute. But even their cuisine remains determinedly Indian.
My contention is that groundbreaking culinary developments in Indian cuisine have to come from India. Outside the country, haute Indian restaurants cannot be revolutionary, because their brand identity is tied to the homeland. Quilon (London) attracts clients who want a taste of India. It cannot ditch the Indian, even in the name of creativity. Indian chefs who operate here, on the other hand, are freed from such branding urgencies. Most Indian foodies get good Indian food at home. If an Indian chef wants to do something innovative, and if he or she is innately good, we would be willing to give his restaurant a shot and be patient as he evolves, simply because Indian foodies look for nouvelle cuisine when we go out to eat. We don’t want the same old home food. Then, why isn’t it happening?
You need three things for such an endeavour to take root and give fruit. You need deep-pocketed backers who are willing to cut an innovative chef some slack; you need a creative chef who has been trained in a non-Indian cuisine so that she can mix-and-match our food with global food; you need a restless talented mind that can connect disparate culinary dots with aplomb; and you need good timing.
Bangalore would be a good place to try such a venture because the costs are not as high as in Delhi or Mumbai. Bangaloreans are foodies, perhaps not in terms of spending but in terms of passion. People here dissect food, restaurants and chefs with knowledge and history, comparing the dark bread at Herbs & Spices with its German originals; or the sushi that Mako Ravindran serves at Harima with its more expensive counterparts at Edo and Zen; or the parties that P.K. Mohankumar threw when he headed the Taj West End. Mohankumar is missed in this town.
To be a good general manager (GM), you have to viscerally love your property. You have to drink some Kool-Aid to be able to say superlative things about your hotel with a straight face. Mohankumar did that. It helped that he was an extrovert, unlike many of the top GMs in the city today. Huvida Marshall, GM at The Oberoi, for instance, rarely schmoozes. I have seen her standing in the lobby when I duck into her hotel, but I have never had a conversation with her. People say though that she is a great GM who runs a tight ship, and this is what I mean.
There is a culture and community of people here in Bangalore to whom restaurants are an extremely important part of the city’s landscape. These are well-travelled epicureans such as Stanley Pinto who founded the Bangalore Black Tie, and Natty Natarajan who reportedly has an enviable collection of single malts; hospitality consultants such as Aslam Gafoor who heads the Bangalore Wine Club, and Rishad Minocher, whose family owns the beautifully preserved Hatworks Boulevard; publishers such as Kripal Amanna of Food Lovers; and scores of restaurant goers with increasingly sophisticated and experimental palates. We are waiting for, if not a Noma, at least something as distinctive as Alain Passard, who shocked the French culinary establishment in 2001 by converting his Michelin three-star Paris restaurant L’Arpege into one focusing on vegetables. France and India are akin in their reverence of traditional cuisine and for Passard to do this was groundbreaking and risky. We need an Indian chef who will do that for Indian cuisine. The time is now. Carpe diem!
Shoba Narayan doesn’t want to travel to Denmark to dine at the world’s best restaurant; she doesn’t even want to travel to Delhi to dine. Bangalore, it must be. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com
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First Published: Thu, Apr 14 2011. 08 55 PM IST