Are Western food ratings fair? My recent column about why there aren’t any iconic chefs in India elicited an onslaught of replies, many from outraged chefs who demanded: by what standard? And that, fellow foodies, is the question. What are the standards by which we rate our restaurants and chefs? I am talking about Michelin stars, Zagat guides and others that can make or break a young chef’s career. In the West, reviews from The New York Times and stars from the Michelin Guide are both revered and reviled (by restaurants which didn’t get them, but felt that they ought to have). Let us not forget that the coveted Michelin star comes from a company that makes car tyres and was first published to get the French into their cars and drive long distances just to eat at obscure restaurants.
Indian chefs, especially if they work in the West, labour under the long arm of a rating system that is biased towards Western cuisines. Consider Chinese and Mexican cuisines. Both have an exceptionally broad and deep culinary history and culture, yet both have been dumbed down to the level of Taco Bells and Chinese takeout in the West. Indian food doesn’t even have that takeout distinction, dubious though it might be.
If you do a Google search on the best Indian chef, you’ll be hard- pressed to come up with a single name. Three Indian restaurants in the UK and one in the US have won a coveted star from the Michelin Guide. Their chefs, however, are hardly household names. Vineet Bhatia won a Michelin star for Zaika before leaving to start his own restaurant, Rasoi. Suvir Saran won a star for Devi in New York City before opening an outlet in New Delhi—Veda, which opened to mixed reviews. Tamarind in London has won a Michelin star three years in a row, something that chef Alfred Prasad has got to be proud of. Tabla’s Floyd Cardoz received great press before disappearing off the radar.
But I am applying global standards here. Fair or not, many of these standards are Eurocentric, rating French, Italian and Spanish cuisine above Chinese and Indian. Japanese food is the crossover and the darling of today’s foodie world. Perhaps it is only a matter of time before Chinese and Indian take their rightful place among the most sophisticated cuisines of the world. The Chinese food that we Indians like mostly originates from the fiery Sichuan province. It has little in common with refined Cantonese food or fresh Shanghainese. Just as there are numerous regional variations in Indian cuisine, so there are in Chinese. Applying Western standards to Indian and Chinese cuisines, one could argue, is similar to imposing a flight plan on a deep-sea dive.
The question becomes more interesting when we start rating restaurants within India. What standards do we apply here? Why, for instance, is a Veda rated higher than a Moti Mahal? I am not talking about personal favourites here. I know a lot of Delhiites who deride Veda or Masala Art as pretentious. But why do these restaurants get more buzz than an old favourite such as Gulati’s? Why is Diva rated higher than the popular Big Chill down the road? All of which brings us right back to my original question: Are Western rating systems fair in the Indian context?
I’d love to hear other points of view but I think Western ratings systems are quite unsuitable for the Indian context. India is a land where eating out is still a recent phenomenon, albeit one that is rapidly gaining ground. A vast majority of Indians go out to eat, not to dine. They want to relieve the tedium of cooking and are looking for tasty food at the right price. Ambience, service, décor are all marginal, witness the success of New Delhi’s Bengali Market and the numerous chaat shops within the country. In India, restaurants that succeed build up a brand over a long span of time. The brand is predominantly built on the quality of food, i.e., the taste factor. Swagath and the Udipi brands down south; Saravana Bhavan and Woodlands in Chennai; MTR in Bangalore; Moti Mahal and the stalls in Chandni Chowk in Delhi; and old favourites such as Swati Snacks in Mumbai. Inflicting a Western rating on these places is not only foolhardy, but would take away their characters.
There are occasions, of course, when we want to have a fine-dining experience; when the taste and quality of the meal is important but, equally so is the way it is set and served, the décor of the restaurant, the noise level and ambience and the sincerity of the smiles that the waiters sport. As more and more Indians travel overseas, they develop global palates that don’t balk at caviar and mushrooms. It is probably necessary to design restaurants that cater to this group, and India thankfully boasts many such fine-dining restaurants, both stand-alone and affiliated to star hotels. But when you spend a lot of money for a fine-dining experience, you want to come away satisfied. That is where Western rating systems come in. Time Out, Mumbai (which also provides Mint’s weekend calendar), does this with great effect: They review anonymously for one thing; they pay for their meals, which doesn’t oblige them to write a favourable review. Through a combination of reviews and stars, they maintain checks and balances on Mumbai restaurants; they police the system and make sure diners don’t get gypped. So, what is it to be?
As for me, when I go out to splurge on a fine-dining experience, I read every review I can get. But, when I go out for a quick bite at a neighbourhood joint, I simply follow my nose. And the crowds.
(Shoba thinks Lounge ought to start the Zagat India version of restaurant reviews. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org)