From Their Home Kitchens: The New Age Fine Dining
With increasing interest from professional restaurants & luxury hotels, the fine dining experience is coming home.
Recently, I was invited to Trident, BKC in Mumbai for the Sangam festival held with home chef, Shri Bala. Curious as I was to learn about what the Sangam era was and how the culinary journey would unfold, her curated journey through the era gave me an insight that would otherwise never be found anywhere else.
Spanning from 3rd century BC to 3rd century AD in Tamil Nadu and Kerala, the Sangam era was re-imagined thorough research and anecdotes. Our host even showcased how the dishes have evolved from that era to the present day, giving us all a point to relate to. All put together, it was not just another lunch at a five-star restaurant – it was a true ‘culinary journey’ that Shri Bala, the expert home chef, took us on.
It was this experience that began my tete-a-tete with the rising world of home chefs. It made me think how the hotels are now looking to not just sell food, but stories to make it a thorough experience. At the centre of all of this is the home chef – an everyday individual without a shining culinary degree, but an expert nonetheless in niche, regional cuisines, survived by recipes and stories that have been handed down generations.
The Advent of Home Chefs
With an upswing in the trend of home chefs, the concept of home dining itself has been steadily evolving. The concept is not new per se – home chefs have been around for a while. But, with increasing interest from professional restaurants and luxury hotels, the fine dining experience is coming home. This involves the use of more exotic ingredients in everyday dining, and cooking in larger volumes than usual.
Smita Hegde Deo, author of Karwar to Kolhapur via Mumbai, specialises in the Karwar cuisine of Karnataka. For her, one of the biggest takeaways is the experience of cooking for a large number of people. She says, “Cooking at home is a different ball game than cooking at a commercial kitchen. The whole process, right from planning a menu to ordering the ingredients, quality check, and executing the cooking for a large number of people was one of the best hands-on experiences to have.”
Aneesh Dhairyawan, co-founder of Authenticook, has been working with many home chefs with expertise across a wide range of cuisines. The company has been instrumental in giving home chefs a platform to organise pop-ups of exquisite, regional dishes that you would seldom find anywhere. Realising the mounting prospects, he says, “There is so much diversity in India, but limited avenues to experience it. Social dining is the oldest form of social interaction, and we thought this is the right time to re-introduce it to our generation.”
Chef Ashish Bhasin, who gave Deo her first opportunity to cook her brand of regional food at a large kitchen, agrees the experience is not just fun, but also a great learning experience. With that, he believes that the home chefs will actually bring niche cuisines out to the forefront. “Regional and tribal cuisines are the next big things to happen. We have seen classic Indian, nouvelle and modern food, and now is the time to discover the real potential that lies in remote areas of our country,” he adds.
One of the biggest reasons attributed to the increase in the number of home chefs is the prospect of cuisines that you may not readily find commercially. For instance, there is a dearth of authentic Goan and Parsi food being served in restaurants. In Mumbai, you will be hard-pressed to come across restaurants serving authentic Kashmiri food. This is leading to more ‘food festivals’ and ‘special menus’ at restaurants and hotels.
Kashmiri home chef, Jasleen Marwah has carved out a very popular niche for her exemplary Kashmiri spread in India’s maximum city. “When I was hosting diners at home, I realised that people really didn’t have an option to try out Kashmiri food anywhere in the city. Whatever they knew about the cuisine was very little, with many misconceptions about the cuisine itself. In fact, chefs were amused by the fact that in Kashmir too, there is the Kashmiri Pandit style cooking and the Kashmiri Muslim cooking, which has similar dishes but different cooking styles,” she says. Marwah now hosts regular Kashmiri pop-ups at home, while curating special menus organised by hotels.
A Slice of Culinary History
For these home chefs, the sudden spotlight is a great opportunity to take India’s diverse regional cuisines to the next level. Not only are traditional recipes being revived, we are also getting to know how we have been wrong about the origin of some dishes. For instance, Manzilat Fatima, the great granddaughter of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, is an expert in Awadhi cuisine. She brings with her the story of the “original” biryani to Kolkata – a city that is already famous for its own brand of biryani.
Getting over the initial apprehension is difficult, and it is here that associations with big hotels are helping the home chefs. Fatima states, “Luxury and business hotels definitely provide a platform for recognition to the home-chefs and give them necessary exposure. Working in these posh kitchens and clubs is an overwhelming and learning experience.” Manzilat, who hosts diners at her Kolkata home, quips how most of her guests look for a slice of her family’s culinary history and its contribution to Kolkata, while also remarking on how different her cooking is from what is served in the restaurants, in the name of her family.
Sherry Malhotra, another home chef based out of Kolkata, points out that for the first time, hotels are promoting food beyond the commercial favourites, thanks to home chefs. Malhotra promotes Punjabi cuisine from both sides of the border, and is hence an expert at the cuisines of the North-West frontier, where there is a surprising variation in what people eat. “Home chefs offer a taste of lost, forgotten and rare recipes, which are not a part of hotel menus. Through pop-ups and food festivals with these home chefs, the hotels themselves are broadening the offering,” she adds.
Kashmiri Barkakati Nath, a home chef promoting the sub-cuisines of Assam, is shedding light on age-old techniques of foraging for fresh ingredients. With the realm of home chefs opening up, there is much more scope for experimentation now, particularly when people have begun looking out for stories to relate their food to. “Food is no longer just food – there is focus on culture, history and stories through the food, and I feel that India is picking up this trend quite well,” she adds.
The Next Big Thing
What does it take, though, to convert enthusiasm into a professional industry? “FBAI's annual Home Chef Matters platform encourages the concept of home chefs. We aim to create an ecosystem for all stakeholders to come together, gain new insights, learn and network with each other,” says Sameer Malkani, founder of Food Bloggers’ Association of India.
While there is a long way to go for home chefs, the start has been bright, and the hospitality sector is wholeheartedly embracing the advent of a new form of chefs - ones who have not trained exhaustively in high-intensity kitchens, but possess immense knowledge of cultures and niche food techniques. Collectively, this will take the Indian food industry forward in the near future.
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