Chefs talk to Anjali Jhangiani about the growing importance of table theatrics and how restaurants across the city are trying to satisfy patrons who want their meals to be more and more exciting
When you make an effort to dress up and go to a restaurant for a meal, you’re looking forward to the whole experience of dining out. The doorman greeting you with a welcoming smile as they take you to your table, the feeling of being so important that everyone wants to ensure you are comfortable, even the waiter checking what type of water you’d like to have and in what temperature — everything adds to the experience. But to bring about some more excitement before you spread your napkin and dig in, restaurants go a step ahead and come up with innovative ways of serving their signature dishes.
While it’s true that customers will keep going back for more if the food is tasty enough, giving them something to marvel over before they start eating, will only make them like the restaurant even more.
If you come to think of it, that tactic is used on human beings right from the time they start learning how to eat. You probably don’t remember the spoon-shaped ‘aeroplanes’ that landed in your mouth to unload bit-sized morsels of food for you to chew as you watched them take off and fly around. But you know now that’s the act you must use to feed fussy babies.
As we grow older, we fuss less. But nobody’s too old for having their senses treated to a delightful show right at the table. Unverified studies have even showed that excitement before a meal contributes to a healthy appetite.
Do you know what makes a cake different from a birthday cake? The candles. In other words, the theatrics. “Theatrics, when it comes to dining out, are very important. This is so because, it’s what makes your regular guests come back again and again as they too want to see what’s new. Personally, it helps keeping my fire burning and constantly helps me in judging the scale of my skill set. We try our level best to add new specials of global cuisine on the menu almost every week as our guests originate from different parts of the world,” says Tejas Moodliar, head chef at Boteco Restaurant, Koregaon Park.
What is a movie without some tears here and there, some kicks and punches flying around, some dialogues that you want to wear on a tshirt, and some music that stirs emotions you thought you could never have? Nirmal Jeswani, the owner of The Leaf Kitchen in Shivaji Nagar applies the same logic to food, sharing that theatrics in food are just as important as they are in movies. “If a movie is action-packed and riveting, with a high drama quotient, it automatically gets the audience engrossed. Similarly, in my personal opinion as a chef, if the whole dining out experience is just as compelling and full of pizzazz, it is bound to keep my clients enthralled,” he says.
Chef Sharad S, city chef at FC Road Social, is all about the food even though he has to come up with innovative ways to present his dishes. “Theatrics are good, but only when the dish is flavourful and done nicely. Only theatrics won’t help. Decent theatrics paired with a wonderful dish is what matters,” he says.
Boteco has an interesting dish called Carne na Pedra, where you can have your steak and eat it too! You get slices of raw meat with three different types of butters, sea salt, pepper, and other condiments on the side of a piping hot stone. The customer can then cook their meat slices with their choice of butter and seasoning and eat it.
“Our dishes keep changing from time to time and so does the drama. One of our hits has been The Steak On Fire which was served with goat cheese salad and Sambuca butter. The waiter pours 30 ml flamed Sambuca on the steak right in front of the guest, which cranks up their excitement as the steak catches on fire and the air fills with the aroma of aniseed fragrance,” says Moodliar.
Quite a few restaurants across the city flambé their meat dishes as they serve them to their guests. In fact, it seems to be the most common way of upping the thrill factor of the dish. Also, our fascination with fire never seems to cease.
The Leaf Kitchen makes it a point to add a whole lot of fun to the dishes they serve. Encouraging patrons to be more environment-conscious is their Chocolate Soil Pot. “The Chocolate Soil Pot is my personal favourite because you can see the confused look on everyone’s face as the dessert is brought to the table. And those looks of confusion turn into expressions of delight as they taste the chocolatey dessert,” says Jeswani. The entire thing is edible — the pot is chocolate, the soil is chocolate and the plant is pudina so it makes for a perfect combination with chocolate.
Another regular item on their menu served in a rather fun way is the Shanghai Cheese Balls. “Yes, we need to make all our dishes lip-smacking, but also make them look equally good. This appetiser comes in adorable mini pressure cookers which makes it just so Instagrammable! That’s what all the buzz is about these days, right?” he adds. The restaurant also serves the simple Pav Bhaji in a new uptown avatar as a sizzler.
It’s apt to say that FC Road Social’s Disco Fried Eggs, where you get three fried eggs with powdered spices and green chilli with a side of ladi pav, is totally ‘lit’. “We generally eat with our eyes first, and then the other senses get activated. The more beautiful or exciting the prop is, the better the guest would enjoy the dish. And nowadays it’s all about being photogenic, so a creative prop definitely helps in elevating the guest experience,” says Sharad S, adding, “We serve a simple dish called Disco Fried Egg from the All Day Breakfast section of the menu. It is named so because we serve the dish in a plate lined with LED lights. It’s basically masaledar fried egg with pav with Chunda and sev.”
Another favourite among those who love posting their food pics on social media is their Tandoori Chicken and Thecha Chicken. “At Social, we serve all our tandoori dishes in a prop with charcoal and smoke them with butter,” says the chef.
HOW MUCH IS TOO MUCH?
In ancient Rome, the main course was served to the tune of trumpets, pearls were crushed and added to the wine, sometimes even edible gold for an extra zing. In Medieval Europe, artists were commissioned to make edible sculptures stuffed with colourful jellies. There’s a fine line between creating excitement and going overboard with the theatrics, and the human race has been pushing the boundaries ever since we managed to create fire.
Celebrity chef, restaurateur and food lover Shailendra Kekade believes in the importance that should be given to the way the food is presented to customers. “There is a certain paraphernalia regarding foods that is served with some amount of drama like dry ice, smoke, fire and so on. Unfortunately right now, presentation or what I like to call gimmickry, is being sought after more than the actual quality and taste of the food by the guests. Personally, I feel this is wrong because it should be the food that should be of supreme importance and not the theatrics. Consumers should be walking into restaurants to demand the highest quality of food, and if the dish is served with some drama, it’s good as long as it is not overdone,” he says, adding that a Chicken Tikka should be spicy and succulent rather than something with bad taste and texture served on a bed of smoke that makes only for a good picture.
But what about the pressures that the chefs have to deal with to make their food as appealing to the camera as it is to one’s senses? “A restaurateur should expect nothing less than perfection when it comes to the way the dish is made. The theatrics, however important in the business today, should come after the quality of the food. Restaurant owners need to have some sort of knowledge about how food is to be prepared or served before they can demand it to be done in a particular way. Chefs should not succumb to the whims and fancies of what is expected of them in terms of this gimmickry, if it means that they have to compromise on the quality of the dish. There’s nothing wrong with theatrics, if put things in perspective in terms of quality of food,” says Kekade, adding, “There are times when new-age chefs overuse smoke, foam or even simple things like liquid nitrogen or dry ice, while I sit down and wonder why it was there in the first place. This is happening a lot because they are inexperienced chefs who have probably seen something somewhere and are just trying to blindly copy it without knowing the ethos of why it is done.”
Moodliar has a simple rule about this. “There has to be a balance in whatever you do in life, same goes with food. If there’s no balance, you won’t get your desired outcome,” he says, adding, “I believe, you are what you cook. All my specials are very close to me as they have some significance behind them. The look, taste, texture — ultimately all this boils down to the creativity and personality of the head chef,” he points out.
Jeswani says that this ‘line’ is very real, and diaphanous. “However, this line becomes more distinctive with experience. Trial and error is a large part of perfecting something. When we try something, sometimes it works but sometimes it doesn’t. The most important thing is to get feedback and learn from one’s mistakes,” he says, adding, “There are thousands of restaurants around the globe that serve the same food. What makes a dining out experience memorable though? It is the extra oomph factor that makes the food all the more alluring. Innovation doesn’t just make the food more piquant, but is also a treat to the eyes. All in all, a gastronomical experience.”
Sharad S points out that there’s only one rule one needs to follow here. “There has to be a connection between the dish and the prop. And the dish has to be named accordingly. Like seafood could be served in a boat-shaped prop, or perhaps you can use some kind of a small sigri for serving tandoor dishes. When there is no connection between the dish and the prop, the entire idea is meaningless,” says he.