Raising the bar

Debarati Palit Singh
Sunday, 18 March 2018

Chef Manu Chandra, curator of the Living Foodz Epicurean Guild Awards 2018, talks about the awards and changing trends in the fine dining segment

Tasty food, high on flavour, great ingredients and techniques at affordable prices is the way forward
— Manu Chandra


Living Foodz will felicitate the game changers in India’s fine dining, nightlife and lifestyle entertainment segment on March 22. The Epicurean Guild Awards 2018 will be held in Mumbai. We catch up with restaurateur and celebrity chef Manu Chandra, who has curated the award ceremony. He says that the focus of the award has been fairly categoric since day one that is to honour and reward the best in the business. 

“The award has been done in a very structured and thorough manner with information curated by a highly qualified jury panel who have collectively selected the winners. The motto is simple: Are you the best or not? I think that kind of clarity is good because when we get into a tendency to give everybody or somebody an award, the merit seems to slip away from any kind of recognition,” he says.

The jury consists of Ranveer Brar, AD Singh, Karen Anand, Magandeep Singh, Bhaichand Patel, Ajay Chopra, Rakhee Vaswani, Clinton Cerejo, Anoothi Vishal, Rushina Munshaw-Ghildyal, Kalyan Karmakar, Mohit Anand, Nicole Madon, Nikhil Agarwal, Antoine Lewis, Anirban Blah, Mohit Anand, Osama Jalali, Ruma Singh, Gauri Devidayal, Ruth Dsouza Prabhu, Purva Mehra and Hemamalini Maiya.

However, Manu adds that more than awards, what matters more is appreciation by clients. “Because I am nothing without my customers. I can have 100 awards showcased in my office but I can’t pay my bills with those. I need my customers for a steady stream of business. Having said that, I am also a creative professional. I am not here to just feed my customers. I am here to constantly create something new and exciting for them,” he explains.  

He says that recognition in some ways is important in the current noisy market where social media has a large role to play. “We have something new called the influencers which I am still figuring out. We need some level of credibility where we are able to acknowledge the existence of base quality and high standard,” he says.

Ask him how would he define a perfect restaurant which serves the perfect gourmet dish and he says, “There are quite a few parameters. For example, if you are sitting in Italy on a hillside in a vineyard with a mediocre pizza, you would still enjoy it because there are multiple factors involved. What’s important is that you detach yourself from any kind of romanticism of travel and sit in a confined space where the ability of the chef and the staff will be put to the test to create the perfect ambience. That said, today’s customers are a lot more focussed on what they eat, so the chefs have to work a lot more harder. Providing perspective to clients is important but it need not always be about the most elaborate and expensive ingredients. It’s about competency in cooking, serving and being able to provide what customers enjoy the most.” 

Manu says that the fine dining segment is seeing a remake. “That’s because economy has a large role to play. The growth of this segment is directly linked to how a country’s economy is performing. For the longest time, I used to work in some of the high-end restaurants in New York. Those restaurants were only patronised by billionaires or Hollywood celebrities who were entertained by their producers or Wall Street investors. It was the economic condition of that time which was contributing to the restaurants’ business. Others would perhaps visit such a restaurant once in three or five years or say, for a special occasion,” he says.

The chef, who is also a partner at Olive Bar and Kitchen Pvt Ltd, however, says that increasingly the lines have blurred and there is a lot of wealth in the market. “But if you need a sustainable dining format, you need something that caters to a larger group of people and because there is a wider set, you will be able to cater to a wide variety of tastes and also tone down things a bit, which is the future.” 

He adds that tasty food, high on flavour, great ingredients and techniques at affordable prices is the way forward.

He points out that not just bigger cities but places like Ahmedabad, Guwahati, Chandigardh, Hyderabad, Surat, Lucknow, Kanpur, Jaipur are also experiencing the restaurant revolution in India. “Ten years ago when I was planning to open multiple restaurants, I wouldn’t have imagined that these places would be potential markets. It goes on to show that the entire nation has progressed. There is aspiration in every city and all these cities are becoming a melting pot, which is taking the food and beverage industry forward.” 

Many believe that Manu has made Indian cuisine sexy and given it a whole new dimension over the years. Known for experimenting with food, he has created a niche for himself not just in India but the global market too. “I have always been grounded in my belief that I cook for my customer. The day I start cooking for myself, I will fail. I need to make people happy. How they trust me to experiment further depends on the relationship I have developed with them and that takes years,” he says.

He further adds, “Today, when I see new talent coming in and throwing foams and bubbles, taking toothbrush and throwing sprinkles on a plate, I wonder, ‘What are you doing?’ This is incidental to what the food they are going to eat. You need to focus on the food because that’s what customers are going to come back for. Once you really master that, then you can do whatever you want on the plate and customers will be forgiving. But we need to first win them over.”

He says that he always had a good sense of aesthetics when it came to food. He says, “Perspective is very important in the food business because you tend to derail. It’s also easy to cling to mediocrity and say, ‘I am only going to sell this because this is the most saleable thing I have. But if you do that, you are neither here nor there. You have to raise the bar.”

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