New food. Old food. More food. Less food. There you go. These are the predictions for the year ahead. Confusing? Well, in this city, the restaurant scene always is. Diners are into new food, nouvelle cuisine and hunting down unfamiliar flavours. Yet, the same people are now obsessed with old food, traditional recipes, village foods and old-fashioned ingredients. This is the age of more food, of excess — lush desserts and luxuriant dishes. But, it's also the age of less food, of skinny cooking and size zero, ragi porridge for breakfast and champagne diets for lunch.
What do the experts think?
Chef Praveen Anand, Executive Chef of ITC Park Sheraton Hotel and Towers, says the current trend is “two-pronged.” “People are into nouvelle cuisine. It's a slow movement, and will probably take three to four years to really settle into India. Meanwhile, customers are asking for more traditional food. I think we are going back to the roots.”
Reviving forgotten recipes
While the organic movement is fairly slow, he expects it to gain momentum. “I'm seeing organic food on supermarket shelves now. Finding things we were not getting before. I recently picked up varagu arisi. It's like quinoa and is great served with fish curry… Millets and whole grains for instance are gradually being reintroduced into home and hotel kitchens. We have a ‘Still being made here' section at Cappuccino, where we revive old recipes.”
Responding to the current fascination for the past, Executive Chef of The Park hotel, Rajesh Radhakrishnan says they are in talks with chefs from Sailana, a former princely kingdom set in Madhya Pradesh. “They have recipes that are more than 100 years old,” he says, adding that they're also exploring recipes from people's homes.
For the requisite dose of exotica, he's turning to Scandinavian food. “Generic global food has been done to death. Chinese, Italian…,” he says. Ever since Scandinavian restaurant Noma was declared the world's best restaurant, this genre of food has been getting a lot of attention. “It's a little bland, but the ingredients are interesting. We plan to infuse the flavours of Scandinavian food in our cooking, creating a sort of fusion.”
Also look out for more Korean and Vietnamese menus in the city. “They have an easier appeal, are closer to what customers are familiar with, but still exotic,” says Radhakrishnan, adding that Chennai is gradually becoming more adventurous.
They are also eating out a lot more. “I don't think they're cooking at home anymore,” he chuckles. “There are people who order meals from me almost every other day – everything from kaati rolls to Thai food. I see customers who come to our restaurants three to four times a week. It makes us very happy!”
The competition is likely to intensify this year. Chef Willi, COO of Burgundy Restaurants, says they're expecting a law allowing beer and wine in restaurants soon, and that it will have tremendous impact on the restaurant business. “Now that there is a stronger income base, we will see more entrepreneurs. More professionals getting into the business.”
In keeping with the organic and whole food theme, they have started trials with rye and whole grains to make everything from their breads to pizza bases healthier. “We are also working on corn and rice-based gluten-free pastas at Tuscana.” For the health conscious, Kryptos has just revamped its salad counter. This year has seen the opening of the B-Bar, in MRC Nagar. Their next opening will be Jade Wok, a Chinese restaurant.
Look out for their new Tamil menus. “We're in Tamil Nadu and so we're going to have Tamil written on all our menus. Why should menus always be in English?” says Willi.
Chef Aji Joseph of Zara expects a year of healthy cooking. “People want more nutritious foods.” He says Mediterranean cooking is an obvious choice. “Grilled food is also a good option.”
Chef Regi Mathew, COO, Oriental Cuisines, on the other hand feels that people go to restaurants to indulge, so health food will remain a niche trend. He expects to see more grills, open kitchens and live cooking — all trends that began last year. “Nothing new is likely to happen — what we will see are trends from the last year growing stronger.” Sushi, for instance. Teppan, above Benjarong, will have a much wider sushi menu this year.
Sandesh Reddy, of Sandy's and Maya, is only being semi-ironic when he says cupcakes are going to be this year's favourite dessert. “They're still there!” he laughs, talking of how they're like doughnuts in the U.S. “Everyone said they would be a passing trend, but doughnuts just got more and more popular.” Similarly with cupcakes, it's almost been ten years since they exploded on the market, and it looks like they're here to stay.
As baked goods get more popular, Sandesh expects to see more home-bakers turn commercial. “I don't see people creating their own recipes and flavour combinations yet,” he says, “But a lot of people are experimenting.” He says there's a huge space for new format restaurants now. “Gastro pubs will become popular. There will be more independent restaurants, and much more Asian-inspired food.”