“Oh, come all ye faithful”, a trio tomato rasam made with lentils, will be one of the dishes at a 10-course sit down festival menu, curated by Chef Johnson Ebenezer, at Farmlore in Bengaluru this Christmas. The festive menu is part a concept of immersive dining experiences that he started in mid-2019 when he co-founded Lore, an outfit that tells stories with food. He was unaware then that he would be doing mainly sit-down dining and silver service the next couple of years, once the pandemic altered dinner parties and gatherings through 2020 and 2021.
Last year when travel came to a standstill and people missed the experience, Lore offered communal dining based on the theme, “Around the world in 80 days”. Menus were printed as boarding passes of each aerodrome. The format limits itself to a range of 16 to 24 diners, says Johnson, who along with his business partners Chef Mythrayie Iyer and Chef Avinash Vishaal. “The sit-down layout gives people ample time and closeness to have long and slow conversations,” says Johnson.
There are two styles to a plated menu experience, says Shreeya Adka, chef and partner of The French Door in Coimbatore. “While one is about the experience and enjoying the company of people, where we have relaxed gaps between courses. The other one is synchronised service at private sit down dinners. Here, timing becomes important and challenging. The food has to go in one shot and you have to time it in such a way that when they finish the last bite of one course, the next plate is ready. ”
Recently, Shreeya curated a seven-course meal for a wine pairing event at a private dinner. “We started with cheese gougeres, a platter of cheese and freshly baked bread for people to snack on before the meal. Then, we had beetroot and crumble feta soup for the second course, then the date, fig and orange salad with citrus dressing,” explains Shreeya, adding how some of the food pairing, for example New Zealand lamb rack with cabernet sauvignon was done along with inputs from the sommelier on flavour notes.
With small groups, multi-course degustation menus that immerse guests in a dining experience for two to three hours depending upon the theme are possible. In Hyderabad, Lore hosted Omnisense, offering a menu that was crafted around the five senses. In Bengaluru, their seven-course dinner based on “birth to rebirth” was customised for individual groups and held at different locations. “The pandemic prevented people from celebrating birthdays or anniversaries in a pre-pandemic mode, as bash. We had to think of something different. It gave us a window to do so,” says Johnson.
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Earlier in September, Mumbai -based Experimental Chef Prateek Sadhu celebrated his fine dining, ingredient driven restaurant, Masque turning five with a five-city tour, doing pop-up dinners in Delhi, Bengaluru, Kolkata, Chennai and Ladakh. Set in the middle of an idyllic apricot orchard the Ladakh dinner was particularly unique because the menu was almost entirely planned around foraged and local ingredients.
Noticing a definite uptick in private dining requests and special occasion celebrations as well as home catering, since pandemic restrictions eased, Sadhu says, “A meal like this means someone is setting aside the time to invest in an experience. They’re committing themselves to you for two to three hours, and leaving themselves at your mercy and that’s a responsibility we don’t take lightly. We discuss every aspect of the tableware and service style before launching a new menu, because everything surrounding the food is what also builds the experience.”
Sadhu serves a ten-course tasting menu, at Masque, asking guests at the time of booking about their dietary preferences and allergies. “The rest is in our hands,” he says and is known for foraging local ingredients for use in the menu.
Challenges of working in home kitchens
Chef Vikramjit Roy who set up Hello Panda, a gourmet pan-Asian delivery service in June 2020 has been organising sit down dinners during the pandemic for couples and bigger groups like 50 to 60 people. He believes that the pandemic brought the sophisticated sit down dining experience from the outside to peoples’ homes. “These clients are well travelled and know their food. During the pandemic they missed the fine dining experience and hence wished to bring it to their home,” says Vikram adding that the challenge of setting up the experience at home is “immense.”
“We operate in professional kitchens, as chefs, with precise equipments. The menu at sit downs is not a bowl meal, but one where every element stands out. All this requires sophisticated equipment and most home kitchens have basic cooking appliances,” says Vikram whose team carries with them a full range of cooking ware like dehydrators, sous-vide machines and blenders to the location.
According to him food is only 30 per cent of the experience, the rest being service, tableware and styling. “The servers who originated from the butler of yore is very knowledgable about the food that’s served. He should have the ability to interact with guests in an easy way, explaining the nuances of the meal,” says Vikram who has done elaborate multi-course events across India, from the Metro cities to two tier cities like Ludhiana to Lonavala.
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One of the most exotic ones he did was on a small beach island off Mayabunder in the Andaman where he catered a 10-course menu for a small group. “The island is very secluded and has no electricity. The dinner was in the glow of candlelights and we created a dreamy environment,” he says not divulging the cost of the experience, except for saying that, “it’s not cheap for sure.”
In Kochi Sareeka John and Payal Bafna who founded Guestronomy, a bespoke dining venture, in 2019, have been using the format to host small intimate dinners right through the last couple of years. In 2022, they are set to take it forward with The Grape Escapade, which will have 30 dinners over a four-day event at six wineries in Nashik, from January 26.
“The health crisis slowed us down and reconnected us to our old modes of functioning,” says Sareeka. “Earlier meal times were elaborate. We are now looking for such intimate experiences that infuse closeness and a bonding that had gone missing. I believe there is a market opening for this slow and stylish meal time after the pandemic.”
Gift the experience
Sareeka finds that people are “gifting” this experience to their friends and family. She was recently asked by a client from America to host a formal sit-down dinner “with the works” for her mother in Kochi, who loved such settings. “A good experience is the true happiness booster,” she says, who worked with The Grand Hyatt to organise a customised sit-down meal, with personalised menu card and an elegant setting of her choice.
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She also planned an exotic do, with 12 guests, for her mother’s 70th at The Periodic Table, a fine dining restaurant in Ooty, for which she carted table runners, seat covers, printed menus and a home-baked cake from her home in Kottayam. With guest’s nameplates in calligraphy, which were also takeaways, the dinner looked into every little detail of tableware and styling.
As Sareeka works with hotels to curate bespoke dinners, she says that guests are just discovering this aspect, “that something interesting, thoughtful and fun can be done away from the fixed dining formats that hotels offer.”
Such experiences can cost between ₹2,500 to ₹10,000.
Sit downs in 2022
Mayank Kulshreshtha, Executive Chef ITC Grand Chola, sees a clear shift towards sit-down dining and believes that the trend is here to stay. “ It’s going to catch on more. People have got used to the pampering that the format offers.”
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According to him chefs have introduced many innovations, like innovative plating, platter-to-plate silver service, and thali service. Seating arrangements shaped round, V, block and the E are back in vogue.” As examples of innovation, he talks about techniques like the slow infusion of ghee from a lit ghee candle placed on a dish or active charcoal smoking a dish as dramatic interventions.
Though big hotel groups, like ITC, have not done many sit down dos at homes, but, during the pandemic, they did send teams comprising a chef and steward to unravel and explain the menu to guests at homes.
Mayank believes that the food industry, led by chefs had to look at ways to get people back on the table and the sit down dining was one attractive and safe mode during the pandemic.
There is definitely a growing market for such experiences, adds Shreeya. “In Coimbatore, we have done six to seven sit-down course by course meals in a year. It can bring about a big change in the food and dining scene when more people start offering such services,” she says, adding, “Though it’s a niche crowd that wants to go in for such intimate experiences, the trend is here to say.”
With inputs from K Jeshi