No room for the luxury restaurant

July 09, 2018 12:00 am | Updated 04:42 am IST

‘Fine dining’ in India is still an elusive concept. Are we missing out because patrons who shell out $400 for a Michelin-starred meal abroad are not as willing to do the same in India?

In April, before Eleven Madison Park tumbled from its top spot on the controversial, but influential, World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, its presiding deity, Daniel Humm, was in Mumbai and New Delhi plating up scallops and foie gras for an adoring Indian audience. As guests traipsed out after the meal, there were stories about how tickets had been priced at Rs. 60,000 per head and how the affluent had coughed up an amount equal to many a middle-class countryman’s monthly pay cheque to partake of the pleasures of Humm’s table.

Like many delicious stories around food, including Birbal’s khichdi , the last turned out to be just that — a fable. Humm had been brought in by American Express for the benefit of its Centurion card members and guest lists were by invite only. For most of the cognoscenti, it was another of those glam free meals they have got used to enjoying in the past few months.

If you follow food as a competitive sport, the recent spate of high-profile meals cooked by some of the world’s best chefs — from Humm to Massimo Bottura and Gaggan Anand to Dharshan Munidasa — at events in Mumbai and Delhi (sometimes in Bengaluru and Chennai) may have led you to fantasise that luxury dining in the country has finally come of age. But unlike many gourmet traditions of an older India that celebrated pearls in biryanis and live quails flying out of lukhmis , the truth is far less embellished. In fact, if there is one truth about luxury dining in India at the moment, it is how almost non-existent it is.

Value of experience

The pop-ups attract a mixed crowd of enthusiasts and fad-driven diners, but look past them. How many luxury restaurants do you see around, apart from those in hotels where prices may be high but ‘luxury’ remains elusive? Luxury, including in food, is not merely about high prices, but about superior craftsmanship, ideas, detailing, ingredients, service, ambience, the value accorded to highly-skilled restaurant staff and, finally, that hard-to-define ingredient, creativity, which elevates the ordinary to the sublime.

Are diners ready to pay for an exceptional meal, which must command a certain price because of the quality of its ingredients and the research it may have taken to resurrect older recipes or techniques (like fermentation at Noma where every ingredient is studied for months in its labs)? While Indians do not balk at spending money on luxury dining abroad, they are not quite so willing to splurge within the country. Are we to conclude then that even as the bulk of eating out remains driven by comfort food, the high-end consumers are also motivated by fads rather than sophistication? Or, is it the reverse?

That diners at the top of the pecking order do not yet see enough value in experiences currently available to spend at par with what they would internationally?

The right price

In Paris, Le Maurice, an Alain Ducasse restaurant, is doing a special offer this summer — a lunch menu focussed on fresh vegetables, Naturalness, for €210 (approx Rs. 17,000).

This includes a starter, main, dessert and two glasses of wine. In New Delhi, home to some of the most expensive restaurants in India, Omya, the new, white-table clothed, modern Indian diner at The Oberoi, serves up burrah and biryani by chef Alfred Prasad (who ran the Michelin-starred Tamarind in London for 13 years) on custom-made, edged-in-gold Villeroy & Boch crockery. The price? An à la carte meal for two for Rs. 5,000, and an entire tasting menu for Rs. 6,000.

Japanese restaurants command some of the highest prices in the country, driven by high-end, imported ingredients. But even at Wasabi in Mumbai, you would probably pay Rs. 6,000-Rs. 7,000 for two. At Megu, The Leela Palace Delhi, the most expensive restaurant in the country, it may perhaps be 30% higher (in-restaurant pricing, depending on what you order) but that is about it.

If Indian diners seem reluctant to pay more for top quality food, service and experience, is it because we also do not have chefs and restaurants worthy enough to command that kind of respect? “For a country of 1.3 billion people, to have just one restaurant in the list of the world’s 100 best restaurants, and that too at number 90, says a lot about the state of luxury dining in India,” exclaims Deepak Ohri, CEO of the Bangkok-based Lebua Hotels and Resorts, referring to Indian Accent’s slide on the San Pellegrino list. Ohri, a luxury hospitality veteran, points to a lack of opportunity in India for talented chefs, a smaller pool of domestic consumers willing to spend on gourmet experiences, and a lack of tourism (luxury restaurants abroad are in cities with substantial tourist traffic) as reasons for why we lack top restaurants.

All about comfort?

Price, of course, is only one aspect of luxury. But it is telling when customers who may not hesitate to drop US $400 on a meal in New York or London, seem willing to pay less in India. Rs. 3,500-Rs. 6,000 per person is widely held to be the “sweet spot” just now. With high-end wines, this may go up, but as Madhulika Dhall, of wine importer Brindco, says, “Even Rs. 8,000 is a stretch, though, in general, people in Mumbai pay more than Delhi.”

Wine dinners with prestige labels do not give us a true picture of the market’s potential. First, the pool of paying people is limited (most have a mixed crowd of paying enthusiasts and invitees). Second, high prices are infrequent. “Most wine clubs come wanting seven courses for Rs. 2,500 per head,” says a top chef, tongue firmly in cheek. Similarly, pop-ups by global chefs do not make for a complete picture. While some like the one where the Taj brought in chef Gaggan Anand on a multi-city tour last year or the recent one at Masque, Mumbai, by former executive chef of Alinea, Mike Bagale, do get ticketed — the latter at Rs. 15,000 (with wine) per person is one of the highest priced we have seen — even here guest lists are always a mix of invited and paying, and it is debatable how many tables get sold.

At any rate, for most establishments bringing in the international chefs, these are primarily exercises in PR, as chef Manish Mehrotra of Indian Accent points out. “People in India may want to occasionally experience such meals, but the true test is a restaurant.

An international chef cooking as a one-off may get an audience, but there is a question mark whether there will be enough people wanting to stray out of their comfort zones on a regular basis to sustain a restaurant. I still get people who ask for dal makhni and lachcha parantha even at Indian Accent,” he says.

Five-star vs standalone

Then there is the divide between the five-stars and standalones. Hotel restaurants can command higher prices even if they serve pizza because the Indian customer still thinks of them as “luxury”. A quality standalone, however, has to peg itself lower. “Our prices have to be always less than a five-star’s regardless of the calibre of the restaurant,” Mehrotra says. (A non vegetarian tasting menu at Indian Accent is Rs. 3,900 plus taxes.)

Hotels, ironically, are battling competition from standalones and few high-priced hotel restaurants bring in enough profits to make them sustainable independently. The average millennial is comfortable in casual, mid-priced settings and fancier restaurants are “occasion-driven”. “While it would take Rs. 7-Rs. 10 crore to set up a luxury restaurant, a casual premium one can be done in Rs. 3-Rs. 4 crore,” says Jasjit Singh Assi, Four Seasons Mumbai’s hotel manager.

There is pressure on restaurants — across hotels and the standalone space — to play in the mid-priced segment regardless of the quality they are serving because of competition and customers who are neither loyal nor perhaps as quality conscious as in other dining capitals of the world. The Table’s Gauri Devidayal points out how it took years for her restaurant to get customer loyalty and how people even now sometimes fail to understand why the cost of a salad is Rs. 600. “In a high-end restaurant, you are paying for many more things than just food — for the quality of staff and service, ambience, wine and menus. Yet people don’t quite understand that,” she says.

Chef Vikramjit Roy of POH, Mumbai, which does chic modern Asian food, says how, despite using superior ingredients, he has so much pressure to keep the pricing low. “We use healthier red lotus flour for dim sum instead of refined flour that many standalones use, spring chicken from a farm in Pune instead of antibiotics-pumped poultry and all our sauces are made from scratch. Still, the market is such that we cannot charge more than other players,” he says.

Eye on quick returns

Part of the problem with “luxury” dining in India is the ingredients. Taxation on wines means that the well-travelled may prefer to open their own bubbly at home than pay absurd sums in a hotel restaurant for Moet. Ingredients like Wagyu and foie gras are not available and, despite the recent trend towards local gastronomy, supply chains are far from consistent.

A creative chef can still dish out a chic meal. But chef-led standalones are conspicuous by their absence. “No investor wants an individual-led space; they all want scale and quick returns,” says a talented chef on condition of anonymity.

Whispers in the restaurateuring world recently referred to how one of the most ambitious Indian restaurants today, which ostensibly hopes to make it to the World’s 50 Best list, hired a publicist who had worked with Eleven Madison Park, to work on global influencers.

Regardless of the veracity, such ambition requires not just consistent top notch cooking, but deep pockets. Not many investors are willing to wait, just as there are not enough chefs willing to go against the tide.The restaurant scenario, full of derivative menus, has very few shining stars.

Perhaps it is time for chefs and restaurateurs to break the mould and give us a taste of true creativity.

We use superior

ingredients. Still, the market is such that we cannot charge more than other players

Vikramjit Roy,POH

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