There is no other way to say this: the future of the fine dining business is in peril.
Two weeks ago, we had written about the myth of ‘contactless dining’. The restaurant industry, particularly in the fine dine segment which depends on experiential dining, may see a huge shakeout.
There is a scramble to get onto the home deliveries bandwagon to ride the storm.
But then, you wouldn’t be a fine dine if you merely do regular home deliveries. So, from launching a brand new home-delivery dining brand to DIY kits and curating experiences at home, gourmet and fine diners are exploring myriad ideas in which inventive cooking meets comfort food.
Gourmet home deliveries are a global phenomenon in a COVID-stricken world. In Dubai, the fine-dine Peruvian restaurant COVA has begun delivering its famous dishes, discarding some such as the signature raw fish ceviche, which was too fragile to take off-site, for mashed avocado guacamole dish. A playlist accompanies the meal to help recreate the restaurant ambience.
In London, that mecca of fine dining, a tech-backed platform Banquist has partnered with Michelin-starred chefs to sell hampers stuffed with signature dishes.
Worldwide, home deliveries are emerging as the first bulwark against the storm. As Gauri Devidayal, co-founder of Food Matters India, which runs the formidable restaurant, The Table in Mumbai, besides the food experience space Magazine St Kitchen and Magazine St Bread Co, contends, “It may not be sustainable in the long-term, but right now it is helping to keep us afloat and pay salaries.”
A solely home-delivery dining brand
In February as the world began to shut down, Devidayal got together with Chef Amninder Sandhu — the woman credited with making Arth and slow cooking a phenomenon in Mumbai — to launch a home delivery-only brand, Iktara. “We are working on a brick-and-motor project, but we decided to launch the home delivery brand first since we had the infrastructure and the time was right. The idea is to deliver great Indian comfort food to homes across the city.”
There is a Punjabi and Awadhi cuisine on the menu, but there is also food from the northeastern regions, central and western regions of India. Chef Amninder grew up in Assam and her cooking has been influenced by the food she ate as a child.
Iktara has broken new grounds as India’s first home-delivery-only gourmet dining brand and the team is planning to set up satellite kitchens to widen the reach.
Significantly, a few restaurants are reporting good business. Antonia Achache, Head Chef and partner of Suzette and Kitchen Garden, says that home deliveries have been a large part of their business, accounting for 33 percent of their sales in some outlets. The Kitchen Garden team, which was flirting with the idea of setting up a Deli section but could not find the time launched one during the lockdown. It sells all kinds of pestos, bread, cheeses and dips. “We are also working on an online ordering platform, which will have more deli options such as DIY meal kits, baking mixes and more cheese options.”
Recreating restaurant experiences and DIY kits
A few restaurants such as The Bombay Canteen and O’Pedro in Mumbai are working on “recreating the emotions our food evokes”, says Sameer Seth, Founder and CEO, Hunger Inc. “People eat with us because of our food philosophy, our menus based on seasons and festivals.”
O’ Pedro and The Bombay Canteen’s delivery menus are constantly evolving, even as they retain the comfort and excitement of both regional Indian and Goa-inspired dishes: Eggs Kejriwal, Barley and Jowar Salad and Kerala Fried Chicken (K.F.C.) from the latter, Goan Prawn Balchow, Chorizo and Bacon Chilli Fry and Portuguese Custard Tarts from the former.
But, it is their special home delivery menu that is worth a try: Moplah Biryani and the seasonal favourite, the Mango Cheesecake, anyone?
That, and their special experiences, such as the online poee-making workshop with Executive Chef Hussain and the cocktail-making classes with bar manager Rahul Raghav. “We can arrange to send the ingredients so that participants can cook along with our chefs and bartenders,” says Seth.
The Hunger Inc team is also offering a four-course dinner, curated by their chefs in the comfort of people’s home, which includes a cocktail customised to the customer’s choice. Much like Zorawar Kalra’s Massive Restaurants. “We will recreate Masala Library at your home—including sending servers, chefs, and food," says Kalra. He is also planning a premium line of delivery-only Indian dishes under his father’s legacy brand—Jiggs Kalra.
Many restaurants, which had witnessed a big fall in their home deliveries immediately after the lockdown due to the fear of infection, are reporting a steady rise over the last two weeks.
Rachel Goenka, CEO and Founder, The Chocolate Spoon Company (with brands like The Sassy Spoon, House of Mandarin, Sassy Teaspoon and more) informs, “Deliveries used to account for 10 to 15% of our overall revenue and we are back to that number.”
Sequel, a two-restaurant chain focussed on using organic produce for its farm-to-fork menu, has what they call a ‘Care Kit’. “We do not just work with farms, but also have a greenhouse through which we have access to fresh ingredients,” says the founder-owner Vanika Choudhary.
Each week, the vegetable baskets include two new recipes from Choudhary’s kitchen that can be cooked at home. “We include vegetables such as butternut squash, chives, mint, orange sweet potato, Gondhraj lemons, lal math (red Amaranth leaves), edamame, methi (fenugreek leaves), wild arugula and Habanero chillis. Many don’t know what to use these vegetables in, so we add recipes. The basket also includes Sequel’s signature Buckwheat and Poppy-seed Crackers and a loaf of freshly baked Buckwheat, Rice & Walnut sourdough bread or a Half Nut & Seed Loaf.”
Fine dines have evolved DIY kits which, most believe, will find customers even after the lockdown opens. Mumbai’s 1441 Pizzeria’s gourmet DIY pizza kit helps people recreate the flavours of their famous wood-fired pizza. Managing Director Krishna Gupta says, “A survey told us that people were craving for good quality ingredients and restaurant-quality food. There was a gap to be filled and we jumped in. In your DIY box, you will get a half-baked pizza base, which is made from Italian Flour, a portion of Italian tomato sauce, imported Mozzarella cheese and other fresh ingredients depending on your choice.”
In Delhi, Ritu Dalmia’s Riga food has introduced DIY kits for gourmet Italian dishes. The meal comes with separately packed ingredients including chopped onions, parmesan cheese, fresh leaves, and a QR code for a video link of Chef Dalmia explaining how to cook it.
In the capital city itself, Lite Bite Foods, which runs several restaurant chains in India, has partnered with Swiggy to send out ready-to-eat chilled meals, called Daawat, by their fine-dine Punjab Grill restaurant.
The challenges for restaurateurs, who have rarely depended on home deliveries to pull in the money, have been many.
Would the food hold?
Fine dining restaurants are obsessive with not just the quality of the food served, but how it is served. Chef Amninder is famous for her slow cooking methods, which involve cooking on sigdis and coal. But then, food like that does not hold well when you deliver over long distances. So Iktara’s menu is comfort Indian food cooked using the best ingredients sourced fresh from organic farms.
“While biryani, kebabs, daal and naans are meant to be eaten as soon as they are cooked, they do not lose quality or flavour when you reheat them,” says Devidayal. Among Iktara’s popular dishes she lists Raan Biryani, which was introduced for Eid and retained on the menu after, the top-selling mutton biryani and mithais or Indian sweets, which have done well in the absence of regular mithai shops.
“We, however, regret not being able to respond to a guest’s likes or dislikes. In a restaurant, if a guest does not like a dish, we either replace it or take it off the bill. Here, there is nothing we can do.” And that, for restaurants with larger-than-life reputations, is a rather serious issue.
Given that food delivered at home has to be inherently different, The Bombay Canteen and O’Pedro teams have created a smaller menu, with the Roast Duck, introduced for Eid, as its star dish. But they have also extended the concept beyond by introducing weekend brunches and cocktail mixes delivered at home.
At Sassy Spoon, the chefs have added comfort dishes such as burgers, pasta and flatbreads to the menu. “We have also added chilli oil from House of Mandarin and pre-cocktail mixes from The Sassy Spoon in Powai,” reveals Goenka.
Running a business during the lockdown
Starting or running a business during the world’s harshest lockdown is a tough call.
Devidayal, who opened Iktara before COVID caused a lockdown, had to shut it down three weeks into operations. “Five days after the shutdown was declared, we resumed the bakery operations first and then Iktara, using the team we still had in Mumbai. Ensuring that we picked the right people and convincing their families that we will take every safety precaution was a difficult task. We have hired private vehicles to pick and drop the team members.”
The big challenge also lies in ensuring that the chain, from the kitchen to the deliveries, is manned by people who are monitored regularly. “We put the temperature of our chefs and our delivery men on the packages,” says Seth. The restaurateurs are struggling to get a message across: COVID does not spread via food or food deliveries. All you need to do is discard the packaging, wash your hands and reheat the food slightly.
Will the gourmet home dining experience hold beyond the lockdown?
While home deliveries are a lifeline at the moment, concepts such as gourmet home deliveries and fine dine experiences at home have sown a seed of long-term interest among consumers. “We have seen an interesting shift in behaviour. While the demand for eating out in a good restaurant may not go down, the point of consumption will change,” says Seth.
There is a considerable delivery market for artisanal cheese and homemade bread. “I believe people will plan more get-togethers at home once the lockdown lifts. Cheese platters, gourmet dips and crackers are great options when entertaining at home,” Goenka affirms.
Deepali Nandwani is a journalist who keeps a close watch on the world of luxury.