“It is more of an industry term or phrase, quite often used in the media to categorise a culinary voice or menu that has, thus far, defied categorisation,” says chef Auroni Mookerjee of Kolkata-based restaurant, Sienna Cafe. Mookerjee is trying to deduce where phrases like cuisine agnostic and ingredient-forward came from. And while his logic stands true — in that, they perhaps appeared as food enthusiasts discovered (and even created) terms in their scramble to explain matters of gastronomie — the answer is as elusive as the crescent moon that marks the beginning of Eid.
I know this, because I looked in all directions — from the rabbit hole that is Google to the dog-eared pages of the Larousse Gastronomique (a culinary encyclopedia, and the holy grail for many chefs, published originally in 1938). His definition of the term, however, is immaculate. For cuisine agnostic does, in fact, try to define something indescribable. Or, in simpler terms, fit inside a box a culinary oeuvre that started outside the box in the first place.
The last decade in food has been adventurous, to say the least. We’ve seen everything from the world’s best chef, Massimo Bottura’s iconic dish, Five Ages of Parmigiano Reggiano — which makes use of the popular cheese from Emilia-Romanga in Italy employing five different techniques — to closer home, chef Himanshu Saini’s Khichdi Of India, made with 20 ingredients placed on a marble slab in the shape of the country’s map. It is clear — modern food has no rules.
This philosophy, while rather overarching in our present context, has found a more definitive home in restaurants that are demonstrably ingredient-forward. And more importantly, have menus that have unsubscribed from cuisines. Such is the case at the new Slink & Bardot in Mumbai, formerly a watering hole that reopened in July this year, shedding its ultra-French avatar. Their offerings could be baffling for the uninitiated for it houses aloo-bhindi, a desi staple, reimagined as okra and potato, along with Japanese ingredients like ponzu and the Peruvian ají limón or lemon drop pepper, floating atop a potato and leek foam that draws from a classic French soup, vichyssoise. Then, there’s sliders, with Philly-style steak, truffled emmental (which sounds like an umami bomb), and green peppercorn spread, all ensconsed within Mumbai’s classic pav.
For chef Ali Akbar Baldiwala — who is at the helm of the kitchen, and describes the food as ‘flavours without borders’ — the menu may have become focused on ingredients, but inadvertently so. His foremost priority, he assures, was to create unique flavours. “If you look at the way that gourmet pizzas have evolved [with Korean, American, and Indian elements], you’ll see that it allows restaurants to offer new interpretations in a market that’s very saturated. It affords us a free flow, in terms of creativity. When we call ourselves a chef with a modern mindset, we’re not only talking about looking at things from a different perspective. The first and most important thing for us is to try and come up with new flavours,” he opines. While that may be the driving force for Baldiwala, for his peer, chef Niyati Rao, who is behind the increasingly lauded South Mumbai-based Ekaa, a menu free of the limitations of cuisine was necessarily preceded by an intentional focus on ingredients. So much so that dishes on the menu are simply (or not quite) identified as lettuce, tapioca, or churros. Take, for instance, the potato from their small plates’ menu, which is layers of compressed and fried potatoes, served with chilli herb and lime gel. Elucidating on this, Rao says, “We are inspired by ingredients that we find in local markets, destinations we travel to within our subcontinent, as well as from around the world, rather than focusing on one single cuisine, as that might get exhausted after a certain point. In this case, chefs get an opportunity to diversify their possibilities.”
Having said that, such an approach amounts to a massive departure from the way things have worked for aeons inside commercial kitchens. It possibly also throws up a bunch of new challenges. How does menu planning, or rather structuring, in such a restaurant work?
“We start by looking for ingredients that are local, seasonal, and sustainably sourced and then, we decide what we will make with it. It’s a little backend-heavy work in that sense, but it isn’t that difficult because we can pick and choose influences from different cuisines and as long as there’s an internal logic to it, it works out fine,” explains chef Anumitra Ghosh Dastidar, who, after training in Italian and French cuisines, started a highly experimental diner in Goa (along with her co-founder) called Edible Archives. Here, Dastidar works tirelessly with local producers to create audacious dishes like their Xiangxi-style brinjal, mimicking a preparation she tried in the Chinese prefecture, made with long eggplants, beans, and peanuts. Only that in her version, the vegetable cultivars used are local to Goa, all three of which, interestingly, arrive in the sunshine state together during season.
Adding to this, Baldiwala explains how other parameters can be used to give shape to a seemingly structure-less menu. A restaurant can deep-dive into their data, comprising customer feedback, highest (or lowest) selling dishes, and demographics to determine how to bifurcate offerings. “When you start designing a menu, a lot depends on what kind of establishment you have. If it’s a bar, you may want more small plates; if it’s a family restaurant, you may be looking for a different function. Likewise for QSRs or even a vada pav stall. So, the first step would be to identify where you fit in and who is your target audience,” he analyses.
Ostensibly, in a restaurant that relies so heavily on ingredients, sourcing would be an additional concern (although, this bit might be applicable to any discerning and self-respecting restaurant today). For this, Baldiwala recommends fostering a strong community within the food space, which then helps a chef identify relevant vendors through peers. Rao, on the other hand, suggests including the team in the process, and says, “We task our chefs with the job of studying different ingredients, and slowly that moves to looking for a source to get them. We are also extremely close to our suppliers, because they really help us understand new species and varieties of produce.”
Does sourcing also tilt the PNLs (profit-and-loss) against the restaurant, considering that superior quality ingredients could be more expensive? “A chemical-free chicken will definitely be more expensive than broiler, but I think today, customers are conscious of what they’re eating, so they get it. Even with our vegetables, we try to work with farmers who aren’t using pesticides and while that does impact our PNLs, sustainability and climate change concerns are not even 20 years away. So, some kind of conversion is needed,” justifies Dastidar. In this regard, both Rao and Mookerjee — who predominantly work with local and indigenous produce — find the cost factor to be a non-issue, and even think it’s beneficial. Explaining it further, Mookerjee says, “Apart from the inspiration, there is a practical side to sourcing from the baajar [referring to the local markets in Bengal]. Local produce is always better for the books. You’re cutting out additional costs and taxes. A bunch of dheki shaak [fiddlehead fern] costs Rs 20, whereas asparagus costs Rs 500. The maths speaks for itself.”
The rise of ingredients and ingredient-first restaurants, thus, can be attributed to a wide range of factors, starting from the sustainability question, to more logical notions as pointed out by Mookerjee. The philosophy as such has, however, always existed, in the sense that traditional or authentic Indian, Korean, Japanese, and Italian cuisines — to name a few — are all intrinsically ingredient-focused, having been shaped by circumstances and terroir historically. What I think forms the bedrock of this evolving food movement (in which ingredients definitely play a large part) is the complete disregard for cuisines. In a way, when a restaurant chooses to focus on ingredients instead of the cuisine, it sets the chef free. Analogically, it’s akin to giving a child many tubes of paint, a starkly blank canvas and telling them, “Go knock yourself out.”