In conversation with one of India’s top chefs on what steered him away from the restaurant kitchen to the idea of ‘doing good through food’
They say that an empty mind is a devil’s workshop, but sometimes, the devil has good ideas. This was just the case with chef Thomas Zacharias, who found himself smack dab in the middle of a million brilliant ideas, weeks after hanging up the apron at The Bombay Canteen — a Mumbai-based modern Indian restaurant — after years of knowing only this: “I wanted to do something impactful with food.” Through his six-year-long tenure at the restaurant, Zacharias kept tinkering with several concepts on his own — from building communities around hashtags such as, #KnowYourDesiVegetable and #IndianFoodMovement, to immersive culinary trips across the country, better known as #ChefOnTheRoad that he documented in full on Instagram. It was natural for it all to culminate into something exceptional, which it did in the form of The Locavore—his latest and much talked about undertaking.
“There are people who’re doing incredible work behind the scenes, whether it’s organisations, farmers or producers, but they’re all talking to their own small audiences. Why isn’t there one platform to bring it all together?” he asks, talking about the core impetus that led to the formation of The Locavore. But for a few days since Zacharias announced the news, some of us grappled to understand what it exactly was. To put it simply, it’s a multi-format platform dedicated to regional Indian food that uses different mediums to collectively cater to the larger goal of creating an informed community around food. This, in turn, is propped up by four central pillars — storytelling, producer partnerships, community, and events and experiences, each with its own trajectory, but also synergetic and complementary in a way.
The Four Pillars Of Locavore
Offering a breakdown, Zacharias explains, “The underlying theme for all these four pillars is impact. In the case of storytelling, we’re hoping to do that by gathering diverse stories from around the country, which could help change peoples’ views around food. This would include stories on our website, which we are commissioning. But also, sourcing them from our community, such as with our Market Archives series.” Then, there’s the producer partnership bit of it. “Producers could be farmers, food brands and anyone that’s selling food-related products but within the prism of local, regional Indian food. The idea here is to help them with discoverability,” he elaborates.
As for events and experiences, it’s self-explanatory. Think sit-down dinners/lunches, chef/restaurant collaborations, pop-ups and more that Zacharias hopes will be able to offer something beyond the usual meet-greet-and-eat affair. “I think I am not done cooking, yet,” he asserts. And finally, the fourth pillar: community, which really is a desired outcome, rather than a vertical, per se. “There are a lot of conversations in food that are happening in silos, but there’s no synergy. There’s no one safe space where people can come talk and ask questions. You see certain platforms like this abroad, like Food52, which has communities within it. Or even, Eater and Bon Appetit that have achieved this to some degree, but we don’t have that here in India,” he confides, adding that he envisions The Locavore blossoming into a one-stop-shop for all queries, conversations and discussions around regional Indian food. And that’s ambitious, to say the least.
Making A Dream Profitable
Lofty as the vision behind any brand may be, at its core (and for it to survive), the idea needs to be profitable. So, how exactly does The Locavore plan to become that? What works in Zacharias’ favour is the fact that his venture is multi-format, which consequently lends itself to multiple revenue streams. Of course, the events and experiences are expected to bring in revenue once they commence. But if you know anything about the business of food, you would have guessed by now that the profits from those are typically pretty low. At the moment, there seems to be a lot of scope in monetising producer partnerships via contracts that would work like consultancies.
“We’re going to have different relationships depending on the producer, for instance if it’s a not-for-profit versus a brand/organisation. We would work to provide them with resources beyond just content, in the form of inventories, connections and storytelling.” In doing so, Zacharias and his team are closing a major gap by liaising with small, under-the-radar businesses that could benefit veritably from their experience in the industry and help them tell their brand story in an evocative and intelligent manner. It’s worth mentioning that they’ll also be the first ones to do such a thing.
Beyond that, the chef and entrepreneur also sees leveraging these partnerships to bring about smaller changes that could eventually contribute towards larger (possibly paradigm-level) shifts in the industry. “There could be strategic partnerships or consultancies with some of these larger FMCG brands. Can I get one of them to change something about the way that they work? Say, their sourcing practices? Or, maybe develop a range of products that focus on regional India?” he explains.
Leaving Behind A Legacy
Ultimately, it all falls in line with their slogan/motto, where the purpose is ‘doing good through food.’ It explains why Zacharias is looking for ways to wean his profit-making contracts to make big guns take small steps towards a better future of food. Or, why he’s excited about a story on his website that sheds light on seasonality and fish. There’s a definitive twinkle in his eye when he’s explaining how his team discovered someone who documented the Mao market in Kohima, Nagaland, because now a bunch of people might know a little more about their often misunderstood cuisine.
He’s okay to take a break from explaining the genesis of his brand and enjoying his morning coffee (and the little bites of free banana bread that came along with it) to demonstrate to me how a function on his website, called The Locavore Bite, works. It’s a pie-chart arrived at using an algorithm on the back-end that helps visitors gauge where a producer-partner stands, keeping in mind parameters like packaging, workforce, knowledge, production, community and so on. “The idea is to create a culture of transparency,” he says. Zacharias is probably as thrilled about having created a fern pickle with a social enterprise from Thrissur district in Kerala, and ramping up their sales by 2000 per cent, as he is about the prospect of becoming a profitable and scalable business.
“I have always aspired to do more, and there came a point in my life after 12 to 13 years of cooking professionally, where it became very existential for me to ask if continuing in this journey of simply being a chef was going to be enough to fill my well and satisfy my soul. And the answer was, no. So, as soon as I left the kitchen it became very clear to me that this idea that I had was larger than the sum of its parts and I have so much conviction in it. I really believe that people can be steered towards doing good if we make it approachable and fun,” he shares, adding, “I want to spend my energy doing something that feels worthwhile; like I am actually contributing to something. I want this to be my legacy.”
(Featured Image Credits: The Locavore)