The Taste with Vir: Is French cuisine losing or making a comeback in India?

The great French chef Alain Ducasse was to be in India today. He postponed his visit at the last minute, but his Ecole Ducasse, a culinary and hospitality school, will open as planned in partnership with the state-of-the-art Indian School of Hospitality at Dilip Puri in Gurgaon.

Ducasse has already been to India at least once. When I met him (at his New York restaurant Adour which has since closed) over ten years ago, he told me that he had already spoken to the Taj Group about opening one of his restaurants. here. Eventually, the idea was dropped as the Taj was unsure whether the Indian market could bear Ducasse’s prices.

Nobu Matsuhisa, founder of the Nobu chain and inventor of a popular school of modern Japanese cuisine often mistaken for real Japanese cuisine, had the same experience. I met him when he opened his restaurant in Dubai and he told me that a collaboration project with the Leela group fell through because he liked to open big expensive restaurants and again he didn’t It was unclear if the Indian market was ready for high prices. restaurants of this size.

I think things have changed now. People are willing to pay a lot more for meals than a decade ago, so Nobu could work in India. But Ducasse? I am not sure. Not because Ducasse’s food isn’t good (it’s awesome) or because rich Indians won’t pay for expensive food, but because Indians seem to no longer like French food.

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There was a time when, all over the world, formal dining rhymed with French cuisine. In big cities like New York, the best restaurants were French (say Lutece or Le Cote Basque). In London, all the big hotels hired French (or Franco-Swiss) executive chefs. In Hong Kong, haute cuisine only meant French food.

This was also the case for India. Cooking schools encouraged students to learn French (as did some hospitality training programs) and almost all senior chefs had some training in French cuisine. For example, when Satish Arora became executive chef of the Taj Mahal hotel in 1973, at the absurd age of 26 (I don’t think that record has been broken in India to date; at least not in a large hotel), her training was in French cuisine. He replaced the legendary Miguel Mascarenhas, known to all as Maskie, whose fame was also his French cuisine.

At that time, all the restaurants in expensive hotels were French. The Taj had the Rendezvous, always associated with Maskie. The Oberoi in Delhi had the confusing name The Taj which served French haute cuisine.

Gradually, the best Indian chefs began to move away from French cuisine and discover our own cuisines. Arora is best remembered for her innovations in Indian cooking at the Taj, not the French cooking skills that first landed her the job.

And then the Indian guests discovered other foreign cuisines, especially Chinese. Even when not Punjabified, relatively authentic Chinese cuisine has become a popular option in high-end restaurants. But what has really finished off French restaurants in India is the growing popularity of Italian cuisine. This was started by two Taj restaurants, Trattoria in Mumbai and Casa Medici in Delhi and quickly spread to the standalone sector.

It is now at the stage where, if a five-star hotel is to open a “continental” restaurant, Italian cuisine will always be preferred to French. The Mumbai Taj has closed both the original Rendezvous and the French-influenced Zodiac Grill. Mumbai’s Oberoi closed the French rotisserie and opened Vetro, an Italian restaurant in its place. Hyatt and Marriott keep opening new hotels but still prefer Italian restaurants to French ones.

So why is French cuisine losing out? Three reasons, I think. First: French cuisine doesn’t have much to offer the vegetarians who, these days, are the restaurant’s wealthiest customers. Italian cuisine has pasta and pizza.

Two: Indians love carbs. We may be the only people in the world who order both noodles and fried rice when we go to a Chinese restaurant. Italian food can be high in carbs, which works well in India. French cuisine is meat and vegetables.

And three: it’s a bit controversial, but I believe that it takes a lot of training and skill to cook French dishes. However, the type of Italian cuisine served in restaurants in India is simple to prepare, so chefs and cooks are easy to find.

Therefore, it is difficult to find good French restaurants in India, even in the best hotels. In Delhi, there is only the Orient Express which opened in 1983. In Mumbai, Kolkata, Bangalore and Chennai, there is not a single outstanding French restaurant in any of the city’s top hotels.

Strangely, it is the autonomous sector that seems to have rediscovered French cuisine. Riyaaz Amlani, best known for his Social and Smokehouse chains, has opened two French restaurants in Mumbai: Slink and Bardot and Souffle. I had a mixed experience at Slink and Bardot but loved Souffle. It’s rare to find a place that serves up the perfect duck confit, excellent roast chicken, or high-quality cheese soufflé and still manages to wow the punters.

In Delhi, there is Reve in Aerocity where I haven’t been but heard good things about. And Priyank Sukhija, Delhi’s restaurant king, has opened Bougie, a stylish new French bistro with stylish interiors by Natasha Jain. It gets crowded on weekends and the location is spectacular which also helps.

Both places cater to a younger clientele who don’t know or care what the Rendezvous or the Zodiac Grill used to be and aren’t interested in the traditions of French haute cuisine. Younger people prefer simple bistro cuisine, and they frequent new restaurants for the best reason: because they love the food.

Does this mean that French cuisine is making a comeback in urban India? It’s too early to tell, but the pattern is the same in New York, London and other cities. French cuisine is stripped of the snobbery associated with it and made more accessible by being served in a friendly, relaxed setting and it is cooked by highly skilled chefs.

Maybe Alain Ducasse will try the new places when he finally gets here. It should make him proud to see his country’s cuisine find a new generation of fans in India.


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