A few weeks ago, an unexpected query came my way: “Does Assam have chef-driven restaurants?” It led me to wonder what exactly a chef-driven restaurant is. Simply put, chef-driven restaurants reflect a chef’s philosophy. Going by this vague definition, a diner may deduce that the menu is led by the one who cooks the food; ergo, the term is applicable to every eatery—from a street stall to fast food chains and premium dining establishments. There is, however, more to it.
It’s not merely about cooking. Chef Amninder Sandhu, who recently opened Bawri in Goa, explains that in such a restaurant, it’s the chef who calls the shots, be it food, branding or business. It can be owned wholly by the chef—Lupa in Bengaluru—or run in partnership—Bawri’s partners are Sandhu and restaurateur Sahil Sambhi; it can be fully funded by an investor, with the chef getting a free hand to express his creativity, like Masque in Mumbai. It’s a term that didn’t exist in the Indian culinary world about 10 years ago.
Before the turn of the millennium, chef Ritu Dalmia recalls restaurants were places where someone, not the chef, would invest money to offer the experience of good food and service. The diner would not know who had prepared the food and the proprietor—the boss—had no inclination to introduce the chefs.
It was only in the early 2000s that things began to change, with stand-alone restaurants helmed by chefs opening up. Dalmia launched Diva in Delhi and chef Rahul Akerkar started Under The Over in Mumbai. Their food garnered attention and guests knew who was cooking.
In 2001, Atul Kochhar became the first Indian chef to receive a Michelin star for his restaurant, Tamarind, in London; in 2006, chef Vineet Bhatia got a Michelin star for Rasoi in London. For the small section of Indian diners who aspired to know more, the focus shifted from recreating recipes by Sanjeev Kapoor to chefs whose food they could actually taste. TV shows such as MasterChef Australia, social media and award platforms would go on to propel the change.
Chefs like Dalmia, Kochhar and Bhatia were carving their identity through their restaurants. Now Dalmia is gearing up to open her 12th restaurant, Atrangi by Ritu Dalmia, in Dubai later this month. With expansion, other chefs are trained to carry forward the main chef’s vision.
“The term chef-driven gives (a sense of) identity to the food. It is saying that this chef is responsible for it, whether it is good, bad, ugly,” notes Dalmia, adding that there has been a surge in the number of chef-driven restaurants in India recently. She compares chef-driven restaurants to paintings with the signature of the artist in the corner of a canvas.
About two years ago, the 26-year-old chef Niyati Rao got diners talking with a menu that stood out at her restaurant, EKAA, at Fort, Mumbai. Its focus is on celebrating ingredients: seaweed from Visakhapatnam, Indrayani rice from Maharashtra and honeycomb from the Sunderbans. Rao, who had started her career at the fine-dining restaurant, Zodiac Grill, at the Taj Mahal Palace in Mumbai, launched EKAA with two partners after her internship at the ground-breaking Copenhagen restaurant Noma came to an abrupt end with the pandemic. The minimal plating and meticulous attention to detail—she got custom-made crockery for different dishes—reflect her training and an abiding love for Japanese food. The food sparkles with her identity.
When did a chef’s identity and creativity become mainstream for diners in India? Shows like MasterChef and Chef’s Table played a major role. “Before MasterChef Australia, we were all bawarchis,” says Sandhu, who champions chulha and tandoor cooking, using charcoal rather than gas—it has become her signature.
Social media too has played a role in propelling the concept. In the Mumbai of 2014, when Instagram was a long scroll of photographs tinted with Lo-Fi filters, Chinese-American chef Kelvin Cheung started posting about the food he would make at the posh Ellipsis in Colaba.
He pioneered the use of social media in drawing in diners. When he moved to Bastian, in Bandra West, his Instagram audience followed. As chefs have realised, social media can be a powerful tool for a chef-driven restaurant, especially if it’s an unknown new name.
Award platforms, be it Michelin Stars, World’s 50 Best or the year-old, homegrown Food Superstars by Culinary Culture, have played their role in bringing chefs to the forefront too. Recognition catapults chefs to fame.
As for Assam, the only name I could think of was chef Atul Lahkar, who runs a chain of restaurants named Khorikaa that serves Assamese thalis. But, as Sandhu would say, there is a gap—across the country—waiting to be filled with more names.