The secret to good gnocchi, Lakhan Jethani says, lies in salt-baking the potatoes instead of boiling them. The chef and co-owner of the Mumbai-based modern Japanese diner Mizu learnt this trick after discovering Lucky Peach through an article that popped up on his Facebook in 2014. “It was my go-to thing,” he says.
Lucky Peach was one-of-a-kind. The quarterly journal that shut shop in 2017 was started by TV personality and American restaurateur David Chang, of Momofuku fame, in 2011 along with writers Peter Meehan and Chris Ying. It became a mecca for gastronomes like Jethani.
Soon, other culinarians in the West started donning the publisher’s hat. Now a similar phenomenon seems to be blossoming in India, with gourmands looking to harness the power of e-magazines, zines, newsletters and publications to tell their own stories—from anecdotes to more complex tales about the origins of food and the impact of policies.
It’s an epic role reversal of sorts, breaking the divide between chefs and writers. Or, maybe it’s concomitant, points out Prateek Bakhtiani, head pastry chef and owner of Ether, a Mumbai-based chocolate atelier, and the engineer of Cavities, an annual pastry bulletin started in 2021. Its pages explore patisserie through the lens of seasonal fruit or cheese, with pastry chefs such as Dean Rodrigues, Tejasvi Chandela and Bani Nanda.
Unlike this in-depth bulletin, which straddles “a casual exploration of lifestyle journalism and a whitepaper”, Jethani’s quarterly zine, Itadakimag, is geared more towards the goings-on at his Bandra, Mumbai, diner. Similarly, KMC*’s biannual newsletter is an anthology of the experimental Mumbai cafe’s staff stories, merch list and events calendar. “The newsletter is yet another canvas to express ourselves and a fun way for guests to discover how they could be a part of our universe,” says Sagar Neve, owner of the Fort, Mumbai, establishment. Jethani adds that it’s difficult to condense information—with limitations on the number of posts—on social media.
Both these periodicals help shed light on the culinary and humane backstories of their businesses. It’s an attempt to make the kitchen a little less confidential, if you will, with profiles of staff members, or anecdotes trying to articulate the difference between “a service and a servant”.
The rise of content marketing plays a role too, with platforms such as Instagram, Facebook and, more recently, Threads rendering “content” king. Plus, they help leverage the tool of “storytelling”—so significant for brands.
It was a major starting point for Sameer Seth, founder and CEO of Hunger Inc. Hospitality—home to F&B brands like The Bombay Canteen and O Pedro, alongside a bimonthly food magazine, Enthu Cutlet, launched last November. “The trigger for creating it came, I think, six-eight months into the pandemic, when we realised that the storytelling we always did happened within the four walls of the restaurant. And those walls suddenly got taken away from us,” Seth says.
A few months before Enthu Cutlet, chef Thomas Zacharias announced The Locavore—a multi-format platform dedicated to food. “I have always felt that storytelling is incredibly powerful when it comes to understanding and appreciating the food we consume,” he says.
Formats vary. Cavities is an out-and-out print entity, with elaborate page layouts, and can be purchased on Ether’s website, though students and professionals may get it for free.KMC*’s newsletter is a PDF that they also print; Enthu Cutlet and The Locavore are full-fledged websites. Recently, speciality coffee brand Subko released a photo book, Insaaniyat: The Quality Of Being. “It started as sort of a documentation idea around, you know, the intricate lives of craftspeople,” says Rahul Reddy, its founder, who has built an in-house design and marketing team. Jethani, Neve and Bakhtiani have brand and marketing heads helming these projects. Enthu Cutlet and The Locavore have roped in journalists and writers.
Some, like Reddy, hope to create a “value system” around the “skilled and complex fields” of roasting coffee, baking bread or crafting chocolate. Jethani and Neve are trying to build a community around their restaurants. For Bakhtiani, it is a way of creating a space for writing about pastry, “in the way that we think about pastry”. Yamini Vijayan, editor-in-chief at The Locavore, says: “We want to tell stories of the grand things, like the consequences of food policies and how grains get distributed across India. And equally, we want to tell everyday food stories—what people long for when they miss home; of vendors’ routines in marketplaces; what children are given to eat at school every day...”
The Lab Mag, a Delhi-based media house and website, publishes a collectible print edition twice a year. Its founder and CEO, Shreya Soni (who consults with a host of F&B clients), says the magazine allows her to work on stories that “stand apart from template trends... And publish stories that, quite frankly, we would read.”
Chang had a similar reaction, when a CBS morning show host quizzed him about putting “a chicken’s butt” and “a bleeding fish head” on the cover of the magazine in their first and second issues, respectively. “We weren’t really thinking about what other people wanted. We thought what would be funny and interesting to us,” he had said at the time. The magazine’s irreverence served as a pastiche for food pubs to come but what made it truly unique, I suppose, was the perspective it offered—as stories being told by people who were living them. Digital media plays its own part in enabling such endeavours. “These communities and niches can exist because it is low-cost to set up. Same with food; why shouldn’t it exist? I always say food is the new music. Music used to be in the hands of the record labels, where they would control the distribution. Today, distribution has been democratised, therefore it allows us to exist,” Seth explains.
The rise of food-specific publications/zines/newsletters by chefs and restaurateurs feels natural. Without an outlet, what do you do with recipes that never made it to the menu, months/years of research on ingredients, learnings from the kitchen on techniques, cultures, and entire histories that have helped shape the way we eat? Create one, it seems.
Suman Mahfuz Quazi tries to make sense of the world around her through food. She’s also the creator of The Soundboard, a community dedicated to gourmands in India.