As the Indian diner evolves, so does the culinary landscape. The pandemic has been one of the biggest change agents, leading to shifts in restaurant formats, delivery menus going gourmet, and more independent chefs stepping into the limelight.
“An independent chef is someone who shares their food with people without owning and running an establishment. What possibly differentiates them from a home chef would be that while both share their food with an audience, independent chefs also work with restaurants on menus, do pop-ups and cook for celebrities. It is usually a full-time gig without being associated with one restaurant,” says Bengaluru-based independent chef and product designer Anurag Arora, who describes his food as borderless.
Arora did his first pop-up in 2019 on the terrace of his home and created delivery menus during the pandemic. He has recently restarted his home pop-ups. In September 2022, a chance encounter with the owner of Café Taco Bar in Mexico City during a solo trip led to a collaboration: Arora cooked 150 Vindaloo Tacos and Mamey Cake with Barley Milk, selling out well before the night was over.
Independent chefs come from varied backgrounds, not necessarily culinary. Aditya Raghavan, a travelling cook and cheesemaker, who divides his time between Mumbai and Edmonton, Canada, did not go to culinary school. While falling out of love with physics, in which he has a PhD, he spent time learning cheese-making on two farms near Edmonton. “I am now a cheese and dairy consultant in India and also do private and pop-up dinners in India, Canada and beyond. I am cuisine-agnostic but have a significant tilt towards Indian food. Fleur Jaune Cheese is my Canada-based cheese-making company that makes fresh cheeses across various locations in Canada,” he explains.
Megha Polali, once a marketing and advertising professional, is the self-taught chef behind That Dumpling Girl, a weekend-only kitchen based in Mangaluru, specialising in Cantonese, Chinese and Thai cuisines. In the food sector for a decade, she remembers a meal at Din Tai Fung in Dubai in 2016. It left her content as no other meal had done. “I remember thinking someday I would l like to own a restaurant where people came because the food gave them joy,” she adds.
Today Polali makes everything in her home kitchen, from the dumpling wrappers to the noodles used in the soup bowls. She considers going the independent chef way a stepping stone to opening her own restaurant some day.
Going independent during the pandemic, Christopher Fernandes, the pitmaster of Cravings by Chris, his brand on Instagram, had worked at various luxury hotels in Goa before joining the cruise industry for a decade. He returned to Goa in 2015 to helm restaurants like Cavala and those of SinQ Hospitality. “During the pandemic, I followed my passion for smoked meats and open-fire cooking. No one was doing much of it in India and I saw potential for a business,” he adds.
Rhea Aaron, the head chef and co-owner of Klaa Kitchen, a cloud kitchen in Bengaluru, has been an independent chef for three years. As a trained professional chef, she had worked at international star properties but realised she wanted to begin something that would give her the freedom to express her culinary skills in her way. “Having grown up in a multicultural home, with mom being Goan and dad being Tamilian, I have always been intrigued by the idea of exploring and expressing my eclectic taste through my food,” she adds. Rhea only takes pre-orders, and connects with customers via an Instagram page and through pop-ups.
Being an independent chef ensures you are your own boss and gives you complete freedom of creativity. “It also helps with time management and encourages client interactions and makes way for better earning potential. Planning for the future, I can perfect my craft, studying the latest market trends,” believes Fernandes.
From a financial perspective, independent chefs tend to operate alone. During pop-ups, they work with the staff at the host venue or hire a few assistants. Profit sharing is therefore limited to a few people, leading to higher earnings. “However, the earnings may be higher for a single event, but I can do only one or two a month because the market is fairly small. I couldn’t do it four or five days a week and still sell out,” says Raghavan. To deal with this unpredictability, independent chefs diversify in many ways. Some put out limited menus or specials online to fill in the gaps; others offer consultancy services.
Aaron accepts that a chef working full-time at a restaurant does have advantages; they don’t need to invest in the workspace. “But, on the flip side, investing in my workspace also means I can tailor it to my needs without excess equipment or inventory I won’t use,” she explains.
The most important factor is the creative freedom. “Chefs on rolls tend to stop growing and get moulded... As an independent chef, how you put yourself out there varies and is not controlled by any factor, but yourself,” says Arora. “And the cost of experimentation also remains low.”
There is a flip side too. “Independent chefs must be able to market themselves, find clients, and manage their business operations, which can be time-consuming and require additional skills beyond culinary expertise”, says Polali.
Aaron says independent chefs are held to different standards. “We put our name on the line in every dish we send out from our kitchens, so we directly get the accolades and criticism. But a restaurant chef operates under the banner of an employer, which negates a lot of personal risk and responsibility.”
But not everything will be perfect in a one-off pop-up-style dinner, says Raghavan. “It is sort of like a live music performance as opposed to a studio album. It is about creating an experience. The downside is that I miss working with a team. The energy of working as a group, in a kitchen, is truly remarkable. Also, I miss having a place of work to go to, a cubby to store my tools, shoes and clothes, punching in the clock, and having a daily routine.”
Raghavan plans to return to Canada for a while to plan small events; he will be back in India in October. Arora wants to continue experimenting with approaches to his pop-ups, currently held once every two weeks. Polali hopes to open a restaurant, as does Aaron. She sums up the common refrain of independent chefs: “The only thing that factors in is how good the food is. It starts there and stops there”.
Ruth Dsouza Prabhu is a Bengaluru-based journalist.