In 2020, restaurants, chefs and food brands joined forces to tide over a bleak year, and sparked interesting collaborations, creative menus and supper clubs. The partnerships surpassed cities and cuisines, and will spill over into 2021 as the hunger for new experiences is not likely to wane anytime soon.
In November, a pop-up gourmet delivery service, The Dinner Box, was launched in the National Capital Region (NCR). It pairs chefs around the country with restaurants in the Capital. The first edit brought together Mumbai-based chef Amninder Sandhu and the restaurant Rooh in Delhi. Sandhu drew inspiration from her earliest memories of Mumbai and her Punjabi roots for a menu with Rhododendron Seekh, Theccha Mutton and Rasmalai Tres Leches. On their website, dinnerbox.in, customers can pre-order Rooh chef Sujan Sarkar’s gourmet meal box containing ravioli drizzled with Parmesan makhni.
Similar concepts cropped up in pockets of Bengaluru, Mumbai and Pune. While they stuck to delivery in the early days of the lockdown, tables were laid out for meal experiences with small gatherings as the restrictions eased. The Soul Company, for instance, is a platform that organises supper clubs by bringing together chefs, food writers and tastemakers. In July, it introduced Soul Menus, with dishes curated by different food experts in a city. In Mumbai, the Soul Menu featured dishes from chefs like Impresario’s Gresham Fernandes and celebrity chef Maria Goretti, who was completely new to the food delivery space. In Gurugram, the Soul Menu had dishes from chefs like Vikramjit Roy and Vanshika Bhatia. In Bengaluru, they created a box with food by chef Gautam Krishnankutty and cocktail premixes by Priyanka Blah, founder of the independent drinks publication, The Dram Attic.
“We told the chefs to share dishes that they don’t usually serve on their menu. They had time to experiment and that’s how we started the delivery menu,” says Diganta Chakraborty, growth partner at The Soul Company. Their coterie of chefs included home chefs too. The limited menus had regional fare with food from the North-East, Onam specials and Kashmiri delicacies, with a waz (cook) being flown into Bengaluru. “Think of it as criss-crossing; we bring chefs from different parts of the country—Mumbai to Delhi and Delhi to Mumbai—and create a tale of two cities,” says Chakraborty.
As the festive season set in by November, The Soul Company started organising supper-club-style meal experiences called Soul Tables. At the Oberoi in Mumbai, it brought together TV anchor and food enthusiast Kunal Vijayakar and the executive chef of the hotel, Satbir Bakshi, for a collaboration. The menu was inspired by Vijayakar’s memories of growing up in Mumbai. The ticketed experience had only 10 seats, with dishes like Bombil Maki Crab Gratin spiced with green chilli and edamame flavoured with hing (asafoetida). Yes, there was no vada pav.
These concepts are not unique to the pandemic but they found fresh iterations to dispel the lockdown-induced ennui. “There is a surge in the enthusiasm to discover new flavours. Food businesses have realised that pop-ups can keep their guests enthralled and allow for new conversations in PR and audience engagement,” says Rushina Munshaw Ghildiyal, a food writer, culinary consultant and the curator of Godrej Food Trends Report 2021. She adds that the top trends point towards a renaissance of regional cuisines that will be driven by home chef collaborations and predicts that even cloud kitchens will start these initiatives to become better known.
There are chefs who agree with Ghildiyal. Abhishek Joshi, chef and co-founder of the restaurant We Idliwale in Pune, is geared up to partner with home chefs this year. The former sous chef at The Bombay Canteen in Mumbai started his own restaurant to explore south Indian food, approaching it like a fuss-free street-food experience by pairing idlis with non-vegetarian curries. One of his most exciting collaborations, in December, was with Saee Koranne-Khandekar, author of the book Pangat, which explores the recipes and stories of regional Maharashtrian cuisines.
For the collaboration with Joshi, Koranne Khandekar prepared sandan, an idli-like snack of the Konkan Muslim community made with fermented rice and coconut milk, and paired it with mutton shikori. Joshi says: “There is nothing pretentious about my food. So, it’s always more exciting to tie up with home chefs who make simple yet exciting regional fare.”
Towards the end of this month, Joshi will have another pop-up at the tasting room of the Pune-based craft beer brand Great State Aleworks. The brand has been partnering with restaurants like Qualia in Mumbai and Brasserie CINQ in Pune through the pandemic. “The idea is for both the brands to cross-promote each other. When we partner with a restaurant or chef, more or less, we know that the clientele is very similar; they usually like craft beers and interesting food, and are inclined to support local businesses,” says Nakul Bhonsle, the director of Great State Aleworks and president of the Maharashtra chapter of the Craft Brewers Association of India.
Diners have returned to restaurants and as chefs get busy, these collaborations will most likely tilt towards home chefs. “As things return to normal, it’s a matter of where does the chef focus,” says Somanna Muthanna, founder of The Soul Company. And adds: “If I get a call saying ‘Hey, I am a chef in Mumbai and I heard about this chef in Bengaluru, how do we work together, can you set it up?’—that should be interesting. I think it will be great if more of that happens.”