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If your restaurant works in Bengaluru, rest assured, it can work anywhere’



Food plays a very vital part in the cultural diversity of Bengaluru, what with cuisines from across the nation and the globe finding an address in the city. This dynamic cosmopolitan nature is what became the focal point of this hour-long discussion that involved F&B industry professionals from the city. Chef-restaurateurs Manu Chandra and Abhijit Saha, chef Naren Thimmaiah, restaurateurs Amit Roy, Vishal Nagpal and Rahul Nagpal and F&B consultant and bonafide food lover Aslam Gafoor formed the panel. Excerpts…

How inclusive is the Bengalurean palate?
Abhijit Saha: I arrived in Bengaluru around 19 years ago from Delhi and I saw that Bengaluru was caught in a time warp. The hotels or restaurants were not doing new things and the customers were not getting what the other cities were offering. But then, two big five star hotels set up shop in Bengaluru around that time and made a big difference in waking the city up. This brought in F&B outlets of different cuisines. Of course, Bengaluru has always been known for its bars and pubs. But these two new restaurants made a big difference. It brought in a lot more awareness among the people. I think this was the time when we realised that the potential for inclusivity was always there. Having spent 19 years in the hotel industry and then as a chef-entrepreneuer, I think that the explosion in the past five years has been immense. There is no doubt, today, when it comes to inclusivity, that Bengaluru happens to be one of the best examples.
Manu Chandra: To peg it on dietary choices and the ability to experiment, given that I have a fair bit of experience in the rest of the country, Bengaluru, I have always maintained, is on top of the charts in that sense, for several reasons over the last decade and a half. It has become a melting point of several cultures. IT opened up the city to people from all over the country, but specifically from South India. Anything south of the Vindhyas has a more varied palate, be it Andhra Pradesh or Tamil Nadu. We have a huge coastline, too. Cultural differences here are fairly defined, as opposed to North India. This is probably the most dynamic region in the country. I feel in terms of menu mixes, in the ability to consume every kind of food/cuisine, the 10-15 year benchmark has made a lot of difference. I still consider it to be the most inclusive in terms of the propensity to consume variety, which is remarkable. You cannot be xenophobic about it.
Aslam Gafoor: I moved to Bengaluru from Mumbai, and every time I mention that I am from Bengaluru, there is a certain kind of attraction. Barring the traffic, everything else in the city is loved. If you look at the cityscape in terms of the people, we know that a big chunk of the locals are actually from outside. This has helped a lot, because when you are on your own, you’re not restricted to family ties. I have seen over the years that some of the first launches in India in the F&B industry happen in Bengaluru. If you look at Vietnamese food or even something as simple as fast food — they all began here. The city has the propensity to attract people who appreciate the novel. There is room for everyone.
Vishal Nagpal: It is not just food, but also beverages. When some companies launch new brands, they use Bengaluru as the test market. The general belief is that if a product works in Bengaluru, it is easier for it to be taken to other parts of the country. This is because if it clicks in a market that is as dynamic as Bengaluru, in terms of palate and other aspects, it is relatively easier for it to work in other cities.
Manu Chandra: We have been a test market for several food, automobiles, etc. If it works here, it will work everywhere else. This is for several reasons, and price sensibility is a huge part of that. If it is acceptable in a market like Bengaluru, it will work anywhere else.

Do you see any restraint from local people? 
Naren Thimmaiah: Not really. Bengaluru is more inclusive when compared to any other city. I will take you back three decades. Those days, people were open to experimenting, though not to this extent. It was people from the restaurant business who played it safe back then. People used to ask why ther was only Dal Makhni or Chicken Chettinad on the menu. The industry wanted safe dishes. What helped us was the IT boom, awareness, people traveling all over the world and coming back. They were ready to experiment. This was when chefs like Abhijit and Manu came into the scene, and that helped us. If it was just another experiment, people wouldn’t have taken it seriously, but with these two gentlemen, we had a strong pitch. After that, anyone and everyone wanted to do something new. Hence, I would say that we have always been inclusive. My restaurant, for example, wanted to give the city food from the surroundings. This was three decades ago and people accepted it. When it comes to our native food, I will say others are more keen on tasting it.
Amit Roy: I think it was all about the comfort factor and not being able to push the envelope. Now, the world has become smaller and people want to go over the edge. People are traveling and they know more. If you asked someone about pasta two decades ago, they only knew white sauce and red sauce. It is rather simple, for e.g., to go to a buffet with just dal, roti and Chambal. But when the buffet has 45 different dishes, you experiment and try something new. You might not like it, but unless the industry does something different, people won’t get to experience it. This is happening day by day, with a lot more confidence and a lot more people coming into the F&B industry, who really want to take it to the next level.
The Bengaluru foodie lot bond a lot, both online and offline. What are the quirks of the Bengalurean foodie?
Naren Thimmaiah: Everyone is a food blogger and an expert, other than the three of us chefs on the table (everyone laughs in unison).
Abhijit Saha: We are their students. We have to be careful about what they write and cater to it.
Aslam Gafoor: While we all agree to that, let’s look at a different aspect. A few of us from this panel are part of the French gourmet group Chaîne des Rôtisseurs, which began in Bengaluru first 10 years ago. This is one of the most successful chapters. We tried this in Mumbai and Delhi, but it didn’t work. The social media bug is a double-edged sword. Everyone is an expert.
Abhijit Saha: I think groups online help promote inclusivity. Eating out has become a form of recreation. People have favourites and also look for variety. Food-wise, I have not seen people of a similar nature. There are some who like going to the same restaurant every day, because it is their comfort zone. For others, food is more about experimenting, experiencing different flavours and understanding what new things are happening, what chefs are doing and what restaurants are about. I think many of the things that have happened are for the better, rather than for the worse.

There are many restaurants that open in Bengaluru in quick succession, but many close down at the same pace. Are people not doing their homework right?
Manu Chandra: If inclusivity is an extension of a sense of tradition. Is it a false sense of tradition or is it something that someone has conveniently created, to say this is the paradigm and this is what tradition should be, and hence you should follow tradition. The problem with this kind of commentary is that it completely disregards history. So, inclusivity may have existed. But all this is disregarded when one sees tradition in a newly-defined paradigm. This is more propaganda than anything else. One is creating a sense of comfort for a particular reason. I feel a lot of the new moves that are bringing tradition and culture from everywhere is the real truism. A lot of new endeavours are coming into the market. Food is a qualitative approach and there is no absolute way of saying something is right and something isn’t. The good ones will survive. There is a long list of new places that are doing research and serving great food. Take, for instance, the millets explosion, which is being spearheaded from this city. Getting the country to follow something more responsible is actually tradition. Sona masuri rice is not tradition — why have we ignored that? And why are we calling Donne Biryani tradition? This is a new-fangled invention and not tradition. Again, this is one of the few states that has a phenomenal documented history of food. One of the oldest cook books is from Karnataka. What is tradition? No one can define tradition. Hence, no one can peg inclusivity to tradition. Experimentation has to be the name of the game.
Amit Roy: Karnataka has a vast and varied cuisine. This itself is a lot for someone to sample. And the city is opening up to these, along with many cuisines from the world. So, how can one be non-inclusive?
Aslam Gafoor: When it comes to inclusivity, Bengaluru has also been at the forefront of technology. If you look at the food delivery apps space, it hasn’t been as big everywhere else. It all started here and has only grown stronger from here. If we take inclusivity in today’s age, technology has played a big part in bringing things together.
Manu Chandra: But the technology has done away with interaction. If you go to a restaurant, somebody can make you change your mind about what you are eating. But when you order online, you are constantly picking those three things over and over again. You’re playing it safe and establishments are playing into that.
Amit Roy: Also, majority of the offers are deal oriented. One is actually looking for a deal rather than a meal. One is looking at a better discount or a combo offer, rather than concentrating on enjoying the restaurant.

What is the one food fad you would want to be done away with?
Rahul Nagpal: People want a lot on their plate for peanuts. It is quantity versus price.
Manu Chandra: This is an important point, because it ties into sustainability. The idea of conspicuous consumption, as far as food is concerned, is very bizarre. It is very volume-led. At the expense of sounding privileged, it is a peasant mentality, of needed the one square meal to be large in quantity. This was only because they got one meal. Now, one can have four square meals, but people still want them to be large. Why are we the the nation with the most number of diabetics? Due to irresponsible eating. You want a bucket full of biryani, but what rice are you being fed? Youare getting something that requires the highest amount of pesticides to grow. Which part of the state does it grow and who is responsible is a completely different debate altogether. This is a slippery slope, because you want to promote sustainability and better eating on one side, but there is the economics of scale kicking in on the other side.
Vishal Nagpal: Or feeding you what comes out of a freezer that was made god knows when.
Manu Chandra: Or a tub. Now they grow fish in tubs.
Abhijit Saha: It is about the concept of eating, actually. Culturally, not all cuisines are such in which an entire meal is eaten in a single plate. There are different courses. So, one ends up wanting 250-300 grams of every course, rather than all courses adding together to a specific amount. This is where you see disgruntled customers complaining that the portion size is too small. This is not the intent, but the way the food is supposed to be eaten, culturally.
Naren Thimmaiah: One thing I would want to fade away for the betterment of everyone is late-night binge eating. It is our task to make the customers aware of healthy ways of eating. This can be done by relooking portion sizes.
Aslam Gafoor: I would like to see the end of quirky ways of serving. The biggest challenge I have with that is hygiene. I think we are going back to classics and we should deliver simple, straightforward food.

What would you call Bengaluru’s signature dish?
Everyone in unison: Biryani.
Abhijit Saha: We cannot forget dosa.

How many people ask for a different experience each time they visit a restaurant?
Amit Roy: There are two times you get these demands. The first is when you are a regular, so you are in a position to ask for something different. The other is for a special occasion, like a celebration or birthdays, where you want a curated menu.
Manu Chandra: You can only go to experiential restaurants and ask for those, usually. But it has started petering down and you can see it in many mid-level restaurants, where customers are more demanding.
Abhijit Saha: We launched tasting menus for those who wanted to experience degustation menus. Even now, we have many customers who come in only for that.
Vishal Nagpal: Most restaurants are anyway doing innovative things to entice customers.

Do Bengalureans splurge at restaurants?
In unison: It is a value-for-money market.
Amit Roy: We are a smart market. If you look at the numbers, Bengaluru is skeptical about spending on food just like that. They need something of value in return.
Abhijit Saha: Here, people don’t want to pay extra for a particular experience. You must give them the premium, without having to pay for the same. In Mumbai or Delhi, people want fancy VIP tables.
Vishal Nagpal: It also has to do with the fabric of the city. In Delhi and Mumbai, top industrialists and politicians entertain the who’s who of the world. This doesn’t happen as much here.
Abhijit Saha: It is more about being down to earth. Many CEOs here don’t mind sitting with other people. They don’t want a separate VIP table or a private dining room. They would rather finish the meeting in the boardroom of their offices and sit with everyone else to enjoy a meal.

Manu Chandra: I think it has got to do with a more frugal bent of the South in general, which lent itself to believing in not splurging on dining experiences. This is changing, of course, because there is nothing else to do here, apart from eat and drink. At last count, Bengaluru has 57 breweries. This affirms that this is the Pub Capital. Price elasticity has altered slightly. The consumer is willing to spend a little more from back in the day. Another factor that is endearing about Bengaluru is loyalty. Customers stand by what they like, which is why some restaurants stand the test of time. They can, then, can charge a premium. No one can just enter the market and charge premium. This doesn’t happen in other cities.

What is one change that you would like to see in the F&B industry?
Manu Chandra: Less governmental interference.
Abhijit Saha: Please make our lives easier by removing unnecessary laws and regulations. Try to implement good regulations.
Amit Roy: Some of the laws are so archaic that it is high-time one woke up and saw what is practical.
Rahul Nagpal: One of the reasons many restaurants shut is because of permissions and regulations.

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