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The organic food & sustainable dining you were looking for



It’s a windy Sunday morning. The winter chill is lingering in Delhi even in late February. Priya Paul is inspecting vegetables, fruit and cheese brought by a bunch of farmers to a weekly farmers’ market at her hotel, The Park. There are round Thumbelina carrots, green radish pods, strawberries, local feta cheese and ghee made from the milk of desi cows.

“My interest in food ingredients and their origins, I think, comes from my interest in art,” she says, picking up some stuff for her home. Paul, chairperson of Apeejay Surrendra Park Hotels, collects ephemeral art — posters, printed advertisements, brochures. Some of the images are of food across various cultures and periods of time, including India’s colonial past. This love for food history translates into her personal dining choices as well. “I want to know where the fish I am eating in a Goan curry comes from. While there is nothing wrong in flash-frozen John Dory, I would rather eat something that is fresh and locally caught. It always tastes so much better,” says Paul.

Her way of looking at and consuming food is the basis of an entire restaurant, Fire at The Park New Delhi, which was relaunched about a year ago as an “earth-friendly” restaurant. Almost 80% of the ingredients on its seasonal menus are organic or bought in a way that their source can be traced. These include fish caught from the sea and not farms, meats that can be traced to farms, grains bought from clusters of small farmers and local vegetables grown around the National Capital Region. Farmers and suppliers are all credited on the menu and a diner is fully informed about what she is eating. “Consumers increasingly want to know where their food is coming from. This is going to be a huge trend in the next three-four years,” says Paul.


Fire is arguably the first and only restaurant in India, of its scale, to have a dedicated focus on what is loosely called sustainable dining. There are plans to make the restaurant 100% sustainable this year and Paul says that because it has proved to be a success in its one year of functioning and has made a profit, she will now “push chefs” at her other hotels to follow suit. “It is a pain for them because they have to work hard at the supply chain instead of getting it all from one vendor, as it tends to happen in most hotels.”

Slowly, steadily and often quietly, a bunch of dedicated chefs, restaurateurs and farmers are working hard to change how young metropolitan India eats out.

Annamaya at the Andaz Delhi would have been another “coffee shop” but for executive chef Alex Moser’s relentless focus on Indian ingredients, grown or reared cleanly. Many guests at the hotel want to eat butter chicken and not millet biryani but “there is no reason why chicken, butter and tomatoes cannot be grown and sourced well,” says Moser. Better ingredients make for better taste as well.

Hotels and restaurants often try to reduce their food costs by sourcing it cheaply but produce, which is grown with care by small farmers who do not have economies of scale, is more expensive. The high cost of such food is one of the big challenges for restaurants constrained by thin profit margins.


In the past, faddish restaurants, which played up farm-to-fork or health trends, tripped up on their costing. These restaurants were dubbed elitist because of their higher pricing and attracted fewer customers. Some other restaurants did not take into account pop tastes while seeking a larger base of consumers and invariably flopped because, as many chefs point out, “homely” vegetables on restaurant menus work as a PR tool but people don’t necessarily go for these. These are two major reasons why big-format restaurants have not been able to plate up sustainability in a viable way in the past.

Annamaya turned this paradigm of elitist, faddish, sustainable dining on its head. Constant kitchen trials with ingredients like amaranth, millets and seasonal greens by talented chefs specialising in Indian cuisines like Balpreet Singh, who heads the kitchen now, have resulted in popular dishes (biryani, chaat) cooked with not-so-common ingredients like millets or humble greens.

Then, there is the price. At Rs 500-600 for a main course, the price is at par with standalone restaurants. “We didn’t want to make it an elitist restaurant. The ingredients we use are more expensive but what is the point in curtailing food cost if you do not have enough customers? The restaurant will never work in that case,” says Moser.

To make sustainable dining even more pop, the chef is designing a new restaurant and takeaway dedicated to flat breads/ pizzas, using flours like ragi, amaranth, jowar and gluten-free rice, as well as local cheeses, organic tomatoes and innovative products like arugula oil (developed by Krishi Cress, which supplies greens and micro greens to many restaurants in the NCR).

The toppings for these flat breads play with familiar tastes — chilli chicken, Mangaluru prawns with curry leaves and fresh coconut, and even a banana-peanut-chocolate variant. Called Soul Pantry, the outlet will come up in March.

Beyond a Fad “Sustainable dining is such a loosely used term,” says chef Prateek Sadhu of the Masque restaurant in Mumbai. “You will find restaurants putting two ‘organic’ salads or ‘Indian’ vegetables on their menus and these are suddenly ‘sustainable’… slow clap.” When Sadhu, an alumnus of the Culinary Institute of America, set up Masque two years ago with the intent of working with seasonal ingredients that he sourced directly from farms, it was hailed as a break-through in India’s farm-to-fork movement. “Farm-to-fork” is as much abused as “sustainable” is. Chefs like Sadhu or Abhijit Saha of Bengaluru’s Caperberry, who are committed to the philosophy of sustainability, point to the big picture. “Sustainability is an entire cycle, from how food is produced, its seasonality, traceability, to how it is cooked and how the waste is minimised and managed,” says Sadhu, explaining why it is important for chefs believing in it to be involved in all the stages.


Sadhu and his business partner Aditi Dugar have started a farm in Pune called Offerings, where the chef is directly involved in the growing of the food. Sadhu, who has sharpened his focus on ingredients and flavours from the Himalayan belt at his restaurant, also works with a cluster of 100 small farmers in Uttarakhand.

To further promote the entire cycle of sustainable farming, Sadhu and Dugar have started Zama Organics through which they sell ingredients from the farms they work with to consumers and restaurants.

In Bengaluru, Saha, known for his expertise in French and European gastronomy, is committed to sustainability. “The food system is responsible for 20-30% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

We should contribute in ways that reduce this impact. When using animal-based products, it is best to find sources with less intensive feeding and raising practices. When using plant based products, one should stick to cleanly grown, pesticide-free produce as far as possible,” he says.

At Fava, his Mediterranean inspired restaurant in Bengaluru, Saha serves food that is created with “fresh, pesticide-free, local and artisanal ingredients that can be traced to their place of origin and can contribute to local economies and sustainable livelihoods”. Almost 50% of the ingredients are sourced in this way: antibiotic-free chicken from Porna farm, cheese from Father Michael near the city and vegetables and fruit from local farms. Saha is also introducing global practices such as pouring half glasses of water until guests ask for more, to prevent wastage. However, the restaurant does not play up sustainable dining in its marketing. It exists as a buzzing, café-bar-restaurant at UB City Mall.

Small Farmers, Ancient Grains

The growing links between restaurants and chefs are benefitting local farm economies. A host of collectives and farmers working with dairy, vegetables and grains have caught the attention of India’s growing tribe of foodies. Meera Suri Sharma, managing partner of Gurgaon-based dairy farm Back-2Basics, says she plays Beethoven to the Gir cows she breeds for A2 milk. There is growing awareness around India-made cheeses, grains like bamboo rice (the seeds of bamboo plant after it flowers in 40 years or so) and spices like jhakia from Uttarakhand hills and teffal from the western coast.

These links also put the spotlight on ingredients that disappeared from our tables. At The Park in Delhi, a collective of farmers is showcasing 30 varieties of ancient, nonhybrid rice from across the country. “There were around 1.5 lakh varieties of rice in the country at one point; most of these have been lost. Small farmers have been able to revive 1,500 of these. We have brought 30 to our market and are doing a festival of rice,” says Sneh Yadav of Tijara Farms in Rajasthan, who is the moving force behind the Delhi Organic Farmers’ Market and works closely with several restaurant chefs.

At Fire, chef Abhishek Basu has tried and tested all 30 types of rice the farmers brought in. After two months of trial and error, he has perfected recipes using each of these in imaginative ways in Mahabhoj (feast). His Eggs Benedict, meanwhile, has a rice bun and accenting rice puffs. Deliciousness and sustainability need not be exclusive, after all.

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