Bindu Gopal Rao
Last March, Chef Manish Mehrotra had just returned from a food trip to Mumbai with his daughter and was all set to take his food pop-ups to Spain, Mexico and Tokyo, when Covid-19 struck. The pandemic brought the world to a halt and shut businesses, restaurants being among the worst hit. When things started opening up, restaurants limped back to life too and Mehrotra’s restaurant Indian Accent has now won the Best Restaurant in India award at Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants, the list published by UK-based William Reed Business Media, seventh time in a row.
Indian Accent won the award for excelling “through a combination of creative modern dishes and warm hospitality… Season after season, Chef Manish Mehrotra’s inventive tasting menus add an international accent to his country’s cuisine by mixing in global ingredients and techniques”.
The chef is understandably elated. “It is an international award, very big and transparent. No influence works here. So, it feels good,” he says. The year seems to have ended well for him, but that is not how it began. Like people the world over, Mehrotra found himself locked inside the house, cooking far simpler stuff than what he is known for, sharing daily chores and meals with family. Large-scale unemployment soon laid bare the basic flaws with the industry. What transpired over the next few months left a tome of lessons for him, on both personal and professional fronts.
The pandemic was a big blow to the industry. Right?
Yes, for the industry, the long-term effect is big as it will take yet another year to get back to normal. This industry requires a lot of foreign and corporate business as they are the ones who spend the money for the revival to happen.
Smaller businesses were hit harder.
Smaller restaurants have gone through a very tough time. We are part of a big corporate business with slightly better infrastructure. We faced losses, but survived. But, a lot of smaller businesses closed permanently. We all must realise that cost control is very important and all chefs, owners and managers should work on how to effectively control costs without compromising on quality.
Takeaways seem to have saved the day for consumers.
We too wanted to do takeaways, but at Indian Accent, the food is all about experience, presentation, textures and flavours. It becomes very tough to replicate this in a takeaway box. However, we did this at our sister restaurant, Comorin in Gurugram, where it is going on well.
And what about the takeaways from the pandemic year…
On the personal front, spend more time with the family because the future is uncertain and make time to get in touch with long lost friends. On the professional front, hygiene standards must continue. While we were always using gloves, masks are a new thing and will continue even after the pandemic as it is a good practice. I also want more transparency between the front and the back of the house. Every guest is welcome to visit my kitchen to see what we cook and how.
You have come up with a new tasting menu. What is it all about?
The one thing that everybody missed during the lockdown was street food. Personally, I like chaat a lot as I find it to be one of the most perfect dishes ever created in India — the balance of textures, colours and flavours is beautiful. It is a democratic dish where everyone can have their own version. The menu helped increase footfall at the restaurant. We have 11 different types of chaat from different parts of India. That becomes challenging for the team and for me too; and it is both fun and educational. From April 13, we will be doing a Ramzan tasting menu, a completely different take.
What were the apprehensions of your guests and how did you counter them?
People are still hesitant about coming to a crowded place, which is fine. I believe they should fear the virus. While we take measures, to be honest, precautions must be from both sides. It’s a two-way role and everybody’s responsibility.
The industry has seen large-scale unemployment. How has the government helped?
We really wish the government could help, but I think they have bigger problems in different sectors which I hope they are addressing. Here, they can help by slightly toning down the regulations or helping the industry in some way. I really feel sad for the students who graduated from hotel schools last year and this year. It is going to be tough as nobody is hiring at this point of time. I would tell them to hang on as things are going to improve.
2020 saw the rise of home chefs and experiments such as cloud kitchens. Has this impacted you?
These concepts are very good and helped many chefs financially. I am happy for them. But its impact on my kind of restaurant is not much because we are not only about food but also about experience. However, people have come up with fantastic food and there is place for everyone. In this game, quality matters and till the time they maintain it, they will survive and flourish.