India reveled earlier this month in the achievement of putting ‘Khichdi’ on the world map with a Guinness World Record. While we have every reason to feel proud of this record, India hardly features on the world map of good gastronomy. Sandeep Goyal and Carol Goyal examine why the Michelin guide, the top-most accolade in the food business, is still not in India, and why Indian restaurants are still not perceived to have achieved global standards.
History was created at the India Gate lawns in New Delhi earlier this month as India’s most famous chef, Sanjeev Kapoor, supervised the cooking of 918 kilograms of ‘khichdi’ in a bid for an entry into the Guinness Book of World Records at the World Food Fair. Yoga guru Swami Ramdev put a traditional ‘tadka’ in the khichdi while Union Food Processing Minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal and Minister of State Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti stood by in attendance. The khichdi, made out of rice, moong dal, bajra, jowar and spices drawn from several parts of the country was cooked in a giant frying pan of 1,000 litres, measuring seven feet in diameter. The khichdi took more than an hour to steam slowly and finally be cooked. Chef Sanjeev Kapoor, recently decorated with a Padma Shri, was supported by a dozen other well-known chefs that included Imtiaz Qureshi (of Dum Pukht fame), Ranveer Brar, Kavneet Sahni, Saransh Goila, Sudhir Sibal, Rakesh Sethi, Akshay Nayyar and Satish Gowda in this record breaking feat.
While there was every reason for us Indians to feel proud of what Chef Sanjeev Kapoor and his team had achieved, there was talk in informed gourmet circles that we were getting needlessly ecstatic on small achievements that signaled quantity, not quality.
The bitter truth is that there is hardly any Indian restaurant of consequence in any of the world rankings. The world barometer of excellence in cuisine, the Michelin Guide does not even have an Indian foot-print and none of the restaurants it rates worldwide (actually 25 countries) actually includes a restaurant serving Indian delicacies. Howsoever much we may think that the entire world now relishes Indian curry, and Britain dies for chicken-tikka-masala, Indian cuisine unfortunately does not really feature on the world gastronomic map.
First to answer the question why is the Michelin Guide not in India? The simplistic answer is that the Michelin Guide is actually a brand extension for the Michelin tyre company. Michelin tyres have a near-zero presence in India and therefore the tyre company has no real reason to create and promote the Michelin restaurant guide in India. This argument, even if marginally true is actually facetious, if not entirely frivolous. The truth is much deeper.
- France tops the list of the 2017 edition of the Michelin Guide with 616 restaurants that have been awarded at least one Michelin star. Other top-ranked countries with decorated restaurants include Japan, Italy, Germany, UK, USA, Spain, Switzerland and Belgium. The 2017 Guide lists 274 restaurants from the Nordic countries (Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland and debutant Iceland) – this includes one restaurant from the Faroe Islands, a remote and rugged island with sub-polar climatic conditions. The Michelin Guide is a global assessment of global tastes for the global consumer. Somehow dal makhani and butter chicken do not fit into a global mode. True, Michelin has tried to modify its Gallic mindset while rating restaurants in Japan and Hongkong, but its orientation is still French-accented.
- Indian cuisine has always depended on its wide array of spices, deep flavours and complex recipes for differentiation. The West finds it difficult to understand our food. The West finds our food too severe on the palate. International Michelin inspectors do not have either exposure or understanding or expertise in rating Indian food.
- Indian restaurants have usually not met with great success in Europe and North America. Even when Chef Gaggan Anand opened his famed Gaggan restaurant in Bangkok, he went on record to say that he sought to ‘refine’ Indian food to the same fine dining level as other styles of cuisine such as French or Japanese. Which means there is a gap. Perhaps that is why Chef Anand, who earlier worked at the three Michelin star molecular gastronomy restaurant elBulli in Spain, incorporated similar innovations into his menu at Gaggan. His ‘Green with Envy’ signature dish is a coriander foam served with green peppercorn chicken kebabs. The important part of the dish is the foam, not the kebabs! At Gaggan, techniques such as ‘smoking’ and ‘spherification’ are actively employed to tickle the palate and enhance the dining experience.
- Nobu, arguably the most famous Japanese restaurant in the world, achieved fame due to the fusion of traditional Japanese cuisine with Peruvian ingredients, a brainchild of its chef Nobuyuki ‘Nobu’ Matsuhisa. Very few Indian restaurants have had enough of an ‘inventive’ approach to Indian food. Noticeable exception is Rohit Khattar owned-Indian Accent, where Chef Manish Mehrotra has been able to charm clients in not only New Delhi but London and New York too. Indian Accent’s menu explores progressive ideas in Indian cuisine while maintaining traditional integrity. Chef Manish Mehrotra reinterprets nostalgic Indian dishes with an open-ness towards global techniques and influences.
- Nobu did not originate in Japan, but in the U.S. The likelihood that a globally-renowned Indian restaurant brand will emerge from London or New York is very high, since it is more likely to cater to the palate of a more global clientele. Till then, Indian restaurants and chefs have to wait for Michelin to look India’s way.
- Indian chefs are just not well-known enough globally. Bar Chef Sanjeev Kapoor, none is really world-famous. Chefs globally play a key role in evangelizing the cuisine of a country. Chef Rene Redzepi pioneered the ‘fermented kitchen’ at Noma, celebrated as the world’s best restaurant from 2010 to 2014. His leadership in interpretation of Nordic cuisine in more global terms has helped Nordic countries have close to 300 Michelin starred restaurants today.
- Another aspect that Indian fine-dining still has to cultivate to reach Michelin standards is ‘attitude’. Sukiyabashi Jiro, hailed as the world’s greatest sushi restaurant is hidden in the least likely of places for a three-Michelin star restaurant – a metro station! Japanese PM Shinzo Abe took then US President Barrack Obama to dinner there. With only ten seats available, Sukiyabashi Jiro is surely exclusive! Owned and run by master sushi chef Jiro Ono, still active on site aged 90, the restaurant only serves its Omakase Tasting Menu, put together every morning depending on the fish available, and served as 20 individual pieces of sushi. Ono’s unique preparation of sushi is deemed an art, and sets him apart from the rest of the world as the world’s best sushi chef.
- Indian restaurants like Dum Pukht, Bukhara and Dakshin do not really feature in even Top 50 rankings in Asia. Wasabi by Morimoto at the Taj Mumbai does clock a lowly rank 46. Which is really sad. It is not that these restaurants do not serve good food, it is just that they do not seem to have figured out the calibration system that governs the rankings system. Michelin would be much tougher.
Michelin for now seems a far horizon in India. It may yet be a few years before we can have the pleasure of a Michelin meal in Delhi or Mumbai. Till then perhaps the best option is dinner at one of the 9 restaurants that offer a Michelin Star experience in India because of their global lineage. Well, make the most of it…
|Megu||The Leela Palace, New Delhi|
|Yauatcha||Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore|
|Akira Back||JW Marriott New Delhi|
|Le Cirque||Delhi and Mumbai|
|Wasabi by Moritomo||The Taj Mahal Palace & Tower, Mumbai|
|Arola||JW Marriott, Mumbai|
Sandeep Goyal, former Chairman of Dentsu India, is a significant shareholder in FoodFood, the 24/7 TV channel. Carol Goyal, a lawyer by training, is currently pursuing her Masters at Sotheby’s Institute of Art, New York. Both are food adventure seekers and culinary addicts interested in all kinds of food experiences.
What are the Michelin stars that continue to elude India?
The story of Michelin stars could actually be traced back to the beginning of the last century. France in 1900 had perhaps fewer than 3,000-4,000 cars on its roads. Brothers Édouard and André Michelin, owners of a tyre manufacturing company that bore their family name, Michelin, decided to publish the Michelin Guide to boost the demand for cars, car usage and by consequence car tyres.
Today the Michelin star rating is almost like an Olympics games tally of medals. Global standing in cuisine and fine dining is almost singly decided by the number of Michelin stars that adorn restaurants in a country. There are other fine dining guides like the Miele guide, the Zagat and of course the famous New York Times guide, but Michelin remains by far the gold standard. Read a detailed piece on Michelin stars here