Join Rohini Dey on her irate journey into being a restaurateur and launching Vermilion restaurants, a stark deviation from her past, in her zealous mission to raise Indian cuisine to the preeminence she strongly believes in
Growing up in India, I was determined to save the world. I still remember the dusty summer afternoon when, as a twelve-year-old, I crossed the street from school to the pristine air-conditioned environs of the UN and World Bank offices in New Delhi—an alien universe—to ask how I could one day get a job there. Incredulity gave way to derision on the faces of officials,who told me to“get a PhD in economics and come back.”I did just that. It mystifies people that, after struggling to get that PhD and successfully landing my dreamWorld Bank job, I now find myself in my tenth year as a restaurateur.It’s a long way from feeding the world to upscale dining. Why the restaurant business? Not for the glamour; trust me, I don’t spend evenings, resplendent in a sari, slinging back martinis or swirling wines with customers. Nor was it for fortune; I did my due diligence on the restaurant business. There is a 90 percent failure rate with meager profit margins, a dearth of bank financing, daunting labor and capital demands, and myriad legal and health liabilities. And it certainly wasn’t for the admiration of family and friends,who were horrified I abandoned a perfectly respectable “brand-name” career to open a glorified dhanda(a favorite Hindi term for disparaging small businesses). No, what possessed me to launch Vermilion, my Indian-Latin restaurants in Chicago and New York City, was a combination of rage, passion, and a firm conviction I had discovered an unmet market niche. I was outraged at the mélange of mediocrity we Indians passed off as our cuisine abroad: the $8.99 all-you-can-eat buffets; the predictable, mushy, overcooked fare, swimming in oil and nuclear food dyes; the clunky table settings amid faded visuals of camels and the Taj Mahal. I was mortified by the whole pathetic repertoire. None of it bore any resemblance to what we Indians ate at home, on the streets, or in restaurants back in India. When non-Indians think of India, what do they imagine? Legions of IT engineers? Call centers? Teeming masses and mystical yogis? It is unlikely they picture a nation with the depth of cuisine that could foster an epicurean culture. Few know of the immersion in fine dining that was my childhood in India. In our family, meals were meals—meticulously planned and executed, eaten together, and savored at leisure. As an Air Force brat growing up in twelve different cities around the country and traversing many more in family road trips in our beat-up Standard Herald, I relished street fare from every region: the chaat hawkers, pakora and samosa vendors, kebab corners, frankie stands, and paratha gullies of Delhi and Mumbai; kathi rolls, jhalmuri, kochuri, fishery, ghugni, momos in the avenues of Kolkata; dosa, idli, puma, biryani on the roads of Hyderabad and Madras; and, of course, the ubiquitous Indian-Chinese vans doling out steaming soups and chowmein noodles. Visits to “outside” restaurants were expensive and rare. But even then, the infrequent trips to Kwality’s, Karim’s, Nizam’s, Trishna, and Swagats or the foray to five-star hotel restaurants were magical and exposed me to new worlds of sensory adventure. At home food was subtle, fresh, and whimsical.My mother loved to experiment. She was as adept at turning out spaghetti, scones, and shepherd’s pie as at Bengali fish curries, mutton curry, and biryani. I have dined on a multitude of cuisines: from the temples of haute Michelin-starred restaurants to street fare the world over, but I have yet to find a cuisine with the range and complexity offered by India.The Mughal influenced fare found in the mountains of Kashmir couldn’t be more different from the hot-blooded food of tropical Bengal, or the seafood and vegetarian extravaganzas of Kerala’s spice coast to the hearty earthy dishes of Punjab—and that leaves only twenty-four more states, each remarkably distinct! Ours is one of the earliest cultures and continuous urban civilizations, rooted in the ancient Indus Valley civilization (now in Pakistan). Our food has been influenced by waves of Central Asian, Arab, and Mughal invasions, the British and Portuguese occupation as well as the Syrian Christian and Jewish immigration. It is an integral part of our social fabric. In India: hospitality, festivals, entertainment, family time and religious rites revolve around meals and food. Over the last decade, India’s fine dining scene has experienced a transformation. India’s burgeoning middle class is now as cuisine obsessed as counterparts in the West or Japan. Celebrity chefs jockey for positions in India’s largest cities; independent restaurateurs and chains compete across the country; and food TV shows, blogs, and magazines all vie for audiences. The tragedy is, amid this global gastronomic revolution, outside India, Indian food is murky, spicy, mushy, over-cooked and low-end. It is a cuisine lacking finesse. Progress has come at an incremental pace, with barely two dozen successful Indian restaurants in metropolitan hubs such as New York, Hong Kong, Paris and Tokyo. London is an anomaly because of the close ties between Britain and India; as the New York Times has observed, Indian food rescued the British from “bland boiled nursery yuck” by lending it a previously unknown component: flavor. Indian restaurants rarely feature in top international rankings. In the San Pellegrino Top 100, only Bukhara in Delhi regularly makes the cut. Michelin includes barely a dozen establishments serving Indian fare in its rankings of more than four thousand restaurants, and none rate more than a single star. In the United States, no Indian restaurant or Indian chef has received a James Beard Award. At Western cooking schools, students dedicate two years or more to studying French techniques, while “Asian cuisines”—including Indian—tend to be lumped into one general course. Granted, these are Western metrics. One can rationalize the near invisibility of Indian cuisine in such rankings by arguing that few food critics outside India can be expected to appreciate the nuances of our cuisine or the vastness of the regional differences within it, or distinguish the superlative from the pedestrian. And there, smug in our parochial supremacy, we could let matters rest—case closed. Spices from India were the single most important food product of the Middle Ages. Insatiable demand for them spawned exploration missions that drew Portuguese armadas and Spanish treasure fleets and led to the discovery of the Americas and the New World. And yet while we still produce over 80 percent of the world’s spices, the cuisine for which those spices were developed has failed to adapt to our new global age. Can Indian cuisine ever succeed on a global level? I believe it can— and, indeed, have staked my career and financial solvency on that. But first, India and its chefs must accept the reality of our reputation today and be willing to adapt and evolve.We must rethink efforts to promote Indian cuisine and learn to market India as a pre-eminent culinary destination. Indian cuisine can achieve popularity of French, Italian, Spanish, Japanese, Chinese and Thai food among global diners. And why shouldn’t Indian food hold its own against Nordic, Scandinavian, Vietnamese, and Korean, which are all the rage in the West these days? The twenty-five Michelin Red Guides on restaurant ratings cover at least thirty-five destinations around the world. I’ve often scorned the guides for their Francophile and Japanese bias and their penchant for rewarding old-style Stockholm syndrome dining: pretentious arenas of exorbitance that turn diners into obsequious captives. But like it or not, the Michelin guides lend a stamp of legitimacy not just to individual restaurants but also to entire cities. That was certainly the case for Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, and Kobe, which Michelin has transformed into international gastronomic destinations. Indians may scoff at the formulaic rigidity of Michelin ratings, safe in our insular cocoon. But if we do, we’ll remain irrelevant. Instead, leading restaurateurs, culinary associations, and India’s tourism industry could work together to woo the Red Guide to India. Winning over Michelin would put India on the culinary map and lure the tourism that inevitably follows food. Michelin aside, there is much else India’s restaurateurs; their lobbying channels, and indeed the food industry can do to transform our culinary profile. They might join forces with the long-running multi-million-dollar “Incredible India” campaign or partner with key Western culinary institutions (such as the James Beard Foundation or San Pellegrino) to sponsor awards for Indian influenced restaurants across continents. They also might work more closely with India’s tourism ministry to launch road shows, tasting festivals, and a network of celebrity chef exchanges to showcase our cuisine in strategic global cities. India’s vast network of embassies and consulates can assist in this process. The Indian government might sponsor young Indian chefs for on-the-job training in the West to broaden their horizons. India’s food industry could develop its own global culinary awards—based on innovation, revenue, or ratings—to encourage restaurateurs to raise their profiles overseas. Above all, Indian cuisine and all those involved in the food business must learn to embrace change. Indian chefs and restaurateurs—and diners everywhere—could use a jolt of what the economist Joseph Schumpeter called “creative destruction.” Only through Darwinian mutation and variation will we survive. Adaptation for global survival could come in many forms: enhancing the nuances of our spices, not over cooking ingredients past the point of recognition, enhancing presentation beyond brown slop in a dish, and being innovative in the ambience of Indian eateries and formats. We could introduce ambitious ingredients, broaden menu repertoires, and even infuse other global cuisines to create something provocative. Ofcourse, those who embrace the idea of evolution are easily branded heretics or sellouts; inevitably critics will wail that we risk diluting India’s rich culinary legacy. But this is not about dumbing down flavors or restraining the vibrancy of our food. It is about drawing on the best of the traditional and the contemporary. It is about encouraging all involved in Indian food culture to develop a successful translation of our culinary traditions to relay abroad. It is about breaking free from the insular bubble in which we Indians share the glories of Indian cuisine only among ourselves.
This has been excerpted from “ReImagining India” Unlocking the Potential of Asia’s Next Superpower by McKinsey & Company Inc.
The book can be purchased at https://www.amazon.com/Reimagining-India-Unlocking-Potential-Superpower/dp/1476735301