The Year of Acknowledgements

From finding new love for classics to rediscovering the charm of home parties and family dining to re-exploring our inherent love for pantry and experimentation, 2020 was clearly a year of knowing, loving and making food – simple, delicious food

By Madhulika Dash; Cover picture courtesy Sonar Tori

Is it possible that a year that was marked by a pandemic scare and phases of lockdowns could yield out anything on trend? It was with this quandary that I reached out to quite a few chefs, hoteliers and trend analysts for an answer. Turns out that while 2020 didn’t really score on a specific trend, it was a litmus year for many of the trends that played the high note in the previous year and the one before that. It also was the year that finally saw the effective implementation of certain trends like ‘sustainability’, ‘zero wastage’ and even a peak in “being locavore”. What changed, says Srijan Vadhera (GM, Conrad Bengaluru) was that these trends saw a drive both from the F&B businesses as well as the diners, who approached the concept of dining out in the ‘new normal’ with a different kind of zeal, enthusiasm and gratitude.”

Agreed Chef Sabyasachi Gorai (Chefpreneur, Fabrica By Saby), who found another aspect of sensibility emerged over the past few months – that of using fresh produce and other ingredients. “With businesses remaining shut over a good part of this year, we have finally been able to put a full throttle cycle of making the best use of a product in practice starting with the mise en place. This is not saying that practices of zero wastage and others were not in place earlier, but this time you could see the effort extend from the back of the house to the front as well.”

Second Chef Vikas Seth (Culinary Director, Embassy Leisure), who found the ‘cheer’ that diners brought to the revival of business by just stepping out and being their best, almost endearing. Chef Seth recalls, “I remember when we opened up our restaurants post the lockdown with a shorter menu, the apprehension was whether it would be acceptable. Little did I and my team know that it would be least of our worry as diners were happy with it, even bringing in much of the cheer back to the restaurant by relishing the small menu – and waiting for their specials to come in.”

The bonus, he continues, “that it has been a constant feature since the opening even as we adopted the new regimen of rules.” And while not every brand has been that lucky, hoteliers at large have more than welcome the changing set of dining. Says Sandeep Singh (Co-owner Ministry of Beer), “As a microbrewery, we did suffer the most as beers don’t last that long. Adding to our woes was the fixed cost of a gastro-pub style place. But once we opened, and even when the collection has dropped, we have managed to score with our F&B offering and food.”

Singh, while does rue the sudden rules, his view of 2020 is one of correction that while has seen some good brands close shop, at large has cleaned the canvas for healthy competition. A fact that seasoned consultant Chef Pradeep Tejwani supports too, while stating, “Of course, there have been quite a few closed downs and a wide spread joblessness not just in the F&B space but allied services, but the fall has given rise to some very exciting brands that have changed the way people order too by giving the quality of food and the variation a gourmet push.”

This upscaling, he continues, “isn’t just in case of cooked meals, even meal kits that saw a revival this season had to match the ‘gourmet standard’.” The reason for the transformation was of course diners, who became reinvested in food with many taking on cooking as a hobby during the lockdown when getting even the basics was a struggle till the blanket ban was lifted – even slightly.

What really did the year help us acknowledge? A few like these:

We love our food, mostly tasty ones, even if they are simple: One brand that understood it well was that of Chef Vikas Seth, who was among the first to introduce an immunity menu based on healthy ingredients and minimalistic cooking right in the beginning of the unlockdown. In the beginning, recalls Chef Seth, “it was in rage, much like all new introductions are. People ordered it, tried and even re-ordered. But the cake was always the old favourites with a few requests made towards packaging, like sauces to be different packed for tacos to avoid wilting. It didn’t take us long to understand that dining out was always about great tasty food – wellness is a bonus. While we still have the immunity menu, it has been tweaked as per the feedback.”

Agreed Chef Harangad Singh of Parat, who today designs most of his seasonal menus based on home comfort, science behind with that gourmet touch. “Food is a lot about visual hunger and palate satiation,” says the Chef, whose menu today is a mix of comfort food like Saag Gosht and quirky innovations like KKala Jalebi.

We baked, hence we know: An interesting aspect of the lockdown was many started cooking, including the men of the house, and a good segment of that took to baking. The thing about baking or pastry art for that matter is, says seasoned pastry chef Avijit Ghosh, “that it is the finest form of gratification. The ability to transform simple ingredients into something that looks stunning, taste stunning and is most spoken about is matchless. It is to the lure of this very gratification that many fell to as part of showcasing their creativity. And frankly, it did work well for many who made a small business out of it. However, in the larger sense, cooking food and making something new in all earnesty resulted in knowing more about food – its origin, science, story and even what made them so good, bringing a new found love and understanding for food – at the very atomic level.”

Back to Roots, but our own: Legendary Chef and cookbook author James Beard had once said, “we often take our backyard for granted.” No other year proved Beard true than 2020. Locked at home, we grew our own food thanks to workshops by the likes of Edible Routes and others who taught people hydroponics, but with time in our hand began cooking desi khana too, and this included chefs too like One8Commune culinary brain Chef Pawan Bisht. The Uttarakhand cuisine advocate, who shifted base to his home in the hills and relearnt the cuisine he grew up with. “Honestly,” says Chef Bisht, “it was the first time that I had an understanding of the rich culinary heritage I had. And could spend enough time working with basic spices, herbs and grain, which I can introduce in our menu with much ease and fanfare as I would an Italian cheese a few months ago.” Chef Bisht wasn’t alone in his realisation, startup firm True Elements took up the ante by introducing Carbon Footprinting of their products taking organic to a new level.

Revisiting Classics, and keeping it simple, sweet and homely: When it comes to fine dining, playing with classics and comfort food has always been the standard norm. They give that edge of familiarity and canvas to play on, says Chef Sharad Dewan (Regional Director, Food Production, The Park Hotels), “however 2020 made many revisit the simple (almost homely) pleasures of having a good chocolate cake vis a vis a fancy one, and even discover the variations that came because of a homemakers’ ingenuity. Result, classic dishes done well became a rage – not without the expectation bar raised high.” Agreed Chef Gorai, who delved into the regular favourites done with a twist for his new brands, Imperfecto and Dank to get the appetite working. The other F&B space that went back to roots were FMCG brands who delved into the grandma’s cupboard for a muse – and launched a series of traditional flavoured products that went from a number of batters, to teas to kadas, juices, pickles and even RTE options.

We need convenience, but with transparency: With wellness concern taking top priority, label reading shifted to just checking the expiry date and the rate to ingredients. With the aisle flooding with new launches – we have had as many as 100 new products in the food aisle as I write – knowing where the money is invested became of prime rank. One had to know, says consulting chef Nimish Bhatia, “what they are putting on their plate, and it wasn’t just about convenience, it was about spreading the buying net to include variety. Reading a label, knowing why one should choose brand A to B, and its uniqueness was crucial. What added to the curiosity was the government nod to make brands spell out the HFSS (High Fat, Sugar & Sodium) content if it was for kids.” Incidentally, continues Chef Bhatia, who also advises food brands, “the initial interest led to a more proactive approach where people did read up on a new product, even from a known brand, leading to the success of many new food startups this year.”

We love our dining time, be it with our family or friends called over: The one trend that perhaps was the most significant during the year was that of family dinners, and home parties or the art of hosting at home. Once the mainstay of Indian hospitality, home parties were almost given up for the luxury of curated tables at a restaurant. But with the current scenario, home parties/farm get- togethers proved to be, says Chef Seth, “not only a good avenue of reviving the F&B space, but also the new kind of safe ‘socialising’.” It was an endeavour that was supported by the F&B industry fully that specially designed a format where a team of specialised chefs who bring the food, bartenders the drink and service people the party setting to you. All one had to do is open their homes and get friends over.” Of course, on the other side, the easiness of home delivery ensured that one could have family time, whenever one was needed – festival or not.