The great French chef Alain Ducasse was supposed to be in India today. He postponed his visit at the last minute, but his Ecole Ducasse, a culinary and hotel school will open as scheduled in partnership with Dilip Puri’s state-of-the-art Indian School of Hospitality in Gurgaon.
Ducasse has been to India at least once before. When I met him (at his New York restaurant Adour which has since closed) over a decade ago, he told me that he had once talked to the Taj group about opening one of his restaurants here. Eventually the idea was dropped because the Taj was not sure that the Indian market could handle Ducasse’s prices.
Nobu Matsuhisa, founder of the Nobu chain and inventor of a popular school of modern Japanese cooking that is often mistaken for real Japanese food, had the same experience. I met him when he opened his Dubai restaurant and he told me that a proposed collaboration with the Leela group had fallen through because he liked to open large, expensive restaurants and, once again, it was not clear if the Indian market was ready for expensive restaurants of that size.
I reckon that things have changed now. People are willing to pay much more for meals than they were a decade ago, so Nobu might work in India. But Ducasse? I am not sure. Not because Ducasse’s food is not good (it is brilliant) or because rich Indians won’t pay for high priced food but because Indians seem to have fallen out of love with French food.
There was a time when, all over the world, formal dining meant French cuisine. In such great cities as New York, the top restaurants were French (say Lutece or Le Cote Basque). In London, all the top hotels hired French (or French-Swiss) executive chefs. In Hong Kong, haute cuisine meant only French food.
This was true of India as well. Cooking schools encouraged students to learn French (as did some hotel training programmes) and nearly every senior chef had a background in French food. For instance, when Satish Arora became executive chef of the Taj Mahal Hotel in 1973, at the absurdly young age of 26 (I don’t think that record has been broken in India to date; at least not at a major hotel), his training was in French food. He replaced the legendary Miguel Mascarenhas, known to everyone as Maskie, whose claim to fame was also his French food.
In those days, every expensive hotel restaurant was French. The Taj had the Rendezvous, always associated with Maskie. The Oberoi in Delhi had the confusingly named The Taj which served French haute cuisine.
Bit by bit, the better Indian chefs started moving away from French food and discovering our own cuisines. Arora is best remembered for his innovations with Indian food at the Taj, not for the French cuisine skills that first got him the job.
And then Indian diners discovered other foreign cuisines, most notably Chinese. Even when it was not Punjabified, relatively authentic Chinese food became a popular option at upmarket restaurants. But what really finished off French restaurants in India was the rise in popularity of Italian food. This was pioneered by two Taj restaurants, Trattoria in Mumbai and Casa Medici in Delhi and soon spread to the standalone sector.
It has now got to the stage where, if a five-star hotel needs to open a ‘Continental’ restaurant, Italian food will always be preferred over French. The Mumbai Taj has closed both the original Rendezvous and the French-influenced Zodiac Grill. The Mumbai Oberoi closed the French The Rotisserie and opened Vetro, an Italian restaurant in its place. Hyatt and Marriott keep opening new hotels but always prefer Italian restaurants to French.
So why did French food lose out? Three reasons, I think. One: French cuisine has little to offer vegetarians who, these days, are the restaurant guests with the most money. Italian food has pastas and pizzas.
Two: Indians love carbs. We may be the only people in the world who will order both noodles and fried rice when we go to a Chinese restaurant. Italian food can be carb-heavy which works well in India. French food is meat and vegetables.
And three: This is slightly controversial but I do believe that it takes lots of training and skill to cook French food. The kind of Italian food served at restaurants in India, however, is simple to make so chefs and cooks are easy to find.
Consequently, it is hard to find good French restaurants in India even at top hotels. In Delhi, there is just the Orient Express which opened way back in 1983. In Mumbai, Calcutta, Bangalore and Chennai, there is not a single noteworthy French restaurant at any of the city’s top hotels.
Strangely, it is the standalone sector that seems to have rediscovered French food. Riyaaz Amlani, best known for his Social and Smokehouse chains, has opened two French restaurants in Mumbai: Slink and Bardot and Souffle. I had a mixed experience at Slink and Bardot but I absolutely loved Souffle. It is unusual to find somewhere that serves a perfect duck confit, an excellent roast chicken or a high quality cheese souffle and still manage to pack the punters in.
In Delhi, there is Reve in Aerocity which I have not been to but have heard good things about. And Priyank Sukhija, the restaurant king of Delhi, has opened Bougie, a stylish new French bistro with elegant interiors by Natasha Jain. It is packed on weekends and the location is spectacular which also helps.
Both places appeal to a younger clientele which neither knows nor cares what the Rendezvous or the Zodiac Grill were and has no interest in the haute cuisine traditions of France. Younger diners prefer simple bistro food and they go to the new restaurants for the best reason of all: Because they like the food.
Does this mean that French cuisine is making some sort of comeback in urban India? It is too early to tell but the pattern is the same in New York, London and other cities. French food is being shorn of the snobbery associated with it, and made more accessible by being served in friendly and relaxed surroundings and it is cooked by highly skilled chefs.
Perhaps Alain Ducasse will try the new places when he finally makes it here. It should make him proud to see the cuisine of his country find a new generation of fans in India.