Weddings not counted, your private parties just climbed up a notch with home catering no longer the side business of restaurants. The big-ticket chefs have swung into that space
BY RUKMA SALUJA
Covid turned our lives upside down and ruined many, except those of the chosen few. We know that necessity drove the five-star hotels and fine dining restaurants to deliver orders to homes. More wondrous is that some chefs turned to home catering. There have always been
freelancers, of course. It was unheard of, however, for these revered souls who are worth their weight in truffles and olive oil to come down from their mighty perches aka the restaurants they helmed.
Manu Chandra has been in the news for being the cook-in-chief for the India team in Cannes. He was invited to curate a dinner at the Cannes Film Festival hosted by India’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. He also helmed the kitchen at the festival’s India Pavilion. It can’t get bigger than that, surely. He had to put together menus for snacks very quickly. A mighty challenge, no doubt, but he said, “I’m used to thinking on my feet. I decided to pay tribute to the two cultures, Indian and French, and we came up with a menu with that in mind.” He went to Cannes
a few days earlier than the event with what he knew he wouldn’t get in a hurry like his masalas and pastes, scouted the markets for produce and by the time the world jet-setted to this glamorous of all venues was ready to roll up his sleeves and pull out his chopping board. He wanted to create a menu that was ‘the confluence of the two cultures’ over the days there, and took inspiration from ‘a little bit of India’ and married that with French techniques, et voila, he rolled out hors d’oeuvres like pyaaz ki kachori en croute with chutney and crème fraîche, paniyaram
madeleines accompanied by podi and coconut chutney. From a familiar chef at home, he became an international name.
We know him from the many eateries he’s fronted or been a part of: Toast & Tonic in Bengaluru, Fatty Bao in Bengaluru, Delhi, Mumbai; Monkey Bar in Bengaluru, Delhi, Mumbai. Chef Manu has been everyone’s favourite chef. There’s always been a fun element to his restaurants. Catering was not what you’d expect from someone of his standing. But that’s just what he did— started Single Thread Catering, a catering firm. “People have big homes and when they are entertaining they want to do something special so they bring in big-ticket chefs and it’s properly done, white glove service and course by course meal.” It’s not a new idea at all, he says. The big Indian wedding that is worth billions of dollars has been a game changer. “Not only do you hear of Indian chefs flying out to different destinations but you also have international chefs flying in for some of these weddings. I’m talking about god-level chefs whose restaurants have achieved Michelin stars in London and New York. There’s always been a very large demand for it and as far as skill sets are concerned, the skills required are exponentially greater than a regular
restaurant. You are a cuisine agnostic, you have to think on your feet, you are constantly creating something new. At least I have to do that because I have a bespoke catering company.
“Over the years there were many things I wanted to do. But while I was with the Olive Group, I couldn’t.” The 18-odd years of working in restaurants gave him the experience and the confidence to step out and do one of the many things he’d dreamed of doing.
Catering at a home is not the same as working in a restaurant kitchen you are familiar with but he found a way to overcome that challenge. For one thing, he’s used to feeding many at a go. “We carry everything with us, from the equipment, ingredients and cutlery to the plating and cleaning devices and detergents. When we leave a place it’s squeaky clean. You can’t tell we’ve catered for a party of 150 guests.”
It’s not that he’s put working in a restaurant behind him. “I have a finger in many pies,” he said. “This is only one of the things I’ve planned.” From making cheese, he could get into farming, making oil, getting into plant-based meats, and so much else.
Vikramjit Roy who runs The Tangra Project in Delhi, took the plunge right in the middle of the lockdown. Known for his stints at Wasabi by Morimoto at The Taj Mahal Palace in Mumbai, Pan Asian at the ITC Chola in Chennai, and Tian at Delhi’s ITC Maurya, his experience with fine dining had him offer bespoke dining experiences in the home. He customised everything, down to the menu and the service napkins. He brought it all to the home. The fine dining five-star chef came to you. “Fine dining is a different level altogether now,” he said.
Could this be the way hospitality is moving? Restaurants doing customised catering is not a new concept. Chef Regi Mathew, who runs Kappa Chakka Kandhari, which specialises in Kerala cuisine, in Chennai and Bengaluru, has been doing this for a while but for select occasions. He got into catering “because there was a huge demand for it,” he said. “Customers would like to have good food in the comfort of their homes for their celebrations and parties. And also, the confidence that clients have because nobody wants an evening messed up for any reason.”
Chef Regi’s catering division looks after the ‘on location’ orders. “We talk to the client, figure out the sort of family it is and the sort of evening they are looking for. Often, it is celebration, and so we offer a menu accordingly.” In any case, the client selects from a shortlist by the chef. As Chef Manu put it: “I guess that’s what creativity is all about. Else you’d just order from a delivery service.”
Numbers don’t matter as they are all used to feeding the hungry masses. And so when they say niche, it turns out that Chef Regi has done a special evening just for two. “That works out more expensive, of course,” he said. Customisation includes curated menu on scrolled menu cards, chef cards, menu board, special table linen, name tags.
Working in someone’s kitchen is a challenge only in terms of space or the level of heat from the hobs. More often than not, they carry even that sort of equipment. Chef Regi said, “We take most things with us. So, there’s no challenge really.” For Chef Manu it’s something else. “The challenge is only what you can’t deliver in terms of talent pool requirement.”