Gautam Anand, Vice President of Pre-Opening Services at ITC Hotels is a keen reader of culinary history and an equally good spectator of modern trends. In an interview with Business Today, he explains why luxury has been a mindset in the country -
Q. There may not be a standard understanding of what luxury cuisine is. How would you define it?
A. The traditional understanding of luxury was heritage. The second aspect was quality. More explicit form of luxury is when you endorse what the world perceives as luxury - Edo in Bangalore is an example. The concept is imported. Japanese food is the highest form of quality and is endorsed by the world. The customer is willing to pay you more because it has the finest cuts of tuna.
But you must stage an experience, must shape the atmosphere. The combination of this is what works. All of this worked in Bangalore with Edo. Japanese food has tremendous heritage, we have been able to provide quality, we staged an experience and shaped the atmosphere.
The implicit forms of luxury are what we call responsible luxury. Let's look at Dum Pukht. It has heritage, we conform to domestic quality. This is implicit luxury because you buy domestic but use the finest ingredients - the best ghee, the best spice, the best cuts of meat. There will be a day when the world will import from India in a way we are importing from Japan. The challenges are on perception. The reason we keep driving home implicit luxury or indigenous luxury is because we are telling the world that luxury has existed in this nation for a longer period of time.
Q. How long back do we go in history when it comes to luxury cuisine?
A. I read just read a very nice script - there is an edict by Emperor Ashoka after he attained dhamma. The edict says that his highness would no longer require more than just one peacock and the occasional deer for his kitchens! People came to India because it was the only protagonist of luxury - they did not come for spices or pepper. They came for gold and silver and other metals. Luxury in this country has been a mindset. The crowning glory of luxury was when Jahanara Begum, Shah Jahan's favourite daughter, set up the world's first luxury street - Chandni Chowk. The first golden age was the period of Ashoka. The second was the Mughal period. The world recognized that there was explicit luxury in this nation. If Jahanara Begum made the first luxury street, was there no luxury cuisine available? There is no written culinary tradition in India. Lot of it is lost in translation. Most ladies of the house would only give their recipes to their daughters. Most great chefs would handover it over to their son, or what I call 'farmaishi cuisine'. This cuisine has been lost. It is our endeavour to reconstruct the farmaishi cuisine.
Q. How would you rate Indian cuisine in terms of global mindshare?
A. India must come to terms with her luxury cuisine, then the world's perception will change. The food that was in our consciousness was the food of the street. Farmaishi cuisine never left the home of the maharaja or the aristocratic. It will take another 30 years before that food reaches everybody.
Q. We have seen Michelin-starred chefs design menus for some Indian restaurants recently. What value have they added?
A. We have chefs who come calling. The biggest demand is 'Can you give me a free lesson in cooking farmiashi cusine?' They come but it is mostly at their request. We are not requesting them to come. They showcase their own food. They are a good endorsement because it is explicit luxury.
Q. Is the business of luxury food always profitable?
A. Edo is a success. It breaks even and now makes a profit. That speaks very well of what Bangalore has done. All our restaurant brands, by and large, make a profit. Smaller cities are responding as well. We have a fabulous bank of customers who like good quality.
Q. What is the demographic that visits your luxury restaurants?
A. They are between 30 and 50. There were businessmen and now there are corporates. They are the game changers. They are more frequent, they go out more often. Not all of them can cook in the house because husband and wife works. Our target used to be businessmen and it will remain that way. The new customers are the corporates.