I remember when I did my industrial training as a hospitality undergraduate almost two decades ago. If your stint even allowed you to walk through the hallowed portals of La Rochelle French fine dining restaurant at The Oberoi, New Delhi, you could flash it proudly as a bullet point on your CV. White-gloved and all, it was the epitome of fine dining, even though that live pasta counter may not have been every bit Français. It competed with other restaurants like Baan Thai, the Thai eatery that replaced
Esmeralda, a Spanish one.
Every new hotel to have opened this side of the millennium touts Chinese or Italian cuisines as their fine dining options. Barring Neung Roi at The Radisson, which serves up truly authentic Thai (something that I can’t say in equal measure about the Thai Pavilion at The Taj), Le Cirque and Megu at The Leela, I am struggling to think of fine dining restaurants serving other cuisines that flourish in the country. I loved the Vietnamese fare at Blue Ginger at The Taj Palace, but it simply had to go.
Why is it so? Where do we, as a collective consumer, emanate the idea that food has to be Chinese or Italian for diversity? A Nagaland Kitchen can do well as a small standalone eatery, Le Bistro as a French one, or La Bodega and Depot 29 as Mexican joints, but what do they lack to command the popular vote of clients who walk into hotels? Even food trucks show more imagination and creativity than the average five-star eatery.
Chinese, many argue, is easy to relate to: it’s spicy and serves rice. By extension, Thai works too. Italian allows for so much vegetarian that hotels find it a safe bet. But it also means that we never really get to try the true nature of these cuisines, especially if one starts dissecting dishes and sub-cuisines that come from the various parts of each country. Also, so adapted is the food that most places serve what passes for Chinese and Italian, which would be unrecognisable back in their motherlands by the locals.
But the same generalisation that elevates those cuisines, bars these: French, for being too bland; Mexican, too simple; German, too meaty; and all others too unknown to serve up, sustainably (read: profitably). And let me not even mention the word ‘steakhouse’. That’s how corporates that construct our lavish properties think today. So we may have hotels that are every bit as lavish as the ones in Dubai or New York, but when it comes to food, we have all the variety of a bomb shelter.
I do hope that airline tickets continue to become cheaper, thereby allowing us to travel farther and taste more. And then, in time, every menu won’t be stuck to celebrating Gobhi Manchurians and Haka noodles or penne in some ghastly white sauce.
(The writer is a sommelier. firstname.lastname@example.org)