‘It’s aspiration feeding, by chefs and customers alike’

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New Delhi | Updated: March 5, 2017 3:02:35 AM

Talking of mere aesthetics with a chef who has food ‘activism’ on his mind seems trivial.

Chicken liver parfait created for Olive Beach.

Talking of mere aesthetics with a chef who has food ‘activism’ on his mind seems trivial. Even when we met chef Manu Chandra at the recent Serendipity Arts Festival, where he curated the food arts, he talked about a sourdough bread that artisans from the east made with local, fresh grains, and which the crowd couldn’t have enough of. At his newest venture, Toast & Tonic in Bengaluru, he is following the same food philosophy, using ingredients not usually found in a restaurant, and crusading for local, fresh and seasonal food in his own way. He likes to spread the word too. He implores us to write more about eating right, while calling out to (and daring) the restaurant industry to copy his Toast & Tonic model. After all, didn’t it do so with Monkey Bar?

So we chuckle when he labels the race in the industry to give diners the bells and whistles as ‘aspiration feeding’. “This is applicable at both ends. One wants to demonstrate the prowess that they have in changing or modifying the form of food, so it looks more spectacular. On the other hand, it gives bragging rights, Instagram fodder, social media attention and a sense of having consumed something that was aesthetically pleasing as well. There is a sense of accomplishment that chefs derive by creating pretty plates, and customers in eating them.”

On his part, he denies feeling any pressure to beautifully plate every single dish that comes out of his  kitchen. “I do enjoy making pretty plates, but not for things little can be done to. Also, if you start loading up too many components, colours, textures onto single plates at the hands of cooks who may not be completely in sync with your thought process, the results do lead to a, ‘Huh! What’s that doing on the plate?’ moment for guests. One sees enough and more of it on social media sites and apps. Having said that, depending on what the calibre of the restaurant or it’s positioning is, there are certain expectations on how good the food will be to look at, as well as taste.”

But for him, it’s always flavour first. “It’s food that needs to be eaten, it’s a restaurant that sells food, it’s an experience alright, but not one sacrificed at the altar of aesthetics.”

So when it comes to the aesthetics of food, he would rather invest in good crockery, small containers that serve a functional purpose and wider rims to frame the plates better. “Innovative garnishes and microgreens. Edible flowers and purées that compliment the food being served. The occasional streak and smear too. But a visual balance is required. Most often, very small portions look far better presented than larger ones, but that doesn’t go down too well with customers paying top rupee for their food. So you’ll often see me do this for tasting menus, or small plates. I do have some very pretty large plates as well, but it’s also because the plates are larger.”

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Talking of social media, Chandra is rather miffed when the addiction extends to his tables. “I don’t mind people taking photos of their food. After all, how long can a good snap of a non-moving plate take? But now there are selfies with the plates too, which can get a little annoying, especially for a chef to see the fruits of his labour going cold.”

Manu Chandra: Toast & Tonic, The Fatty Bao, Monkey Bar, Olive Beach Flavour vs presentation 90:10

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