Chef's Fable! Don't decry the 'death' of fine dining, at least not in Chef Manu Chandra's hearing. With his latest venture (Bengaluru's Lupa) now open for business, the virtuoso is turning up the heat on haute cuisine, writes Joshua Muyiwa. Know more....
"FINE DINING will die the day Louis Vuitton does,” declares a fairly irked Chef Manu Chandra. He finds it “terribly defeatist” when the fortunes of “an isolated restaurant [Noma] in Copenhagen, which seats 30 people a day” are used by the global media to ring the death knell of fine dining across the world. “That’s ludicrous,” he scoffs. “That’s lazy journalism. That’s not how it works.”
And he would know. Chef Chandra has been the bellwether of the country’s restaurant business for nearly two decades. He isn’t just prophesying and producing the contents of our plates. He’s also directing and designing the environments for these experiences. At a long, narrow bar with exposed bricks and wooden benches lit by naked Edison bulbs serving up crazy cocktails and bar food that was familiar-yet-fancy, he had us chorusing, “gastro-pub, gastro-pub”. Belting baos and bowls of ramen inside a cute, colourful canteen straight out of an anime film, he got us to knowingly pronounce: “No, no, that’s Indian-Chinese” about our previous Asian food fixes. Gulping giant glasses of house-infused gins and tonics with cement-moulded farm animals curiously dangling over our heads, he had us signing up to be card-carrying members of the gin revolution. And with Lupa, his return to the restaurant scene after a year, he’s already got us all howling with delight.
Over at Lupa, the influences and ingredients of its 15 page fine-dining menu reflect the cosmopolitan idea of the ancient city of Rome. [The restaurant takes its name from the mythological La Lupa, the she-wolf who raised Romulus and Remus, the founders of this city.] In that, the base-line might be Italian but the elements might be from anywhere in the known world. “The menu hasn’t been siloed into Italian-Italian. It is a hat-tip towards the West, for sure. This doesn’t rule out the fact that it’ll be slightly differentiated; there will be Western techniques but also flavours from elsewhere,” he says. “Like the crab pasta has a curry-leaf crumble, and that’s not Italian by any stretch; the hamachi tartare has bonito flakes, and that’s not Italian by any stretch… But it works,” he adds. “The idea [with Lupa] is to create a spectacular space where people can partake in a certain experience, and that doesn’t have to be siloed into a narrow cuisine parameter,” he asserts. What there isn’t, is confusion.
IN THIS REACHING to give his clientele the substance and the shiny, that he seems to have arrived at a unique personal signature: he speaks to our desire to be indulged. Fine dining for Chef Chandra isn’t about the “stuffy, over-intellectualised versions of a cuisine from one person with his own idiosyncrasies” but rather, a much larger subset of creating dining experiences, “which elevate and pamper”. He argues that the kind of fine-dining that echoes the words of Chef Slowik from Mark Mylod’s The Menu —
Over the next few hours, you will ingest fat, salt, sugar, protein, bacteria, fungi, various plants and animals… at times, entire ecosystems. But I have to beg of you one thing. Just one. Do not eat. [Dramatic pause] Taste. Savour. Relish. Consider every morsel you place inside your mouth. Be mindful. But do not eat. Our menu is too precious for that —“that’s what closed or that’s what is closing down. I’m feeding people. And I’m feeding them in a beautiful environment, giving them a certain level of service and pampering, which all of them want, they desire, and they want to come back for it,” he says. And this fine-dining is not closing down any time soon, of that he is certain. “There is propensity and aspiration to spend. People want to go to a nicer place, they want to dress up, and they want to be seen. On date nights, they want to go to a place with candles, fresh flowers and spectacular service That’s not going anywhere”.
FOR CHEF CHANDRA, the other subset of dining experiences — casual eateries and weekend pop-ups — are going to continue to proliferate and do extremely well. “And I’m very happy for it, because it paves the way for a lot of talent to be able to showcase themselves,” he explains. The responsibilities, however, are different when one is at “the top of their game”. Now, “it is about bringing heightened experiences to your customer. And that’s really what I’m doing over here,” he crisply clarifies. “I can’t be found on Richmond Road foraging for berries.”
These food and dining trends for Chef Chandra continue to come from the top-down. “Take the example of pizza, it was being made in India before the fast-food chains came in, but only at fine-dining restaurants. Waffles were always available at hotel breakfasts but now you’ll find it at every corner. You created aspiration around it, and now there are people who can do it cheaper and in a more focused way and make it more mainstream. That’s how food trends get set,” he explains.
Image credits: Steak Tartare (thelupagram/Instagram)
For a self-confessed workaholic who seems to squeeze the most out of every single day, Chef Chandra just wants people to come experience the things he has done. He will continue to set trends in a lot of other subsets of food and dining experiences through his company, Manu Chandra Ventures. While Lupa is the first offering from the restaurant arm — Savaa Ser; there’s also Single Thread, a bespoke catering operation that has, in just one year, gone from Cannes to Chikmagalur and everywhere in between; there’s Holy Duck, a creative agency; and Duality Concepts, an F&B management and consulting company.