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Farm-to-table concept

Aloo, timater and rucola too

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The farm-to-table concept, though nascent and niche, is driven by the relationship that chefs build directly with the farmers.

The first time a reporter asked me to speculate on upcoming trends in the hospitality sector, I was still quite new to India and had just months before come to Delhi's Maurya Sheraton to take charge of the West View Restaurant. My answers reflected my previous experiences in Australia where I had spent the last 30 years.

Just like in Australia in the '70s, people here had begun travelling extensively and had their eyes opened to new taste sensations. Aspiring gourmets came to realise that perhaps Nirula's version of pizza wasn't the only take on the subject and that there is a vast universe of Chinese cuisine beyond veg Manchurian and chop suey. And so, gradually chefs and restaurateurs began to adapt and change their offerings to suit this new and exciting demand.

That's the interesting fact about good food. It may not appeal to you at first sight or bite, but it will grow on you. A fashion sense may have prompted you to try it in the first place - also so you don't look backward and uninformed to your peers - but in the end, your taste buds won you over completely. And that is one of the driving forces in our industry. Indians, and here I will go out on a limb and say, especially Delhiites, love their khana, and have a pretty damned good palate to go with it.

So, what's next? Sure, more of the same, more different cuisines. Specialisation is in, multi-cuisine is out, unless you do it with great style (and expense). Not sure if molecular cuisine will ever have a major impact, but its obsession with the science of food could have some good lasting influences.

But there is a growing disconnect.

Indians are the largest audience for MasterChef Australia. They are seeing some pretty refined cooking, even by the Junior MasterChefs and are also noticing the wonderful local, fresh ingredients they are cooking with. And there is the disconnect. Here, we are still working with only two types of aloo, timater, limited varieties of lettuces and salad greens, and a very limited choice of meats. Imports are erratic and extremely expensive, plus that is never an alternative for sustained growth in any industry. Local is the way forward.

There is a glimmer of hope on the horizon, though. Trikaya and Tokri Farms in Pune are now coming up with a reasonable supply of fresh culinary herbs, tomatoes and some varieties of lettuces. But they are able to supply only Pune and Mumbai.

Italian cooking is fairly uncomplicated and straightforward but relies heavily on the quality of the ingredients used. I spend more time sourcing and developing sources than on anything else. When I first came to India in 2001, rucola was not known or available. On my next trip to Italy, I brought a carton of seeds and gave them to my greengrocer, who, in turn, contracted farmers to grow them for us. Rucola is indispensable in all Italian restaurants.

Last year, I did the same thing with a range of culinary herbs and got a farmer in the Kangra valley to set aside two greenhouses for them. I now have fresh basil, rosemary, thyme, marjoram, etc available all year. A friend with a farm in nearby Chattarpur had seeded a crop of Italian tomatoes for me, so we now enjoy the first ever organic San Marzano grown in India.

Usha Farms in nearby Bijwasan has recently introduced a range of superb exotic mushrooms, like shiitake, shiimeji, portobello and oyster. We've also started, if I may call, a mini organic movement going in Punjab (around Nabha) and Himachal Pradesh (in Palampur), where farmers have started growing 15 different crops, including Tuscan black cabbage, the gourmet green mache, beef steak tomatoes, micro cress and celery, amongst others. Local fresh produce is the cornerstone of Italian cooking. There are plenty of green-thumbed Indian farmers out there to grow the right stuff for me.

Spaghetti Kitchen has tied up with farmers in Himachal Pradesh for herbs, vendors in Pune for vegetables and sources in Orissa for prawns from the Chilka Lake. The prawns grow in clean water and a perfect environment, yet not many people know about them. If we require prawns or herbs, it comes from a specific set of producers, ensuring consistency of produce and quality.

I'm working on the concept of farm-totable to retain the integrity of the flavour that comes with putting fresh ingredients on the table. Health consciousness is on the rise in India and a healthy diet of natural food is crucial in that. We are forming a new company called 'From Farm to Table' to encourage just that. The idea is to 'contract farm' superior quality foods and bring them to market promptly and in sanitary conditions. This goes not only for vegetables, fruits and herbs, but also meats, fish and seafood and dairy products.

The farm-to-table concept, though nascent and niche, is driven by the relationship that chefs build directly with the farmers. This ensures that kitchens know where their ingredients come from, the environment and the conditions in which they are produced thus building a level of trust for the quality. Also on the other hand, for farmers it means a direct source of demand of their products and an incentive to consider growing ingredients they wouldn't normally. I foresee a lot of other enthusiastic people from the food industry taking the local fresh produce route to strengthen the farm sector of India.

The author is head chef at Spaghetti Kitchen.

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