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SELECT PALATE

Michelin bawarchi

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SELECT PALATE: Exotic ingredients like like caviar (above) and edible gold (below) have become common in India

Caviar and foie gras are passê. Calling a celebrity chef over to cook dinner for you - that is real luxury in food.

 

Five years ago the mention of Beluga caviar, foie gras and white truffles would've had gourmands rushing to the nearest five-star hotel. Michelin star chefs, who rarely stepped outside the rarefied air of their own restaurants, came to India to eat rather than cook.

Today even standalone restaurants offer foie gras. Caviar is served at weekend dinners, and it's no big deal if you put a few shavings of white truffle on your risotto or pizza. These exotic items are as much a part of menus as they were half a decade ago but the exoticism that determined their gastronomical value has gone down. Gourmands today are well travelled and have eaten at some of the best restaurants in the world. But that's not to say that the finest Iranian caviar or the freshest red tuna from has no takers. The Leela Palace prices their Wagyu beef steak for Rs 8, 000 and manages to sell over 100 kg in a month to a predominantly Indian clientele. A kilo of white truffle costs Rs 2. 8 lakh but it took Ciro's Pomodoro just a week or two to finish their stock.

So what exactly does luxury in food mean?

The world of food treats luxury a little bit differently than the world of style. It's not the price alone that determines the luxuriousness of your meal. The ingredients that make the dish, the knowledge and technique of the cooking process and the service make for a luxurious experience. According to chef Glenn Eastman, executive chef at the Leela Palace, New Delhi luxury doesn't always mean expensive and exclusive.

"We serve handcrafted meals, " he explains. "We want to serve the freshest food with the best taste and best service. So that means we source our guinea fowl from right outside the city and use organic seasonal produce that results in great flavours. Also, the technique of cooking is just as important. One can gather a lot of very expensive ingredients but if you don't know how to cook them best, no one would care how much you paid for that Canadian lobster. " The marketing hook use to push these goods is simple enough to grasp: scarcity is what makes certain things valuable and much of the demand for these dishes, created specifically for a particular class of diner, comes from the urge for conspicuous consumption. But chef Ravitej Nath, who is the executive chef for The Oberoi, Gurgaon, feels the days of ostentatious show wealth are over.

"If a diner likes truffle, he will pay anything for it. Today you can get anything into this country so there's no novelty value to that, " Nath says. Sure there exist a 24-carat gold dosa - offered at a Bangalore restaurant called Raj Bhog - and the chocolate sundae studded with five grams of edible gold that you eat with a diamond-studded spoon created by New York's Serendipity. There are burgers and bagels for over a $1, 000 but Nath questions the validity of these gimmicks.

"If my burger has scallops, foie gras and a diamond in it, is it still a burger ?" he asks. Studding food with gold and diamonds is more of a circus show than a food trend but one trend that's catching on fast among gastrocrats, a term coined by food writer Josh Ozersky which means moneyed gourmands, is flying in celebrity star chefs to cook a dinner for you and your posse. Last month Mukesh Ambani flew in Michelin star chefs to cater for a dinner party. "That, to me, is the ultimate luxury. Calling a celebrity chef and creating a restaurant experience at home, it doesn't get better than that. Chefs like Gordon Ramsay and Heston Blumenthal fly around the world with their teams cooking private dinners, " says chef Manish Mehrotra of the Indian Accent.

So if serving foie gras is no big deal today, what is the next big exotic cuisine ? Mehrotra, credited with reenergizing Indian cuisine in India and abroad, feels that India has a lot of surprises to offer. "Everything is available in India today but it's easier to get boratta cheese from Sardinia than red ant chutney from Bastar. There's no dearth of exotic food in India, " he maintains.

 

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