Food

The world on a plate: Why pop-ups are the flavour of the season for top chefs in India and Sri Lanka

Chefs and restaurateurs are pouring considerable money and effort into pop-ups, which free them from the constraints of geography.

In February, diners in the Sri Lankan capital got a taste of a 30-layer porcini risotto, one of the signature dishes of The Table, an acclaimed restaurant in Mumbai, without having to venture beyond downtown Colombo. The risotto was among a handful of carefully-chosen dishes that were offered by The Table at its first pop-up in Sri Lanka. Cost was clearly not a deterrent – despite the dinner being priced at a hefty LKR 15,000 (INR 6,300) per table and brunch at LKR 12,000 (INR 5,000), both events quickly sold out.

The runaway success of The Table’s first overseas venture was proof of the popularity of pop-up restaurants. No longer bound by the constraints of geography and brick-and-mortar spaces, Indian restaurants are increasingly embracing the possibilities and fluidity offered by pop-up events, both within the country and abroad.

Although the concept of supper clubs and pop-up restaurants is not particularly new, the trend has truly peaked in the last couple of years. Boosted by the triumphs of high-profile pop-ups – such as the acclaimed Danish chef René Redzepi’s Michelin-starred restaurant Noma’s seven-month stint in Tulum, Mexico, in 2017 – a growing number of restaurateurs are willing to mount the massive logistical exercise involved in organising a pop-up, in exchange for exposure and access to new markets.

New opportunities

For Gauri Devidayal, co-founder of The Table and Magazine Street Kitchen, an experimental kitchen space in Mumbai that also routinely hosts pop-ups, the Colombo outing was an opportunity to gain some first-hand knowledge about a growing market. “Colombo is the [sort of] place from which people are likely to come to Mumbai,” she said. “The idea was to appeal to a potential target audience.” To this end, Devidayal and her team of chefs started planning a month in advance, sharing ingredient lists and kitchen requirements with Naserah Tyebally of the Colombo Supper Club, who organised the pop-up, and the chefs at the Galadari Hotel, which hosted the event.

A salad by The Table, Colaba. Photo credit: Colombo Supper Club/Facebook
A salad by The Table, Colaba. Photo credit: Colombo Supper Club/Facebook

“It was a challenge that we had to think through and prepare for,” said Devidayal. Apart from the availability and quality of ingredients, the team also had to grapple with the challenge of cooking in an unfamiliar kitchen to recreate the restaurant’s trademark flavours as precisely as possible. “It’s not just about a chef going there or working with what is locally available,” she said, underlining the difference between a one-off event headlined by a celebrity chef and a restaurant pop-up. “People were expecting to eat what we serve at the restaurant.”

For many restaurateurs and chefs, faithfully rendering the ambience of a restaurant is just as integral to the process as perfecting the food. For instance, at Noma’s Mexican outpost, Redzepi and his large team laboured for months to evoke a sense of place, eventually carving out a restaurant from the surrounding jungle.

For Prateek Sadhu, executive chef of Masque, the “wilderness-to-table” restaurant in Mumbai, capturing the experiential aspect of fine dining is crucial to the overall success of a pop-up. Serving experimental cuisine that focuses on foraged and hyper-local ingredients sourced from across India, Masque offers an intimate and interactive dining experience. “Ours is a menu-less restaurant, so the kitchen is a very important part of the meal,” he said.

Prateek Sadhu of Masque. Photo credit: Masque Restaurant/Facebook
Prateek Sadhu of Masque. Photo credit: Masque Restaurant/Facebook

So when Sadhu and his team started preparing for a pop-up at the Lodhi Hotel in Delhi in December 2017, they decided to recreate the whole kitchen from scratch. “We spent Rs 20-25 lakh to build an entire kitchen in three days,” he said. “The kitchen was still getting built as we were cooking.” Sadhu says the investment paid off. “Every guest came into the kitchen and said hello. We helped them build their own Masque cocktails; people loved it.”

Lucrative concept

Given that restaurants have access to an urbane and well-travelled audience that is willing to pay top dollar for an exclusive dining experience, there has never been a more lucrative market for those in the pop-up business. When Tyebally moved to Colombo in 2001, the city’s limited foodscape was starkly different from the vibrant one that she grew up with in Singapore. In 2016, she decided to address this void by inviting famous chefs from Asia and beyond to Colombo Supper Club to offer Sri Lankans the opportunity to try new cuisines and concepts.

The debut pop-up was with Rishi Naleendra, the first Sri Lankan chef to win a Michelin star for Cheek by Jowl, a modern Australian restaurant in Singapore. “He wasn’t a Michelin-starred chef at the time,” said Tyebally. “I was just impressed with his food, and asked if he would like to come and cook here.” The menu included dishes like laksa leaf coconut ice cream, spinning familiar Sri Lankan ingredients in innovative ways.

Tiramisu pancakes by The Table, Colaba. Photo credit: Colombo Supper Club/Facebook
Tiramisu pancakes by The Table, Colaba. Photo credit: Colombo Supper Club/Facebook

Since that initial start, the operation has become a more formalised one: Tyebally has tied up with Sri Lankan Airlines to facilitate travel arrangements, and a local wine retailer is the beverage partner. The pop-ups happen nearly every month, and feature restaurants from Singapore, Australia and India serving a smattering of culinary specialities. In a newly resurgent economy, the venture has had a definite measure of success. “[Increasingly,] people want more than the average restaurant experience,” Tyebally said. “They want alternative and different [experiences].”

On the other hand, for restaurateurs looking to expand their footprint, the stakes are particularly high. The success of a pop-up hinges on several variables falling into place, which can be difficult to orchestrate away from home turf. Despite meticulous planning, Devidayal and her team faced challenges with sourcing high-quality ingredients. “We brought 150 kg of ingredients from Mumbai, which included everything from mascarpone and truffle oil to cheeses, breads, grains and seeds,” she said.

Similarly, when celebrity chef Dharshan Munidasa, co-owner of Ministry of Crab in Colombo, hosted pop-ups in Mumbai and Delhi last year, he found access to export-quality crab particularly difficult. “The best crabs leave India – to get them, you have to pay [higher rates] than the export market,” said Munidasa, who is believed to be in the process of starting a Mumbai outpost of Ministry of Crab, which has consistently featured on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list since 2015. Despite publishing a seafood-focused menu beforehand, Munidasa also had to field requests for vegetarian dishes and off-the-menu specials. “The words ‘vegetarian options’ kill us because we are forced to cook our second best dish,” he said.

Photo credit: Ministry of Crab/Facebook
Photo credit: Ministry of Crab/Facebook

Despite these hiccups, however, restaurateurs and chefs are willing to go the extra mile. “The first half of 2018 sees us in 12 cities,” said Munidasa at a glittering ceremony in Colombo in April to celebrate the inclusion of his restaurants, Ministry of Crab and Nihonbashi, in the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list. His 30-strong pop-up team is expected to bring the Ministry of Crab experience to Sydney, Macau and Japan, among other destinations, this year.

Worth the work

Earlier this month, after hosting a number of collaborations over three years, Mumbai’s The Bombay Canteen – which is based on the philosophy of representing regional Indian cuisine – popped up at Naleendra’s Cheek by Jowl in Singapore. Whereas regional Indian cuisine may have once been perceived as niche, the restaurant’s pop-up was proof that palates have evolved.

“It was an incredible experience for us to not only work in a new environment but also serve a whole new clientele,” said Yash Bhanage, founder-partner of The Bombay Canteen. “Guests who came for our tasting menu were amazed at the depth and excitement of flavours, textures and techniques within different regional Indian cuisines, that there was more to it beyond the staple North or South Indian curries found on standard Indian restaurant menus.”

For adventurous diners, this new sweep of pop-ups might well mean having the world at their fingertips. “I think it is very exciting for customers,” said Sadhu. “If I am experiencing different restaurants from around the world in my city, why not?”

Day 2 at our Canteen Takeover of @cheekbyjowlsg was a complete hit as well, and we made sure a packed house of excited guests had a fun, India inspired experience! . After 3 years of getting Indians excited about real Indian food, we’ve decided to take the #Indianfoodmovement to the rest of the world, and show them what our incredible cuisines here in India are truly all about! Our team at @thebombaycanteen is taking over Chef @rishinaleendra's Michelin starred restaurant @cheekbyjowlsg to bring some of our signature India-inspired dishes and cocktails to Singapore ! Thank you Chef Rishi for entrusting us with your kitchen in what is one of Asia’s best restaurants! Can’t believe reservations for both nights got sold out in under an hour after it was posted! Hope those of you who can’t make it to our pop up get to come over to Mumbai at some point. . Stay tuned for updates and Insta stories. 📷 by @nikoulina #CanteenTakeover #CheekbyJowlsg #unlistedcollection #michelinstarred #popuprestaurant #thebombaycanteen #indianfoodmovement #indiainspired #singapore

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.