Pop-up goes the food culture

Early June this year when the Pune-based JW Marriott Hotel announced its association with the multi-award-winning Indian Accent for a pop-up, many were taken by surprise. In its near decade-old existence, India’s top restaurant had become a destination — chefs, food writers and diners would visit Delhi to experience the brand that had changed the way Indian food was paired, presented and even perceived with its interesting take on popular, and even lesser known cuisines. To even think that a space like this would go to any other city, let alone do a pop-up was unexpected. But then it happened.

What caused this shift? An invitation from JW Marriott for a showcase, says culinary director Chef Manish Mehrotra, who recently opened a second base of his famous restaurant in Mumbai. That invite led to the season’s most talked about pop-up, setting the bar for collaboration and the expectation thereof sky high — not just for the diners but the hotel itself, admits Chef Anirban Dasgupta, Executive Chef, JW Marriott Pune, whose understanding of a city’s changing diner’s demographics and palate made him reach out to Chef Mehrotra with an “unconventional request for a pop-up” almost a year ago.

What clinched the deal, aside from the city’s diverse dining topography that made them ready for an extraordinary showcase like this was also Chef Dasgupta’s own culinary repertoire that had produced some amazing experiences. Of course, Chef Mehrotra’s association with the city — “It was where I got married, he confesses — worked like a cherry on top. Yet, for an association that was instantly agreed upon, reveals Chef Dasgupta, “it took a year of preparation that included detailed discussions on the city’s palate preference, availability of seasonal ingredients, and the team members’ ability to understand each other’s working style for a smooth transition. And the beauty of it all wasn’t just the seamless flow of service for the three-day pop-up, but in the menu itself that was specially designed by Chef Mehrotra and his team incorporating this brilliant weave and waft of local ingredients and signature style.” But most importantly, says Chef Mehrotra, “it gave us a chance to present our food to a city that has over the years evolved not just in their palate but also dining culture. And showed us how even the tier 1 and tier 2 cities are changing in the dining culture.”

While it wasn’t the first time that an exceptional food-forward brand had done a pop-up — that trend was pioneered by the ingredient-based restaurant Masque in 2017 when it did its debut at The Lodhi with a winter special — it indeed set precedence for more fine dining brands to go to different parts of the city. It is essential too, says Chef Mehrotra, “not just for the diners to understand a different style of food and dining experience, but also for the brands to introduce themselves to a new audience while learning a thing or two about a new city’s culture, ingredients and the palate.”

That opportunity to learn and share was the reason why Masque began to collaborate not just with brands but chefs as well, says co-owner Aditi Dugar, who in the past five years has seen many of the Masque initiatives as an outcome of such association, including the Lab and Masque and Friends that has witnessed a flurry of industry experts, chefs and expats share a kitchen. These pop-ups are in fact, continues Aditi, “opportunities for our team to exchange, grow, and learn from talented and diverse individuals, while presenting them with exceptional, inimitable experiences that are inherently one-of-a-kind.” While this has helped Masque reach different places to showcase their food, the success of each of them has led to more brands taking the now conventional step of not only collaborating as brands but with one another as well. Like the Gourmet Travelogue by JW Marriott Mumbai Sahar, which deviated from the standard protocol of one chef creating his menu in another chef’s kitchen to two chefs presenting their own styles and philosophy on a single plate. The idea, says Executive Chef Dane Fernandes, “with Gourmet Travelogue was to explore hyperlocal regional cuisine.”

Among the first to float the idea of ​​two chefs collaborating — Bombay Canteen — was a concept designed by the late Floyd Cardoz to promote regional food and ingredients. The outpost has been the playground of not just popularizing different food cultures of India but also creating fusion without confusion. An inherent habit that has not only set the brand a class apart but also given them one of the finest repositories of techniques, dishes and flavors that are often brought to the fore in their many offerings. For Chef Fernandes however, following the teaming-up route has proven to be a crash course into reviving many traditional techniques and practices to champion the sustainable path while still serving an interesting experience to the patrons of brand Impressario.

Pop-ups and chef collaborations, says Chef Gresham, Culinary Director, Impresario Restaurants, “is nothing new to the Indian dining space. It has been the most defining factor for our evolution in the past as well as when khansamas would regularly visit other kingdoms to share and learn new aspects of food and cooking. Centuries later, that factor of learning and sharing is what has remained a constant for pop-ups. In the past few years, what’s been new is the way these collaborations are happening — not just to popularize a lesser known cuisine but beyond that.” Says Chef Vikas Seth, Culinary Director, Sanchez, “while food does play a significant part, it is not the sole deciding factor as other aspects take precedence, like, how the two brand philosophies fit together, the platform and how the sharing of a kitchen helps elevate the experience while proving beneficial to both. And by that, I just don’t mean promotion or a chance of presenting a superb experience but in terms of learning and evolving as well.” Chef Fernandes adds, “if you are working on the same cuisine and on the same plate. It is then an exercise in not just restraining but also in teamwork where you willingly give the chef in partner the lead.” It is such an opportunity that nudged Chef Seth to finally take Sanchez, one of the successful Mexican restaurants in India, to Delhi recently for a two-day pop-up at KakaPo and kickstarted a new chapter for exceptional dining experiences.

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