It is a busy day for chef Gunjit Chawla. In the cold kitchen section of The Oberoi in New Delhi, Chawla pulls out a pair of rubber gloves from a box and sets to work. He puts together a prawn cocktail with cognac infusion, a classic French appetiser salad. “Delicacy and detailing or presentation is one of the most important aspects of French food. The French believe in eating with their eyes first,” he says, carefully dipping blanched prawns in a tangy sauce made of mayo, ketchup, pureed anchovies and arranging them on the rim of a martini glass. On a bed of romaine leaves, he arranges tiny boiled quail eggs and caperberries, then adds more sauce and micro-greens like fenugreek, which have been grown in the hotel's farm.
The dish was included in a five-course French menu that the hotel served on March 19 as part of the 'Good France' project, an international culinary experiment led by three Michelin-starred chef Alain Ducasse to promote French gastronomy. On the same day, 1,500 chefs in five continents served a French-style dinner. It was inspired by the efforts of chef Auguste Escoffier, who launched the Dîners d’Épicure (epicurean dinners) initiative in 1912 involving restaurants around the world.
The menu has a traditional French aperitif, a cold starter, a hot starter, fish or shellfish, meat or poultry, a cheeseboard and a chocolate dessert paired with wines and liquers.
The French are big on their meats, dairy and wine. “French cuisine is a balance between traditions and foreign influences that have been incorporated for at least five centuries,” says François Richier, French ambassador to India, who hosted a curtain raiser to the event at his residence with a seven-course meal. “French chefs take extreme care in selecting ingredients, some even insisting on specific flavours only found in some regions of France.”
Historically, a French meal had 16 to 23 courses. “The crockery and cutlery were changed for every course,” says Chawla. “With things becoming fast in modern times, it is mostly a five- or seven-course meal now that lasts up to two hours. The people can eat several courses because the portion sizes are kept small.”
Some hotels, like The Oberoi in New Delhi, introduced French cuisine as far back as 1965. But now, apart from the five-star hotels, standalone restaurants or bistros have been opened in metros by those passionate about the cuisine.
About 50 restaurants and hotels across the country participated in the event, which hints at the growing interest in French cuisine. “Some well-known French chefs are contemplating opening restaurants in India as they did in other Asian countries such as Japan, which is fond of French culture and gastronomy,” says Richier.
Chez Nini, one of the first French restaurants in Delhi, was started by Montreal-born Nira Singh in 2012. Rara Avis, a standalone restaurant in South Delhi with Indian and French partners, also opened its doors around the same time. “We don't do fusion, ours is French food at its best,” says Jerome Cousin, cofounder and chef at Rara Avis. “Even when customers tell me French food is bland, I don’t change the taste. We stay true to authentic flavours. I want Indians to taste traditional French cuisine.” The biggest challenge for him was to create vegetarian dishes in a cuisine that is mostly meat-based.
“Urban Indians are well-heeled travellers today. They have experienced world cuisines and are now ready to experiment with food,” says Rajiv Aneja, the Indian partner in Rara Avis. The restaurant has a branch in Goa and is looking to open outlets through the franchise route. On the anvil is a foray into catering and home deliveries. “When we first started in Delhi, our guests were 80 per cent foreigners and 20 per cent Indians. Now we see it has reversed,” says Cousin.
French food enthusiast Naina de Bois-Juzan, who started Le Bistro Du Parc in Delhi in 2013, calls her French restaurant a 'bistronomy'. Bistronomy is a recent concept inspired by the young generation of chefs in Paris who want to break the barriers of cuisine by serving refined food in an easy, casual atmosphere, using local produce.
Half-French de Bois-Juzan, who moved to Delhi a decade ago, opened the bistro as she missed having a French restaurant in the city. People perceived French food to be pretentious and complicated, she found, with several types of cutlery and crockery and hardly any vegetarian options. “But things are changing and French food is gaining acceptance. We work with the idea of 'terroir' or local produce, which is at the heart of French cuisine for me,” says de Bois-Juzan, who has a French head chef besides five Indian chefs at the bistro and changes the menu according to the season. “We serve heavy dishes like potato cheese gratin in winters, preferring to add more salads and soups in summer.”
According to chef Christophe Gillino of The Leela, New Delhi, French food per se is not becoming popular globally but the idea is to change perceptions about the cuisine in terms of affordability and adaptation to local ingredients. “Using organic and healthy ingredients in French dishes is becoming popular across the world, including India,” he says.
Independent consultant chef Diya Sethi says the popularity of French restaurants in India is more in the garb than in the gastronomy. “In terms of French food, there is enough on the menus of most restaurants to call it French, but it is more about being the classical French bistro,” she says.
The other interesting trend, says Sethi, is London's formidable experiment of marrying other flavours with the French and calling it 'Modern European'. “In India we are still in the early stages of this trend,” she says. “However, it is encouraging to see an evolution in the Indian palate. They are enjoying the purist forms of the cuisine such as lightly seared fish in butter sauce. I would attribute this change to the popularity of shows such as Master Chef Australia of which India was one of the biggest viewing markets as well as an increase in travel and exposure.”
A standard French meal consists of:
Champagne with canapes or h'oeuvres: French word for appetisers/cocktail snacks. Optional as a welcome course
Salad course: Can have vegetarian and non-vegetarian options. Cutlery changed after completion
Soup course: With options of breads
Main course: A selection of fish/ eggs/meats. In the earlier times, every main course―a fish course, egg course, chicken/meats course―was served separately. Now, as the number of courses have reduced, the main course has been merged and the meats are served with vegetables and breads
Cheese course: Served with options of berries, nuts, olives
* The meal begins with lighter wines and goes on to stronger ones
* Generally, white wines are served with white meats such as chicken and fish and red wines are served with red meats such as beef, mutton
* Desserts are served with liqueurs