The Lexus and the Olive Creed

Lakshmi Chaudhry has worked at or written for almost every liberal rag in the United States, from the Village Voice to to the Nation. She currently lives in Bangalore where she's working on getting a life.
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Lifestyle dining at this upscale restaurant thrives on the patronage of its celebrity clientele and the suitably loaded who will pay for the social privilege of that company.

Lifestyle dining at this upscale restaurant thrives on the patronage of its celebrity clientele and the suitably loaded who will pay for the privilege of that company.

I stumble through the small blue door on a Friday evening and find myself in a long, dark corridor. The ground underneath is wet, muddy, the walls streaked with grime. A man is sitting cross-legged in a corner, pounding at a bag filled with candle-wax. Three others are packed into a narrow space behind a plastic sliding door, thalis piled high with mutton curry and rice in hand. For one blind, disorienting moment, I think this must be some kind of short cut, a dingy back alley that leads to the restaurant. That’s until the guy I’m trailing—Head Chef Manu Chandra—pauses, pulls back the door and says, “This is the office.”

I’ve reached Olive Bar & Kitchen, Bandra, a culinary shangri-la where ‘happy people congregate to dine well, to dip into an outstanding cellar, and to linger over laughter and conversation.’ Or, as its owner AD Singh likes to put it—lounging back in his yellow linen shirt and crisp white pants, sunglasses at hand—“It’s all about la dolce vita.” Yes, the sweet life as imagined by well-heeled socialites, industrialists, movie stars, and more so, those who aspire to be just like them. Other Mumbai restaurants may be prettier, more expensive or offer finer dining, but Olive Bandra remains the iconic embodiment of this city’s arriviste dreams. Be it the line cook who sends his kids to “English school”, the young model trying to catch Ranbir Kapoor’s eye on the dance floor, or the businessman celebrating a deal with bottles of Dom, everyone at Olive is moving on up—or loudly announcing that they’ve arrived. The food is very nearly besides the point, except to those who cook it.

Chandra, an urbane 30-year old New York-trained chef, and I find our way to the 15-by-25 foot kitchen. The two long stainless steel counters strain to accommodate the various designated stations: pasta, pizza, appetizers, and entree. The tandoor is tucked into one corner while the pastry chef labours in the other. This cramped space feeds up to 400 people on a crowded night. Directing the prep line of chopping, peeling, sautéing cooks is Suman, a chubby, short Bengali with a striking resemblance to one of Santa’s better-fed elves. “We are doing misa,” he gamely explains, as in ‘mise en place’, as Chandra translates.

Like most others in the kitchen, Suman never finished school and can barely speak English—but has taught himself to cook dishes most Indians can barely pronounce, like, say, tagliolini cacio y pepe. “Dekh dekh ke seekha (I watched and learnt),” he says. He started out as a helper at a village bakery outside Kolkata before moving to Mumbai, where he wormed his way into the Kemp’s Korner kitchen. Soon after working his way up to pastry chef, he wound up at Olive, where he’s now basking in the glow of his latest promotion to de facto sous chef: the man in charge of executing the latest 77-dish menu while Chandra shuttles between the Bangalore Olive and the two Mumbai restaurants.

Behind every master chef with a fancy resume is a penurious army of cooks who had to be taught an entirely alien cuisine from scratch. More exotic the food, steeper the learning curve. “There are some with a hotel management degree, but they all want to move as fast as possible to the front and become managers,” says Chandra, “Not that most of these places teach them much about food. They’ll show them a photo and say, ‘This is a steak.’” A rookie starts by cutting vegetables, educating himself on the difference between, say, radicchio and arugula, then moves on to master the bewildering varieties of meats and cheese, and further up to ‘pick up’ when he learns to assemble a pizza or salad. Fine dining restaurants in India are a culinary miracle powered by sheer underclass determination.

Yeh jaisa khaana pakana achcha lagta hai. Seth (Chandra) se seekhega main (This sort of food, I like to cook, and will learn from the boss),” shyly confesses Harish Thambe, the resident butcher, his hands bloody after gutting an enormous cod. The odds are that he will indeed apprentice under a chef who is passionate about “spreading the knowledge” and literally speaks his language. Suman, for one, seems plainly relieved at Chandra’s recent arrival in Mumbai: “Jaise hum samajh sakte hain, vaise seekhate hain (The way we understand it, is just how he teaches).”

Foreign chefs are the culinary equivalent of trophy wives for upscale restaurants, often selected to wow diners with their Anglo-Saxon charms. “This is a person who wants all the benefits, a fat salary, shows tremendous attitude, has no understanding of how to handle staff or run a restaurant, and gets away with it. Why would a really successful gora chef want to move to India? There are exceptions, but most of what we get here are chefs from the chaff,” Chandra says, waving an imaginary sieve in the air.

Chandra is the first Indian to head the Bandra kitchen after a string of foreign chefs, who have at times been erratic. One most infamously abandoned his post for nooners with his girlfriend, and the most recent departure, the Delhi-based Justin Dingle, barely spent five days a month in Mumbai. A reason perhaps why a 2009 Time Out Mumbai survey of restaurateurs named Olive as one of the ‘most overrated’ restaurants with the ‘worst food’ that ‘should have closed by now’. And yet, the restaurant has cheerfully sailed through much of the flak, its tinsel-crowned reputation largely intact. “In the end, it’s about being this happy place where everyone has a party. Food isn’t really the focus, and I know that,” admits Chandra.

The party can often get a bit out of hand. I’m sneaking a quick cigarette when two men in near-identical T-shirts and shorts jostle by. They corner a young waiter outside the closet-sized office and start yelling, their cockney NRI accents slurring as they threaten their defiant, pint-sized target with vague but dire consequences. “Some drunk brat with some big-shot dad. They all are,” offers Chandra. The assistant manager Ajith, inserts himself in between the warring parties, but one of them manages to reach around and slap the waiter. The tide turns, and not in his favour. Ajith is the one screaming now: “Fuck you, motherfucker! I will fuck you, and so badly, you won’t know what happened to you.” The fierce display of loyalty is remarkable and clearly unexpected—enough for one of the ‘brats’ to reach for his feet and promptly apologise. Anything not to be thrown out.

When I raise the incident with manager Chetan Rampal the next day, he laughs, “I’m very surprised no one hit him back. This stuff happens all the time. There’s a customer with ‘backing’, then he’s always right. If he’s just a normal kind of customer, we’ll get heavy on him.” By Olive’s A-list standards, the son of some London hotelier doesn’t quite have the ‘backing’ of, say, someone like Ashish Raheja, swaggering spawn of builder Deepak Raheja. While Singh and Chandra assiduously deny it, the reality is that all upscale restaurants have two tiers of service. “What they really want is to be pampered. So we’ll say, ‘Oh, sir owns this restaurant, whatever he wants is his.’ There are two-three phrases like that, and he’ll be thrilled, give us a $100 bill, and then we’re also happy,” chuckles Rampal.

Olive’s wealthy clientele need, above all, to have their self-importance confirmed—a problem when you have money but not fame. “Maybe there’s one guy at one table who is worth hundred crores because he has a ship-wrecking business, but we’re all standing around the table of some model. That kind of guy wants to get famous,” explains Rampal, “So he’ll try and make sure that we know him. And in India, Mr Gandhi [on the currency notes] speaks, from the valet to the waiter. The next time, we give him what he wants.”

Much like The Ivy in London, Olive’s brand is defined almost entirely by its celebrity quotient. Forget Page 3 stories, even food guides like Frommer’s tend to underline its star-gazing appeal. This is the place to catch Preity Zinta browsing the Sunday brunch spread, see Salman Khan getting into a drunken brawl, and rub shoulders with hot models and fashionistas on a heaving Thursday bar nite. By reputation, it’s more a ‘scene’ than restaurant, and largely by location and design. “Bandra has always been about Bollywood, Page 3, and the wannabe types. So we always get people who want to see the place where Salman Khan or Shah Rukh come to,” says Rampal. And high-profile invite-only events (say, the recent L’Oreal party headlined by Sonam Kapoor) help keep that brand “fresh on people’s minds”, as Singh puts it.

And yet he is oddly diffident about the Bollywood factor. “Well, it certainly wasn’t something I intended,” he says, studiously non-committal in tone and expression. And no, he doesn’t have any friends in “that circle” either. “My wife is crazy about all things Bollywood, but it’s not my thing at all,” he confides. Despite his restaurant’s star-driven image, Singh doesn’t do filmi—and perhaps for good reason. As former Olive Chef Max Orlati said bluntly of his A-list customers: “They prefer Olive because this is an exclusive place, it is costly and so people of affluence visit.” Nothing screams ‘middle class’ quite like a Bollywood remix over the speakers or a paneer pizza on the menu. Yet, a movie star on the client list will amp up a restaurant’s brand equity. Such are the contradictions of aspirational dining.

“Why do we go to restaurants, why do we smoke cigars, why do we drink wine? In many, many cases—maybe 50-70 per cent of the cases—we’re trying to say something about ourselves. And we want other people to think those things about ourselves,” says Singh. As foreign cuisines like Italian or Japanese get tagged as status markers, a small businessman is just as likely as a socialite to wander into Olive, often with little interest in or knowledge of the cuisine. The challenge is to feed each according to his appetite; the solution is amusingly familiar. “I will see a guest and know what to recommend: spicy, medium or not,” says Mohsin, a senior waiter who is trained to assess a diner’s palate on sight. For the well-travelled “CEO type” with business clients to impress, he will recommend the Rs 1,200 dukkah-crusted lamb chops. Someone a bit less upmarket may be guided to the risotto picante or spaghetti peppernocino, which offers the required amount of cheese and spice.

The most popular items on the menu are in the ‘char grill’ section, which includes cottage cheese (aka paneer) and the Portuguese equivalent of chicken kebab, somewhat to Chandra’s dismay, whose “fine dining hangover” (acquired at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America and later at New York’s top-rated restaurants) makes him allergic to a lot of what passes for ‘crowd pleaser’ cuisine. He doesn’t mind making something “chatpata” but loathes the popular industry practice of peddling spiced up “pedestrian dishes that you may find in a cheap cafe” as upscale dining. The under-appreciated genius of a chef like Chandra lies in his ability to create a menu that allows Mohsin to do his job—without sacrificing the integrity of his cuisine in the name of faux-fusion. “What I want is for every person to be happy when they leave,” he says, “Then the menu has done its job.”

The hand-wringing among Western cuisine chefs over the demand for ‘comfort’ or reluctance to ‘experiment’ is primarily a complaint about the Indian disdain for subtlety. For all our gourmet pretensions, many of us—the jetsetting hoi-polloi included—prefer our salads and pastas dripping in butter and cheese, meats rubbed with chilli, desserts and cocktails saccharine sweet. But he is quick to admit, “In a sense, there is no true authenticity in cuisine,” pointing to five star Indian restaurants that serve bland versions of mostly north-west frontier fare to appease their expat guests. In most aspiring foodies, the ego is willing, but the belly remains weak.

Three of my old college friends join me for dinner, Peddar Road denizens sceptical of Bandra’s parvenu charms. Two of them order the ‘crowd-pleasing’ Caesar salad and pizza, while the other grumbles later about the “cheap as shit” iceberg lettuce on her plate. We’re all food snobs now, each armed with strenuous opinions on what constitutes good taste. The next day at lunch, Chandra makes me a perfectly-grilled mushroom panini which I quietly dunk in a pot of mustard to disguise the smoked barbecue flavour that I hate. Much of the foodie grumbling over gourmet cuisine reminds me of JB Priestley’s famous lament: “There is, we feel, a decent area somewhere between boiled carrots and Beluga caviare, sour plonk and Chateau Lafitte, where we can take care of our gullets and bellies without worshipping them.” More so when that exaggerated devotion is often an accoutrement acquired for much the same purpose as that must-have Birkin tote.

I’m at the bar talking to a socialite who sends back her overpriced cocktail thrice because “it just isn’t right” until Chandra intervenes with some advice for the bartender. It works like a charm. “This, this is what it should taste like,” she says with the smug assurance of a connoisseur. “I know she likes it really sweet, but won’t say it. So I asked the guy to add some triple sec. It sounds like a fancy ingredient and has the same effect as syrup,” he explains later. Much of upscale dining requires subtly mediating the internal battle between a customer’s status anxiety and his incorrigibly Indian palate. Such are the vagaries of running a self-described ‘lifestyle restaurant’.

The much-touted ‘lifestyle’ is on full display the next day at Olive’s tenth anniversary Sunday brunch: over a hundred dishes on the menu, laid out in one long, winding row. Chandra is near-catatonic, having spent all night with the staff in the kitchen getting ready for the big day. But his men are looking forward to their own big bash that night, a bachelor party for one of the DJs at a hotel in Dadar. A scrum roll of photographers stands ready near the door. The electric spike in energy every time the entrance door opens is visceral, as is the deflating puff of disappointment that ensues soon after. There are more Page 3 socialites than Bollywood stars today, but everyone poses with the practised flair of a super-model. I nurse a breakfast martini, watching Shekhar Kapur amble around, flirting with all the pretty girls while his ex-wife belts out I Will Survive inside.

In his white embroidered shirt, Jodhpur pants, and blue jootis, Singh looks every inch a Fellini-inspired socialite. We sit together as he eats. Dumping the tomatoes from the bruschetta-style tartlets into his Coorg-style pork curry—made not by his kitchen but an Olive ‘regular’—he tucks in with unselfconscious enthusiasm. “I only do regional cuisine and delis these days. Not standalones like this,” Singh says, waving at his own restaurant. It’s a sweet life indeed when you’ve always already arrived.