This article is a part of The Ascent Summer Program 2020

By Samvita Amladi

“It’s really about how you can blend the safety and hygiene aspect that is going to be on everyone’s mind with the idea of hospitality.” – Gauri Devidayal

As the co-owner of The Table, Magazine Street Kitchen, Magazine Street Bread Co. The Table Farm, The Dining Table and Iktara, Gauri Devidayal has extensive knowledge of how restaurants work in Mumbai. The Table’s philosophy is a simple but refined one. She says “What drove us was the idea of creating a great place with great food that we would want to go to every day. The biggest thing has been consistency and quality.” She explains that she wanted to create a sort of Restaurant Utopia, inspired by her experience in California, which is very ingredient-driven and cuisine agnostic. “Having that attention to detail, to the little things that really matter to you when you go out to dine and you may not notice, but, make an impact.” 

How is COVID-19 influencing the sourcing of ingredients, both locally sourced and importing and exporting, and will this take a toll on the fine dining industry?

The Table prides itself on quality ingredients- farm to table, so is your restaurant now facing any restrictions when it comes to the varieties of ingredients? “We’ve resumed delivery, but it’s with a very limited menu. If it’s something that’s imported and expensive, when restaurants resume business, for example, if the government restricts how many people you’re allowed to [serve], then you might try to think about it smartly and not get an expensive ingredient which has a low shelf-life and a low demand for it which ends up going to waste. So I think that there’s going to be what we call smart menu engineering that needs to be done, to keep in mind footfalls, cost of ingredients or sourcing ingredients, et cetera. So it’s bound to affect what the [restaurant] industry puts on its menu. I think that the point is that chefs will be smarter about how they plan their menus and fine dining is, about what you do with the ingredients, as opposed to what ingredients we’re using. So I don’t think it’s going to affect fine dining per se. I think it’s definitely going to affect menu engineering. Our menu is very ingredient-driven, there is a lot of seasonality in the menu and therefore changes with availability. When we print our menu each day, it only has what’s available that day. Because it’s really annoying if you spend five minutes, going through the menu and finally decide what you want and it’s not available.”

Some things we’ll be missing out on.

“The whole idea of coming to a restaurant for me is social engagement. The human element has been so important to our brand. So people come there because they know that someone’s going to take care of them. The whole point is that you can’t do away with the human element. I’d rather be put down as environmentally unfriendly, but I’d rather have a menu that is a physical menu that you can see and read, instead of looking at your phone every 15 minutes to decide what you want to order. It just takes away from the experience for me.” She explains.

The loss of taste, a symptom that might stay even after full recovery from COVID-19.

“Of course, that’s very unfortunate and it has bigger implications than just for the restaurant industry because that’s something that affects someone’s eating habits generally, regardless of restaurants or at home. I think that, as far as your questions concern, whether there can be more to food than the flavour essentially. I’m a staunch believer [that] flavour comes first. My food philosophy has always been to keep it simple and make it really flavorful because that’s what people crave at the end of the day. They’re not coming to be surprised with a circus every time, they’re coming to enjoy a great meal. When you plate a dish of food it’s not just about the taste. So presentation and textures, are all important when it comes to plating a dish, but, the flavour is king for me. I still believe that you can’t cover up sort of a substandard flavour with gimmicks.”

Follow-up question: “Yes. But I was also thinking about, instead of maybe taste, giving the person that idea of what they’re eating by, the sound, because sometimes, in non-vegetarian foods, especially there is that crackle of the skin on fried fish or even on pork, there’s a caramelized skin. So I was wondering where that would come into play and if it could be one of the things that could make up for the loss of taste. I feel like in restaurants that could be utilized instead of just concentrating on flavour.”  

Gauri answered: “I feel that it’s very hard for a chef to create, a menu that isn’t focused on flavour but focused on these other sorts of extraneous factors, which can be there, but, it [flavour] has to still be of primary importance. As a chef, you still want something that you think is composed and complete in all respects and not just factoring in, whether the person can taste or see or hear, right. It’s an expression of your creation and you want it to be done in the best possible form right now, but you don’t create something, keeping that sort of limitation in mind, you create something in the best possible way that you want it to be appreciated.” 

Will we ever go the extra mile again?

I wanted to know whether we would be pickier when it comes to transitioning back to eating out and if we would ever again go the extra mile to find the best tasting, most organic food or if we would just be happier with eating something simpler like home food. She said: “Yes, home food is comfort food, but there’s a limited repertoire of what you can do at home. Sometimes it’s not just about, the taste of home food versus eating out. I don’t think that not going out to eat is going to be a longterm outcome of this situation. It’s a break from your routine. There’s a sort of social bonding that comes with the experience of going out or travelling somewhere with friends or family. So there’s a lot more to it than just the end product, which is the food and I think as restaurant owners, that’s what we strive to create. It’s about an entire experience of, what a restaurant, is made to feel [like]. I think that that’s something that people will always want.”

Talking about immunity and how her restaurant will adapt: 

“When it comes to our restaurant, is that you do you. So it’s the same thing, whether you’re trying to be more healthy or whether you’re binge-eating. But I still feel like, for us, as a brand, it’s important to be very clear to ourselves about what we are offering and what we are doing. Those who resonate with it will come and change their dietary preferences.” she explains.

Food trends with a magnifying glass on immunity, health and wellbeing.

“So even when we’ve come to creating our menus it’s about doing something that you believe in and not because it’s trendy. But having said that, I do think that people are going to be more health-conscious and I mean that’s been a growing focus anyway for the last few years, and I think that it’s only been sort of escalated now with the current scenario. But, if you keep reacting to every trend that’s happening, what is it that your brand actually stands for? It doesn’t mean a seafood restaurant becomes vegetarian because that might be a growing food preference. Yes, I mean, it’s something that we will be conscious of and should be able to offer it without diverting from what [our] food philosophy is to start with. If you can incorporate these things [trends] into your menu, fine. But, not at the cost of changing what your entire brand is.”

I then compared this to not changing yourself or your personality for anyone. I think that we’ll be seeing more health-conscious dishes on the menu. But, we hope that it won’t divert from the authentic vision our favourite restaurants have in mind. She says, “We’re not trying to draw people in because it is an option that is healthier.  If you’re just going with the flow and that kind of a brand doesn’t garner loyalty and a following.” Otherwise, what is the difference between your restaurant and a pop-up 

On delivery apps (Swiggy, Zomato, Scootsy).

I wanted to know what route Gauri had taken to support her restaurant. She says “We were very dependent on these delivery apps for our delivery services. Scootsy shutting down made us create our own delivery platform. The whole sort of disgruntlement with these delivery apps is that they charge very large commissions to restaurants, and it’s not financially viable. So, the restaurants are just moving towards having their own platforms so that they don’t have to pay these commissions. It might be more of a hassle for consumers because each restaurant will have its own platform. But, honestly, that’s what’s financially mobile.” 

Moving her team to board at the restaurant premises.

She explains further “This is so that we didn’t have them [her staff] commuting every day and potentially increasing the risk of exposure.” 

Double packaging for delivery and commercial products.

She says, “There are so many people that your delivery parcel goes through, it’s something that we implemented from the get-go, during the lockdown.”

QR codes, but more for Quick Service Restaurants.

Ms. Devidayal mentioned that the QR codes would work better at quick-service restaurants where people don’t come to socialize, like Mcdonald’s or Starbucks. But, that’s never something that I had thought about before, not being able to socialize with just your friends but also the staff of a restaurant that you frequent. She elaborates “People always have this misunderstanding that restaurants are about food. Hospitality comes from human intervention.” 

Branded masks and gloves with the company logo.

This will likely be a part of a new uniform ensuring safety without the scariness. Servers are meant to be messengers between the customers and the chef. Not people in hazmat suits.

Reminders for servers and chefs every hour to ensure sanitization.

A reminder without the disturbance, for those mainly handling food. This includes sanitizer, glove changes, and mask changes.

What it would mean for a business or restaurant to newly open post lockdown. 

She said “Regardless of whether you’re a new restaurant or you’re something that’s been around 10 years. Your challenge really is about creating quality and then maintaining it consistently. I feel that if you have a quality product, the entire experience, which includes the hospitality part of it, people will come.

End thoughts:

Whatever it may be, we shouldn’t lose sight of our previous experiences with restaurants but rather slightly alter what it means to be a restaurant today with some seriousness. Dining and food should not be something that we should be afraid of, but something that requires some caution and consideration when it comes to sanitization and safety. As Gauri Devidayal has mentioned, we cannot lose sight, and compromise on flavour and quality. 

Samvita Amladi is a writer, editor and marketer for the Ascent. She is an activist who advocates for social equality. Samvita has been dancing professionally for 6 years. She paints frequently and has a love for animals. Samvita hopes to be a change-maker and wants to be a part of a developing world.