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Organic Foods: Good Food, Few Takers

Organic produce is catching on in restaurants, but unless prices make sense and supply issues are resolved, it still doesn’t make business sense

Photo Credit : Ritesh Sharma

Organic food started off in a small way, but it seems to have caught the fancy of the jet set, especially with the whole health and wellness aspect of it.

Manu Chandra, chef partner at Toast & Tonic, The Fatty Bao and Monkey Bar and executive chef at Olive Beach, remembers a time when most of what we consumed was organic. Organic, for Chandra, is “a way of life. It’s about giving back to the land, and not about making something taste better.”

“It’s a lifetime choice. You can’t have processed food all your life and one day wake up and eat organic porridge, and think you’re suddenly healthier,” he says.

Manish Mehrotra, corporate chef, Luxury Dining for Old World Hospitality, the man behind the menus at Indian Accent restaurants in both New Delhi as well as New York, says, “(Serving organic food) makes us happy because we are giving good things to our guests. We are serving best quality, sustainable produce to our guests”.

CEO Pranav Chaudhry of Devang House, a fully organic restaurant in New Delhi, says, “There is nothing that is not difficult. From building a supply chain of organic ingredients, to finding the right product. We scour the entire country for best produces; our coffee comes from South India. Some of our grains come from Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh. Some of our fruits come from Himachal. The herbs for our herbal supplements come from Kashmir, and even from as far as Pakistan and Afghanistan”.

The idea of the organic café and market place came with the company’s ventures into natural remedies for problems plaguing urban India, from diabetes to anxiety and stress, he adds.

“We also try to localise to the best of our ability. Most of our fruits and vegetables are from within a 100 km radius of this café,” says Chaudhry of Devang, elaborating that the easiest part of the organic food business is getting the food right.

“When you are using good ingredients and preparing the food fresh, it is bound to taste good. The whole notion that healthy organic food doesn’t taste good is a fallacy. The best chefs in the world will tell you that local ingredients, without chemicals, prepared fresh make the best food,” says Chaudhry.

It is always with good intentions that organic food is introduced into menus, but restaurants, whether part of a hotel or a standalone, have to sway to market forces and most importantly, make money.

The Trident, Gurgaon, has a separate organic menu that uses organic produce only. “The volume of business in terms of organic dishes is not very heavy. Twenty five per cent of orders come from the organic menu. But we use organic in our salads, soups, as well as a few main courses and desserts,” says Sandeep Kalra, executive chef.

Kalra believes the popularity of the organic menu comes from the fact that it is given a specific health angle. “We have calorific values in terms of proteins, fats, carbs and vitamins listed alongside the dishes on the menu itself,” he adds.

Manjit Gill, corporate chef of ITC Hotels, simply plans his menus according to the six gastronomic seasons. “Every two months seasonal flora and fauna are at their finest. They have better flavour and taste. Their structure is better. And it’s also economical to use more seasonal produce”.

It’s a simple fact of balance. Since the person eating and the produce they eat are from the same environmental cycle, both are compatible and adjust according to the time of the year, he adds.

All said, one of the major reasons that prevents chefs in this country from really pushing for organic produce on their menu can be explained in two words: supply chain.

“Look at China, which has a supply chain now 30 per cent bigger than that of the US. It’s changed the way the country eats. We have a hard time getting produce from Vasant Kunj to Vasant Vihar,” rues chef Chandra.

“I have to run a restaurant. Make a menu. Plan for that menu. If it is a cafe where the menu is written on a black board, erratic supplies may be fine. But if I am running a restaurant like Indian Accent, where I have to plan the menus months in advance, inconsistency in supply could threaten my survival. Consistency here is very poor. One day you will get something, the next day you won’t. That is a major problem,” says Mehrotra.

Gill is more specific about the issue of supply chain. “It has improved over the years, but it’s nowhere near the level it should be at. I will say the supply chain has improved only when chefs don’t have to spend two hours in receiving (the produce) every day. Chefs still have to go down and look through the boxes. You (chefs) should spend more time in supervising the production, consistency and quality in the kitchen instead,” he says, adding that he blames the hospitality and food industry for the state of affairs.

“They have no focus on this aspect of the business. They just think that chefs will take care of it,” he harrumphs.

Kalra’s solution, to tackle inconsistency in supply, is to have multiple suppliers for the same thing. “I have a tie-up with three or four suppliers. There is a bit of running around for me and the guys from purchasing, but we have to have options for organic, because production is often limited,” he says. Besides, there is also an issue of spoilage, so most suppliers in the market anyhow don’t stock too much at one time, he adds.

Gill has an even simpler solution. Grow your own stuff. “In our hotels, we grow a great variety of things. We grow everything from mustard to lettuce, to aubergines and other seasonal vegetables. It’s all done naturally and without chemicals,” he says. The home produce is, however, just an addition to what is procured from the market and suppliers.

It is, perhaps ultimately up to us, the customers, to really push for a healthier, more natural menu at restaurants and at home for things to really start moving as far as ‘organic’ produce is concerned. Unfortunately, like all markets in the world, it is only when profits begin to show that food in mandis and markets will begin to change.

î[email protected]; @bikramjitray