Snob warning: eating out is not about restaurants anymore. Clue in here
If you read this column last week, you already know the ways in which food has evolved - whatever your gourmet need, there's now an app for that.
But while most people have clued in to the fact that eating in has fundamentally changed, eating out seems to be stuck in the greatest rut.
Not because there's a dearth of new restaurants to eat at - quite the opposite. In the metros, and especially Mumbai, Delhi & Bangalore, it's game-on for the restaurant industry.
Chefs are now celebrities with credible fan-followings. Diners know the names of restaurateurs, not just the names of restaurants. They expect a certain type of food from a Rahul Akerkar restaurant, a certain type of vibe from a Riyaaz Amlani one, a certain buzz from an AD Singh opening, a certain inventiveness from a Manu Chandra one.
This isn't an ignorant set of diners. They know craft beer from bottled, Chilean sea bass from Vietnamese basa, and sous vide from steamed.
Yet, while they're on top of the restaurant game, the concept of going out to eat itself has been undergoing a quiet transformation.
Eating out is now about stories
At its heart, eating out is still about the food.
But now, it's also about telling and absorbing stories.
It's about the secret supper designed to bring together people from all manner of backgrounds over a special meal. It's about bringing together people you might never encounter in your everyday social universe - lawyers meet chefs, writers meet bankers, musicians meet chartered accountants - over a shared love of food.
It's also about a new, deeper search for authenticity - a search that combines two disparate trends, popups and regional cuisine.
That means a traditional Kerala sadya, Kashmiri wazwan or Marwari meal cooked by those who know it best: home-chefs from within those communities who are keepers of its secrets.
Eating out is about the food, but today it's also about a search for authenticity, for telling stories
Except this preserver of culinary tradition is no longer the family matriarch but young men and women with a passion for their own food even as they're clued in to world cuisine.
In Mumbai, Sneha Nair runs Poppadom, Sunday popup lunches at her home where she serves a traditional Kerala sadya to 8-10 people on banana leaves among animated conversations about food. The menu varies each week, and Nair spends much of her time trying to unearth and perfect new recipes from family members back home in Kerala.
In Delhi, Anoothi Vishal - journalist and travel writer by profession, food-lover by inclination, has been hosting curated popup meals at interesting venues for a few years now. Recently, though, her focus has changed to preserving and showcasing the culinary tradition of the Mathur community to which she belongs.
Common to these cooks is the desire to showcase meals that rarely, if ever, make it to restaurants.
No commercial eateries serve the Kayastha cuisine that Anoothi's popups do; Gitika Saikia in Mumbai does the same for Assamese cuisine; Munaf Kapadia, also in Mumbai, hosts meals under the name The Bohri Kitchen; while in Bangalore, the Aiyappa household serves up Kodava cuisine rarely found outside of its Coorg home.
Mumbai-based Perzen Patel offers home-style Parsi food, while in Kolkata, Chhanda Dutt is known for her Goalando meals - dishes cooked by boatmen for 'steamer' travellers that plied on the Padma in undivided Bengal. In Goa, at Le Roi Arthur Cafe, you call a day ahead, talk to Romaine - the chef, who along with his partner Melissa run this beautiful private dining experience - and a menu will be crafted especially to your taste and served at private tables in a stunning Portuguese villa.
Professional chefs and restaurants have gotten in on the regional cuisine act, but with contemporary twists.
Mumbai's Bombay Canteen serves a hugely popular Goan pulled pork vindaloo taco; Monkey Bar offers Amritsari aloo vadiyan cutlets with amla and raw mango chutney; while pretty much everything on the Indian Accent and Farzi Cafe menus answers to regional roots.
Enter the curated meal experience
These names are just the tip of the iceberg; every day, a spunky new home-chef or restaurateur kickstarts their own personal culinary revolution.
And that has triggered another intriguing phenomena: the rise of the food curator.
In Mumbai, Insia Lacewalla took her experience of curating food stalls at music festivals and turned it into a passion project.
From there to Small Fry Co was an inevitable journey: today, she curates a host of experiences, from popup meals in people's homes to hosting Bombay Local, custom-crafted food 'fairs' across the city. Small Fry also curates food markets for clients, and works with a massive network of offbeat vendors to ensure they're niche rather than mass-market.
On similar lines is Pune-based MealTango, set up by husband and wife duo Saket Khanna and Neeta Valecha. Used to couchsurfing while living in the US, they realised that meals in locals' homes were the best way to clue in to local communities.
That led to MealTango, which allows you to sign up as either host or guest and experience a home-cooked meal of your choice in cities across India and abroad - including, most recently, China. Mumbai-based Once Upon My Kitchen follows the same model, with a roster of niche cuisines on offer - food you'll never be able to order up in a restaurant kitchen.
Curated meal experiences are everywhere, from dining at the tables of skilled home chefs to custom menus at restaurants
In Delhi, Sumedha Jain, an alum of the Culinary Institute of Amerca, runs Nomad Pattissier's Secrets and hosts delicious pop-up tea parties. Think ginger cake with chocolate ganache served with pear sorbet and blue cheese and you have some idea of the ambition of her home-baking.
Currently operating in Sri Lanka and Mumbai is Trekurious, a boutique company that hosts niche food and travel experiences - think a Ramen special at a bachelor pad in Bandra or a 9-course street food experience that the site describes as street-meets-silver-spoon.
If you want to dive into the technique behind the meal you're about to eat, Foodie Doodle has you covered. Hang out with the chefs, watch them cook, then relax with bowls full of deliciousness.
Then there's Silverspoon Gourmet, set up as a culinary studio that hosts fine dining meals with a focus on Modern European food. There's a live kitchen; demos; wine, cheese, cigar or whiskey appreciation sessions, and offsite catering in case you want to replicate the experience in your home or office.
Think curation means pricey? Mumbai-based Pet Pujaris have the answer: they organise two foodie meetups a month called Fatka and Kadka, the first close to salary day at upscale venues, the second at the end of the month and more budget in nature.
Others are getting into the act to ensure even a restaurant experience no longer remains an off-the-shelf one.
Specialists now create customised experiences for you at top eateries. WowTables, for instance, works with restaurants to offer specially curated menus, pairings and seasonal specials in Mumbai, Pune and Bangalore. Others, such as reservations site DineOut, takes reservations for thousands of restaurants, negotiates special offers, and makes picking a place easier thanks to its accessible classification of restaurants.
The trend is only set to explode: personalised experiences, rich culinary stories, passionate food companions, they're the new way to experience food. Anything else may satisfy the body, but it won't serve the soul.