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Chez Mariannick, a petite, rustic cafe, may be oddly sited, in the middle of a grassy field in Whitefield, Bangalore. But food snobs certify that its baguettes, creme brulee and croissants can easily transport you to the streets of France. But then, it could be said, such authenticity is almost assured when it’s a Frenchwoman wielding the rolling pin. “Being born in Brittany and growing up in Valence, while learning how to cook from my mother and grandmother, I identify strongly with French cuisine. When I visited Bangalore years ago, I realised that what it needed was a good bakery,” says 41-year-old Mariannick Gabard Halai who started the boulangerie-creperie-cafe two years ago along with her Indian-origin husband Shashi.
Naser Barakat, an entrepreneur from Jordan, had a similar plan up his sleeve when he got a whiff of Delhi’s growing affinity for global cuisine. That was how Kunafa, an elegant West Asia confectionary, accentuated with stylish Arabic decor, took off this summer in the city’s hip Meherchand Market. “It works out better for me to start a business in India than in any other country because I have been here on and off for 20 years and I feel right at home. Plus, I see the growing trend of Indians eating out and spending more money on food. There is also a lot of interest for West Asian sweets like baklava,” says Barakat, who personally acquaints customers with the many varieties of confection he has laid out in delicate glass jars at Kunafa.
Foreign food entrepreneurs have been in expatriate haunts like Goa and Pondicherry for decades and now a number of them seem to be turning to other cities for similar culinary adventures. In fact, many of these relatively new diners seem to have hit upon the sweet spot already—while depending entirely on word-of-mouth publicity. One of Delhi’s most talked about restaurants this season, Rara Avis, is run by two Frenchmen with an Indian partner. Its snail (or escargot, if you prefer) and duck dishes are big hits. Toscano and Cafe Noir, popular Bangalore joints, are owned by two Frenchmen too—also with Indian partners—the former known for its authentic Italian cuisine, the latter aiming for “French Art De Vivre”. Chennai, meanwhile, is dotted with a number of novel Japanese, Korean and Greek diners run by chefs and hospitality professionals from the corresponding countries. And, not to forget, these are restaurants set up to not just cater to the growing expatriate communities in their respective cities, but to appease a growing breed of experimentalist Indian foodies as well. “This trend is part of the quantum shift happening in the food space, spurred by a lot more travel and exposure to world cuisine, with eating out taking over a chunk of the entertainment space,” reasons food writer Rashmi Uday Singh.
That’s a rationale the three savvy French owners of the trendy yet cozy Suzette Creperie and Cafe—already known for its traditional buckwheat crepes—in Mumbai subscribe to. “The city is developing and changing very fast, and single-cuisine restaurants are becoming more popular, which was very encouraging when we decided to set up an authentic French creperie,” says Antonia Achache, who started Suzette last year with friends Pierre Labail and Jeremie Sabbagh, all 29, while juggling jobs to keep the cash flow going. “We pooled in all our savings to start the cafe. It’s never easy to start a food business, but being in a foreign country, it required a lot more groundwork. So, we all took Hindi classes and went back to Brittany to do a training course in making crepes before setting up shop here,” says Labail, who adds that when the trio are not busy trying out new recipes for their crepes, they enjoy gorging on a Gujarati thali. Suzette has expanded quickly and is looking to open a third branch in the city soon, which is aimed at office-goers in the busy district of Bandra. “Our customers are mostly Indian. We would not have survived if we depended only on the expat community,” says Sabbagh.
What allows so many of the new expat food entrepreneurs to become so successful so quickly? The key, perhaps, lies in being able to strike a delicate balance, carefully fusing foreign flavours with a local ambience. Mozhgan Karimi, the Iranian owner of Sufi, a fine dining Bangalore restaurant that specialises in Persian cuisine, has made space for a couple of north Indian dishes on the menu too, to appease a larger audience. “I have a large Indian clientele, many students and young professionals, and while my chelo kababs are immensely popular, I want them to feel comfortable, and therefore, to have a choice,” Karimi says. It’s a lesson Lalita de Goederen, a Dutch national who opened up the first Bagel’s Cafe in Delhi in 2008 and has since turned it into a multi-crore, steadily growing chain, had to come to terms with early on her venture. “I was stubborn at first and wanted to stick to a wholly European feel by serving bagels the way they are eaten traditionally: slathered with cream cheese or accompanied by salmon. At the time, bagels were relatively unknown in Delhi. I soon learnt that I could not ignore Indian flavours, and so I had to include options, such as the paneer tikka bagel and the masala omelette bagel. But gradually, I noticed that the clientele was moving on to the newer, European flavours,” shares de Goederen.
Labail of Cafe Suzette puts forth another view. “What is important is trying to do something authentic, rather than adapt. For example, Indianised French food would not be the right way to go. We continue to import our flour, cheese and cold cuts, but now are trying to include local vegetables in our cooking. We keep innovating, yet, our recipes are essentially traditional,” he says.
Even so, it isn’t simply recreating platefuls of their native fare that keeps them enthused, but experiencing the adventure of it all. Mariannick recalls doing the rounds of Bangalore on her two-wheeler, personally delivering croissants and breads to neighbourhoods before she was able to expand her bakery into a cafe—and hire more staff. “Indian ovens are not made for crusty bread. There are far too many power cuts in the day to work with an electric oven, so with the little money we had at the time, we decided to build a wood fire oven. My husband built it from scratch. Our breads are all handmade. We don’t work like a modern-style bakery. We started with a small setup in a hut in the middle of a village. Once that took off, we got a bigger place closer to our home,” she says.
De Goederen, meanwhile, has already hurdled the early barriers and, with a brand new Bagel’s Cafe outlet in south Delhi, is looking to expand to malls in the city. “At first, it was difficult for my staff to come to terms with a foreigner lady being so hands-on in the kitchen, but now all those cultural issues have been settled,” she says. Mariannick is thrilled to have come so far that she can finally trust a local hand with making crepes the right way. So she can take off for a holiday once in a while! For Barakat of Kunafa, the biggest challenge was setting up a factory in Delhi to manufacture the sweets. “I have six chefs, from Palestine, Jordan and Syria, because it’s difficult to make the sweets here as it’s such a delicate process,” he says. The ingredients are regularly flown in from all over West Asia, and even from Europe. The clientele, though, is wholly desi. And that’s exactly how he wants it to stay.