Let’s talk about the Pune Farmers’ Market and especially how it helps upcoming chefs and restaurants…
Of course. When we first started, we had about 15 producers. Initially, we didn’t intend on doing restaurants; only local produce. And a lot more farmers. As it grew, it was becoming increasingly difficult to get farmers onboard; being a bit of a disorganized lot and they don’t understand the cultural trend value. There are weekly farmers’ markets in every village but they aren’t like organized markets abroad, which are fun for the family and a repository of good food. They represent local food and not organic, which I think is very important. I never want to do organic. If organic comes to the market, wonderful. But I don’t want to label it an ‘organic market’ because it simply can’t be one. Take me for example; I grow organically but I don’t have organic certification. I think it’s difficult to do organic certification and it limits your spread as well as appeal. A lot of people have misconceptions about what ‘organic’ really is.
I never want to do organic. If organic comes to the market, wonderful. But I don’t want to label it an ‘organic market’ because it simply can’t be one.
Anyway, then one day I thought, why not do restaurants as well. We roped in one, then two and now we have six of them along with two pop-ups. It’s important to represent the local community with restaurants and secondly, wines, of course, we had from the beginning. It’s now become like a day out and well, people need to eat. In India you know, people love good food. We’ve also upped it with a band now. We’ve stuck to this one format now, which is from farm-to-table, local, from start-ups; it can be considered as test marketing. A lot of upcoming chefs/restaurants may not have the money or the bandwidth to test market a new product. So, we’re just right for them.
We don’t allow multinationals, multi-cuisine, or food that involves artificial colour even. We pick young, small and local restaurants. Curation is our king. Our experience, organization and exhibitors are what set us apart from other markets cropping up today.
You are everywhere; you’ve written books, you’re critiquing, counseling, you’re all over the place? What is the next level of aspiration for Karen Anand?
That’s a very good question! Karen Anand needs to spend time in Goa in the summer and she aspires to do very little there! I do need some rest now really.
You know, when we started the Farmers’ Market, we didn’t know it was going to get to this so quickly. It’s fantastic and it’s something I want to continue doing. We need to take it to more cities and we need to make it bigger and better. That means more staff and being a bit more defined. We’re even thinking of another vertical, which is food and music. We even saw a fantastic location for it. Only bands and great food, not produce. We curate the restaurants. The difference between an NH7 and us doing it will be that I sit with restaurants or chefs; I go through the menu and engineer for them. Sometimes they don’t have a clue. For example, I know a well-known chef (no names!) wanted to do broths on a hot, sunny day. I said Chef it’s hot! And nobody ate the broths. I said to do strawberry and cream and they were sold out. This is consulting and menu engineering.
What do you think of food bloggers?
Ah! Well, I think it’s a great concept; a food blog. But, I also think a lot of people who don’t know about food are doing it. It’s the same thing with fashion or beauty bloggers, no? But there is a need. For example, I know of a 19-year-old who’s writing a blog about what girls her age are wearing in makeup these days. She is now sponsored by Estée Lauder. So there is a need for people to write about what they know. A 19-year-old can tell you about makeup for her age. I think it’s important as well as valid. So, if someone’s going to write a food blog, like where you get so and so dish like Misal or something, I think that’s a great idea! But if they’re going to write well, “I went to this restaurant where they had some fabulous Pavlova” and has no idea about what a Pavlova is but says it tasted nice, that’s a little bit wrong. Spend some time and find out what it is, who it’s named after, its recipe etc. If you’ve never tasted one before, how can you compare it? That I find a little bit odd. But if you get food bloggers giving you information, I think that’s valid.
I think it’s a great concept; a food blog. But, I also think a lot of people who don’t know about food are doing it. It’s the same thing with fashion or beauty bloggers, no? But there is a need.
Food bloggers and critiques are everywhere these days. How should a food layman judge a critique and know who to follow?
Well, when people read my column and go to a restaurant, if I meet them I will ask them “Was the food/restaurant like I said it was?” They respond with a Yes. So I think it’s a question of following someone, believing what they say and then seeing the proof. So it comes down to experience.
Back when you started, was it difficult for you to find a foothold in this sector?
Not at all. Because nobody was doing it. Or very few people were. If you look at Olive, Indigo and myself, we all started off around the same time. We were a kind of new wave. We’d all studied abroad and returned. It was cowboy country; if you did well and people accepted you like they did my first restaurant ‘Salad Bar’, it was success on a plate very quickly. There really wasn’t too much competition! I didn’t really have to do anything and the press would ring up “Oh Salad Bar, something different, it’s a woman, she’s come back to India”. So there were stories from about six angles; food, woman, success, young person (because I was in my 20s) etc. But from the point of view of a business model, we were all idiots. When something worked, “Oh we made some money” and when something didn’t, “Oh we didn’t make any money”. So there was no business model back then.
Tell me something about yourself, food-related, that you’ve never mentioned in an interview before.
Wow. Let’s see… I don’t like people who don’t work with passion. You can’t succeed without that ingredient. I don’t like it when people just think “Oh this is the business model and I think it’ll work”. Well sure, it does sometimes. But I get very tired of people who walk on the fence and who don’t take a stance on something. Let’s look at a multi-cuisine; we’ll have Chinese, Mexican, we’ll have this and that; I think you have nothing. I like people who are gutsy and go out there and take a risk.
Which cuisine do you dislike the most?
That’s strange! I’ve never been asked that before! Always “What’s your favourite?” and let me first tell you that I don’t have a favourite. I think food is all about mood. I also don’t really have a cuisine I dislike. I don’t know really! Well, I don’t like when people say, for example, “North Indian Food”. It it Mogul? Is it Awadh? Is it Lucknow? Is it Punjabi? I get very confused by that term. I don’t like that at all. I’m sure real Mughlai food is very good! But what’s “North Indian”? And I don’t like these multi-cuisine restaurants that serve bad everything. I don’t like that kind of dilution of food. That’s when I would stick to authenticity.
Let’s look at a multi-cuisine; we’ll have Chinese, Mexican, we’ll have this and that; I think you have nothing. I like people who are gutsy and go out there and take a risk.
Do you still get the time to cook? How often?
Of course! Till six months ago I cooked almost every evening because I didn’t have a cook! Now I cook when we’re doing Western or Japanese. We have a wonderful cook/housekeeper who’s fantastic but he doesn’t have that finesse. He’ll cut and chop and I’ll do the rest. Maybe at least 3-4 times a week now. I still make marmalades and jams at home.
Finally, what kind of food do you eat at home? What’s a regular ‘food day’ like for you?
Oh the usual; poha, dal, sometimes Japanese. I like Japanese. Very simple really. Sometimes it’s just a cheese platter even. We do go all out with some good pasta, meatballs and a salad. So it’s a mix of everything!