This is not an A vs. B (home food vs. Restaurant food).
Commercial establishments Restaurants mentioned in the post below do not include chef led restaurants where food matters most above everything else.
We have been writing about food & travel since last twelve years & we have been documenting every major meal we have eaten out of home, the experience & also a rating of the food, long before Zomato became a popular household name.
This document, our blog, gives us the chance to constantly revisit our food & travel choices & experiences over the years & actually see the trends. Till about five years back we would usually never repeat meals in the same restaurant as that would be a missed opportunity to eat at a new place & write about it.
Over time, this changed. We now eat at few restaurants whom we think are serious about serving genuine good food.
In 2019, when we were living in Mumbai, for the first time, we realized that we were more often eating out at home tables or restaurant pop ups than at regular restaurants. At first we thought it was just us but over time we realized that many customers who look for authentic home cooked regional food were opting for home tables over normal restaurants (not including speciality / chef led restaurants).
To answer this shift let us go step by step –
Why eat out
The culture of eating out & visiting cafes in the city of dwelling was around in the West for few centuries. In India eating out was not commonplace till the Europeans came and started staying.
When we were kids 4 decades back, it was not common in middle income families to eat out regularly. For some it might have been once a fortnight, once a month or even once a year…. In the last few decades, occasional eating out started getting popular in India, during travel, to celebrate & sometimes also to escape home food that was primarily traditional regional cuisine. In the last decade eating out became a way of life & post Covid ‘ordering in’ attained the same status.
What’s different in home food vs Commercial Restaurant food
Some Dishes were invented in Commercial Kitchens or even Royal Kitchens (Biryanis. Qormas etc). Rest are adaptations of common person’s home food. The adaptations in many cases have gone far from the real home food – either because customers looked for something ‘different’ or because it was not possible to recreate the home food as it is, in a large set up.
Let’s take some examples of home food versus commercial food. Before restaurant going became popular, no one in north India cooked Dal Makhani & butter chicken or Paneer Lababdar at home or no Bengali would cook Kosha Mangsho regularly. Tamilians do not eat only idly, dosa, sambar in all meals at home, contrary to the perception of many non-travelling, less curious Indians.
Commercially cooked food ends up being different than home cooked food due to a combination of –
• newer processes being used,
• shortcuts being undertaken,
• cheaper / substitute raw materials being used at times,
• huge quantities at commercial eateries as compared to home (the chemistry & physics of the raw materials change due to quantity).
• & most importantly the difference in attitude & passion of a member of the family cooking for the family or friends & that of someone just doing a job at a restaurant. Every time food is good in a restaurant it is because someone is really passionate about consistently serving only good food – either the owner / the chef or the cook who is making it.
What’s a home table
Home tables are mostly organized by a lady (or gentleman) in her own house, usually on weekends, in small batches of 6 to 8 people at a time, often cooked by the host herself. The family members usually help in serving the food & entertaining the guests, if not help in the cooking. The food is usually artisanal, with ingredients handpicked from the best places, the way she would do for her family.
Word is spread through social media or word of mouth.
Guests need to pre-book a seat only by paying the full amount in advance (like a movie ticket or a flight ticket). We have paid between Rs. 2500 to Rs. 7000 per couple for most of the home tables that we have been to, in Mumbai & later in Delhi NCR.
Most of the pop ups we have been to the lady (or gentleman) had a different profession on weekdays, ranging from a business head in an export company, a business owner, a teacher, a writer, a banker, a lawyer, a retail fish shop owner, a farmer, an office goer & also a home maker.
Who eats out at home tables & why
The answer to this probably lies in the stage of life one is in. Some examples –
1. A person from a not so affluent family might aspire for fancy restaurants that they could not access while growing up. Once they have experienced fine dining restaurants for long, many of them are inclined to transition to real food from commercially imagined food. They start going to home tables late. I & my partner belonged to this category.
2. Someone who grew up rich & have eaten at expensive restaurants all their life might get into home tables at a younger age.
3. Someone for whom ‘instagram check in’ at the best top end Dining places is less important than experiencing real food, might be quickly be drawn to such experiences.
4. With growing affluence, wider exposure, frequent eating out of home & the quest to maximize experiences over objects, openness to experimentation, people have started exploring food from other regions. Migration from home setup has also led to craving for food from home town for some others. For many, the palate has evolved beyond the usual commercial offering of tweaks & mindless fusion.
Since Indians do not cook based on written recipes handed over generations to us, there is always variation in how every family cooks a dish. So the classic Western concept of ‘authentic recipe’ does not apply. However, there is always some kind of similarity in the dissimilarity.
It’s not just about just the food at these home tables, but also about meeting like-minded people who often become friends for life.
It’s also an immersive experience into a culture through background narration, personal anecdotes, stories of the family, techniques of cooking, about the cuisine, about the culture & this introduction often leads to more conversations on multiple cuisines & cultures that the guests come from.
Who organizes the home tables & pop ups
1. Companies working with home chefs –
Pre COVID, we went to few home tables curated by a company named Authenticook. The most memorable was dinner at a koli fisherman’s house, Versova Mumbai.
A company named home.kouzina organizes pop ups at home chef’s houses or other locations in Delhi NCR.
2. Companies in food Business often do food pop ups & that are theme based
Amar khamar, a boutique company who sources & sells organically grown & traditionally processed food items from Bengal, does occasional weekend tables at their studio in Kolkata.
Rushina Munshaw Ghildiyal’s Uttarakhand food pop ups at her Mumbai studio for food experimentation & research, were our favourite.
3. Wandering chefs – Ace experts of local food often do food pop ups at someone else’s house / restaurant.
Osama Jalali (Rampuri & Purani Dilli food), Sherry Malhotra (Punjabi Cuisine), Pritha sen (Bengali food), Prima kurien (Malyali food) have often done pop ups at homes, art fairs & hotel chains in India & abroad. We have always been to these events, repeatedly & have almost always enjoyed a lot.
Prima runs a top notch catering business in Delhi. She also does home delivery for large home friends & family gatherings. She sends a person with the food to make fresh appams!!!
Osama has a home delivery cloud kitchen & he caters to all of Delhi NCR.
Pritha runs an Indian regional food restaurant in Singapore!! ….. where she serves modern takes on traditional regional food.
At Bombay Canteen, all guests who go for a pop up menu by a home chef, would sit together in one area, in one long table, eat a multi course meal cooked by a Home chef, with help from restaurant staff, interact with each other.
At Trident Mumbai initially & later at Leela, Chef Bhasin would fly in the best of Home chefs from across the country & work with them to serve almost home like food at the Hotel’s Indian restaurant.
5. Niche Travel Companies throw in home tables in the travel itinerary to add a level of authenticity. The per-couple cost of these curated experiential trips within India can vary from a lac to few lacs.
Vana Safaris organized Lunch for us at a Pashmina Trader’s house
& later at Farmer’s house in Kashmir.
A lunch below a tree, by a stream, in tribal are, disrict Koraput, Odisha is truely unforgettable.
kashmir walks organized an open air home cooked lunch for us in a saffron field that was abundant with wild tulips.
Ganga Jamuni organized a beautiful Banarasi lunch home table at the haveli of a prominent Hindi author,
Ganga jamuni also organized a dinner from an erstwhile Maharaja’s palace & at a centuries old haveli of the last Nawab of Tonk.
& later a vegetarian lunch at a Vaishnavite Grihasta Satra.
6. Through a hotel
Alila pictures below
Haridwar pictures below
7. People who started off on their own
We fondly remember Shivendra, an ex-Banker, who created & served incredible food under his own brand Tasallibaqsh, from his home in Gurgaon. He had taken backward integration to a different level. He would make his own feta cheese for salad & his own sausages as he was not happy with the options available in the market. Unfortunately we lost Shivendra 2 years back.
Sneha Saikia runs Sneha’s Akhol from her residence in Delhi – She does outstanding, Assamese home food, no tweaks to adjust to delhi tastebuds. We were blown away by her food:)
We loved eating at an amazing 19 item vegetarian Bengali food home table (unish pawd) by journalist, food historian & food consultant, Pritha Sen at her Gurugram house. We have been to most of her pop ups across cities, over the years & she has been a huge inspiration to us – how to preserve the traditional food & how to extend that to people from other communities.
Bohri kitchen – A family in Colaba Mumbai who does Bohri food that is served in huge thals & guests (strangers) share the food from same thals. Interaction with the hosts, Auntie & uncle left a mark.
We were blown away by the hardcore tribal Assam food pop ups by Gitika Saikia in Mumbai. She would usually do these pop ups at different locations, including the Food Studio of Rushina Munshaw Ghildiyal.
The most versatile & incredible home tables were at the Bandra Mumbai, home of Pia Promina Dasgupta Barve (retired business person) – she had converted a bedroom to an additional kitchen. We have been to her house for a Bengali Muslim meal (Nawab Wazid Ali shah connection), a crab meal in which we ate crab dishes from different parts of the world from 1 m to 6 pm!!! A Jewish meal, a Bengali New Year meal & many more.
We lost Pia last year.
two weeks back we experienced a fabulous breakfast on the terrace of a multi century old haveli – absolutely memorable – house of Bhatwamou
Kamalika, founder of Camellia.artisanal, based out of Gurugram has been doing Bengali Sunday lunch pop ups twice a month since a few months. On alternate fortnights she does traditional Bengali vegetarian & non vegetarian food, including home-made sondesh. She serves food on hand made traditional Kansa-ware, dish by dish in a sit down meal format. She also does a Darjeeling Tea ceremony after lunch. People usually eat with strangers, exchange stories & eventually hang out for 4-5 hours with rounds of tea & adda.
I would not add my comments on Camellia.artisanal because we know each other for decades & also that she wrote a post as a Guest Blogger last month (conflict of interest). You may please see her Guest’s reviews here – Camellia.artisanal.
Economics of the business
The costs of raw materials are way higher for a home table than at a Commercial set up, due to absence of economies of scale & also because these are bought at retail prices from shops or from people making small batch, artisanal, labour intensive, handcrafted products.
Most processes of cooking are traditional, ingredients made from scratch, more labour intensive. Most of this is done by the chef herself with occasional help from the maid.
However, the biggest saving for a home table is rental, minimal overheads & minimal dedicated machinery cost. So it’s probably more profitable (from a net profit % & not in absolute net profit) even after taking only half the mark-up as that of a commercial set up.
Do the home chefs do table for a living? To earn money? I think the answer is NO initially in most of the cases. Later on seeing success, some of them get into bigger food businesses like catering / cloud kitchens or restaurants.
Do home chefs do it for the joy of creative appreciation & also to earn some money in the process? I think in the early stages the answer is YES…………..
Home chefs we know, who made it big in business –
Abhilasha Jain, founder of Marwadi Khana, eventually started cloud kitchen in gurgaon
Nalini sadhu, founder of Matamaal started a restaurant chain (India & abroad).
Manzilat Fatima, founder of Manzilat’s runs a restaurant in Kolkata, where the staff is ‘all ladies’.