Marketing pundits who think they’ve cracked the code of consumer preferences throughout the length and breadth of the country, may just be in for a surprise. Alan Bird may not be a marketing pundit, nor The Ivy, Covent Garden, London, a marketing research organization, but during his ten day stint in India, there’s a lot he’s learnt about food preferences around the country.
The Ivy is a landmark restaurant in London’s theatre district. Flown down to India by the ITC Welcomgroup, Alan Bird, the ‘face’ of the restaurant, cooked at the group’s West View restaurants in New Delhi, Kolkata and Mumbai. The festival was promoted to diners at the restaurants in each of the cities as the “food that Al Pacino eats, when he’s booked six months in advance”. And did the crowds flock to West View! Each restaurant did between two and three turns an evening, with several disappointed diners who just couldn’t make it in the three days that the promotion was on in their city.
So, what did they order? Says a visibly taken aback Alan Bird, “Shepherds pie, shepherds pie and more shepherds pie.” The nostalgia value for the dish went through the roof. Other items that did well were griddled tiger prawns with chilli, ginger and garlic (New Delhi), grilled lobster with chips and spiced mayonnaise (Mumbai) and deep-fried fish with chips and minted pea puree (Kolkata). Seafood, in other words. Butter chicken land – which is how Delhi is scornfully referred to in the rest of the country – dived for the tex-mex chicken salad with guacamole and roasted pimentos, but it sank without a trace in the other two cities. Surprisingly, spotted dick, that quintessentially English nursery pudding, fared poorly in the sweepstakes. Eton mess with strawberries did well, but sticky toffee pudding with vanilla ice-cream went out on every table in every city.
Chef Madhu Krishnan of ITC Welcomgroup Grand Maratha, Mumbai was surprised that squid ink risotto with sautéed squid did not fare better than it did, but the eating public obviously perceived it as Italian, as opposed to English, and it’s obvious that the festival got the overwhelming response it did because of the association with Old Blighty. Other festivals at the Welcomgroup’s hotels come and go, but without the frenzy of this one.
Alan Bird himself is a little pained at the lukewarm response to his vegetarian offerings. “I can count the number of beetroot salad with crumbled goat’s cheese and toasted walnuts I sold, on the fingers of one hand. And orders for the other vegetarian dishes were not much better.” What is surprising is that shepherds pie did so well, because lamb is hardly the most popular meat in any of the three cities – seafood is. It is obvious that boarding school food has many takers! Bird did not dare bring his version of kedgeree, mulligatawny soup or chicken masala to India. Diners may just have had a problem with the latter, because the recipe includes aubergines and coconut among other things!
Footnote: Some hugely popular English chefs include Gordon Ramsay, Marco Pierre White, Jamie Oliver and Gary Rhodes. All have (or had) their own TV shows.