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The Great Kebab Factory: An unlimited kebab buffet

The Great Kebab Factory

The Great Kebab Factory

When The Great Kebab Factory (TGKF) opened up at the Radisson, New Delhi, more than a decade ago, it was an instant best-seller. The concept was so simple that you wondered why it hadn’t been executed before – an unlimited buffet of kebabs, no doubt refined from their pop origins but everyone’s favourite finger food nevertheless, served up in air-conditioned comfort (and luxury, because at that time, eating out in a five-star restaurant was undoubtedly that).

Since then, the concept has gone places – to Dubai, Ludhiana and Chennai and so forth, franchised out with equal felicity. In Delhi, India’s new gourmet capital, enthusiastic embracer of change where new eating-out “concepts” are now tried out and abandoned with equal disdain, month after month, the original and tiring TGKF shut its doors about two years ago as part of its long-overdue overhaul. We expected big change, something fresh to emerge. But this week, when the restaurant finally reopened, it was, lo behold, once again TGKF – more kebabs, a better wine list, a completely changed and none too complimentary look — but really, much the same: The good old kebab buffet. What surprised me was the number of enthusiastic diners, many of them regulars from the old days, who had turned up to consume the spread that, though not prohibitively priced by today’s standards, didn’t amount to loose change either.

So what does an example such as this really show us? Middle-class India’s famous reluctance to sample the new and the untried? Or is it something much more basic that we all tend to forget while exulting the ever-widening gourmet choices now available to us?

Those who vouch for the former do have a point: Meet any one who is not an aspirational foodie (or wine-drinker) trying to impress you with his latest “wow” experience (or by bringing his own wine glass to a tasting! Don’t believe me? There are those known to do just that), but someone honest enough to call a spade just that. Ask them to tell you where they would go for a family meal—when not entertaining and without the benefit of an expense account—and you are more than likely to hear some old names mentioned. These are restaurants that have seemingly always existed: Kwality or Machan or Trishna or Koshy’s or even the Zodiac Grill and people go to these a) because that’s where they went with their parents and love particular dishes still found on the menus b) the service staff knows them by name and knows exactly how to handle them c) they are singularly unimaginative. The last, I find unbelievable given the sheer number of choices and information available on all these.

Kebabs

The other argument is that a good concept and value-for-money restaurant will always do well as against places that try to cash in on a fad. But value-for-money is not easy to define. Does it only imply “cheaper” places like your neighbourhood restaurant or your favourite café or pizza outlets and food courts where prices may not pinch too much? Of course not. Most food courts at malls in India and many of your small, neighbourhood restaurants have terrible food quality (not to mention hygiene) as opposed to casual dining places in say, Hong Kong and Singapore or in Europe and America. Even if the prices here are a couple of hundred rupees cheaper, such eating out (or ordering-in) is bound to pinch, particularly in these times of economic crunch. On the other hand, a very expensive restaurant could have a great notional value-for-money. Bukhara may not exactly be the right example—though it has survived, unchanged, many foodie fashions. But internationally, you have only to look at places such as the El Bulli, Ferran Adria’s three Michelin Star restaurant in Spain, to understand that.

A small restaurant that kickstarted the trend for molecular gastronomy, El Bulli is operational only part of the year (till September). When it opens its bookings for the next year in October, they get snapped up almost immediately —this despite the fact that a meal for one costs $ 300 here. And while, you may call gastronomy a fad—altering the chemistry of food, giving you an oysters and passion fruit jelly, for instance—fact is that at El Bulli, chefs work hard in their labs during the months that it is closed to come up with menus that always have the wow factor. So if you are stretching your dollars, you are at least assured of a good time and meal!

The silver lining I hope to see in the current downturn is that quality will finally triumph over mere gimmickery at our own restaurants. And there are several at the moment where the latter rules. It will not matter whether they have put gold on their roofs or in their plates. What will matter is good food at a fair price. And, yes, the service always counts, especially if the service charge has been built into the final tab: Knowledgeble without being superior, pleasant without being servile! Is that a tall order?

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