If you don't know what the big deal about a Michelin star is, you're either living under a rock or haven't watched The 100-foot Journey. Or both. What started in 1900 as a value-add for Michelin tyre customers on the road, is ostensibly the world's most sought-after recognition for culinary artists. The Michelin guides award stars to the world's best restaurants across the world and the chefs vie for them hungrily.
While India still waits its turn to have its time in the Michelin spotlight, perhaps because Indian cuisine has hitherto been so hard to plan and plate like its Western counterparts, you don't have to go far for that ultimate gourmet experience. Only last month, Mumbai's plush JW Marriott hotel in Juhu played host to a one-of-a-kind pop-up pleasure. Until now, most pop-ups in India have been with restaurants from other parts of the country coming to visit. But this time, here was a true-blue two-Michelin star chef cooking up a culinary storm in the city!
The idea came from 4XFOUR, a Singapore-based company, which curates bespoke dining experiences in Asia. Each week features a Michelin star chef presenting an award-winning menu, enhanced with wine and beer pairings. The first week had the young French chef Chef Laurent Peugeot of Le Charlemagne in Pernand Vergelesses near Beaune, France, doing his trademark innovative Japanese French fusion cuisine. We chose to weigh in in the second week, at the table of Chef Giovanni d'Amato, who is not only Grand Chef for the Relais & Chateaux chain, but whose Ristorante il Rigoletto in Italy has not one but two coveted Michelin stars.
So there we were, studying the black bill of fare like it was a crucial final exam, trying to imagine the treats that lay in store. All we knew was that he specialises in traditional Italian fare with a major focus on fresh and raw materials.
What followed was an eye-opening experience in ways to innovate while still respecting the inherent taste and feel of the ingredients. Just like the book he has recently published, Sinfonie del Rigoletto, the meal was a delicately crafted symphony of flavours, textures and temperatures, wildly contrasting with each other yet complementing each other perfectly. Certainly worth every paise of the Rs-7,000++-a-pop per head pricing.
Eight carefully planned and crafted courses. Three hours of being enchanted by Chef Giovanni's flamboyant food. We were bowled over by the Truffle and Truffle, a hot and cold black truffle mushroom soup slow-cooked and garnished with a cool carrot and ginger sorbet, served with a clam and crouton.
And while we were apprehensive about the Spartan-sounding Soup of Raw & Cooked Fish, we were eventually pleased to tuck into the tomato-based cooked prawn puree and enjoy the distinct tastes of raw tuna, pan-seared scallops, seabass, clams and mussels. The clever garnish of curried caviar, caviar, pesto and herbs, engaged the tastebuds even more fully.
The vegetarians were similarly treated to a party in the mouth with the Celeriac and Different Roots, which was served with beetroot cream and mashed potato cream with a pour of vegetable stock flavoured with jasmine tea. The non-veg version featured the celeriac cooked in pork broth and wrapped in pancetta. Truly unique!
Also unusual was the Artichoke Confit, a creation of pan-seared artichoke cooked sous vide and served with artichoke puree, artichoke foam, topped with artichoke crumble. The Black Cod Fish in Black Sauce with Black Trombetta Mushroom was a spectacular slice of pan-seared black cod served with a squid ink black sauce and sautéed mushrooms, topped with a coconut- and curry-based jelly. We thought that was the highlight of the meal.
But that was until we were served the next course... the stunning dish of Yoghurt, Red Fruits & Beetroot, which starred a strawberry-flavoured yoghurt ice cream served with beetroot jelly, raspberry puree and raspberry powder. The tastebuds were totally tantalised and we couldn't get enough of this. But the grand finale was yet to come.
The Explosion of Tiramisu was a deconstructed version with a coffee meringue, coffee crumble and disc of coffee, rum, espresso and dark chocolate. The way it was built, the way it tasted, the way everyone rushed to Instagram it, spoke volumes. The meal ended on that culinary crescendo, just as a symphony does.
Recreating Michelin-level magic in a country where the infrastructure and ingredients are different is certainly a challenge. We asked the ruddy-cheeked Michelin-star magician what the most difficult part about designing a menu in India was. Chef Giovanni answered (with a lot of gesticulation and translation by his son Federico, who accompanied him to Mumbai), "To experience a new country is always exciting. Indian diners are familiar with Italian cuisine and love the flavours and simplicity of the dishes. I think the most difficult part of designing a menu for India was not knowing the local palate."
Was the difference in produce a stumbling block, we wondered. Did he rely on flying in ingredients from abroad as many international chefs do? "In terms of market produce, we locally sourced all the ingredients which we required for the menu," he assured. And what about the need for pure vegetarian options in a city where so many communities eschew meat and seafood? Did he customise his signature dishes for the typical Indian palate? He smiled while saying, "In fact, it was a great learning experience for us as well to create a pure vegetarian menu and we showcased simple vegetables in an innovative manner through our cooking techniques and presentation. I used saffron and yoghurt in my dishes similar to Indian cuisine and the saffron risotto was a special creation inspired by India."
When asked to describe how he felt when he received his second Michelin star for Ristorante il Rigoletto, he narrated, "We received our second Michelin star in 2003. I was in Rome at that time for a local TV show and I got a call from someone with a request to film us at our restaurant. There were three-four trucks, which arrived with cameras and other equipment at our restaurant and that's when we were told that we've won our second Michelin star! It was an overwhelming experience."
Michelin stars have always been about quality and, to quite a large extent, exclusivity. What has changed about the food world now that makes it possible for a celebrated chef like d'Amato to be part of a Michelin pop-up so far away from his home turf? Has Michelin gone mass, we ask the unaskable question and he is quick to negate the proposition: "Michelin has definitely not gone mass, it is still an exclusive offering. However, with time, it is becoming more accessible to diners across the world. For example, with this Michelin pop-up, we can give Indian diners a chance to sample a Michelin meal in the comfort of their own city yet retaining the exclusive experience. It is always a learning for us to travel to different countries and cook for the locals and I look forward to giving a larger audience a taste of my cuisine."
Mumbai certainly looks forward to more such marvellous Michelin meals coming up at the end of this year!