My first formal dinner was at the Ooty club when I was about 7 years old. I, of course, rebelled against the black, spit-polished shoes, tie and jacket. Sitting on a spotless white-cloth table and only speaking when spoken to was a nightmare. But even today the Ooty club has some of the best table services that I have ever experienced.
I was subconsciously introduced to great food at an early age. I grew up in South India, on the tea plantations of Annamalais helping my mother pick fresh and seasonal produce from our large vegetable patch behind the house. Fresh peas, beans, chillies, eggplants, and so much more was grown in abundance. In addition, we had a cow for milk, and the house next door had chickens. I grew up in the late 60s when organic, free-range, non-GMO were practiced but not spoken about. These fresh vegetables were transformed by our very talented chef into a combination of South Indian or Continental dishes that made me appreciate different cuisines and flavours at an early age.
I went to school in Ooty and the large Ooty market in the ‘70s sold asparagus, avocados and artichokes – vegetables that are considered exotic even today. I was fortunate that my parents exposed me to a variety of produce which helped me develop a palate and curiosity for new ingredients.
I moved to Mumbai for high school and college where I was immersed in a world of diverse cuisines. Gujarati, Maharashtrian, Parsi, Bohri, Chinese, Italian – all of it. Bheja masala and malpuas from Mohamed Ali Road, pasta at the Taj, the world of food and its peculiar smells had opened up to me. My family encouraged trying new dishes. From homemade hand-churned alphonso mango ice cream to the pani puri stalls of Chowpatti, my life was filled with food adventures each day.
These formative years moulded the chef in me and gave me this curiosity to try something new and a palate that was constantly excited by flavours and textures. I was younger then and did not truly appreciate this till much later.
My journey led me to Philadelphia for higher education. Moving to the US opened the doors to many more cuisines, Mexican, Japanese, French and Italian. On a meagre student budget, we would visit Little Italy on Wednesday nights to get the cheap Prix fix dinners, a salad, a main and a dessert. This was my unconscious foray into the tasting menu, simple but so well cooked. Chinatown opened its doors to me with regional Chinese food, Burmese, and Korean restaurants pulling me magically into them for a taste. The famed Reading Terminal Market was filled with fresh vegetables, reminding me of my childhood, and American cuisine from the Amish and local vendors. I was once again in a new world discovering new experiences and taking it all in. I bought a small grill and would grill every weekend with friends. These simple dinners accompanied by cold beers made me fall in love with grilled foods and taught me the essence of hosting guests.
After finishing college we moved to Chicago, a bastion for fine dining with some of the world’s best restaurants. This is where I really started learning about curated dining.
Technically, curated means “hand selected, organised, and presented using professional expert knowledge”. In the case of curated dining menus, it translates to a perfectly selected menu by a trained chef that adheres to a specific theme. The most common term for this style of dining is degustation, which translates to “Tasting” in French. These dinners are also called curated or tasting menus depending on the fashion of the time and the whim of the chef. The terms are used interchangeably, for the most part. These dinners are small plates of exquisite food, beautifully plated; a feast for the eyes and highlight the creativity and finesse of the chef.
The earliest recorded history of restaurants evolved in the cities of Kaifeng and Hangzhou in China around 1100 AD. This was quickly followed by a flourish of eateries in vibrant city centres accompanied by hotels, bars and brothels.
This concept of dining outside quickly transformed into a more elevated dining experience with diners, especially royalty and the rich indulging in longer dinners of multiple courses, usually accompanied by music, dancing and other entertainment. The oldest known curated dining experience is the traditional Japanese “kaiseki” menu developed by Sen no Rikyu in the 1600s. It highlights the simple elegance of Japanese cuisine and the beautiful art of presentation. History tells us that French cuisine followed the “table d’hôte” menu, a fixed-price meal enjoyed at a communal table.
Another more recent example is the famed Indonesian “rijsttafel” or ‘rice table menu’ derived from the Dutch occupation of Indonesia. The menu can extend to 24+ courses served in very small bowls, each with increasing complexity and spiciness.
Many chefs also believe that the large Indian thali is a perfect example of a traditional curated meal. These meals are still served vegetarian with a class of foods called temple cuisine, that are a perfect balance of nutrition and flavour. The perfect thali plays with the 6 tenets of taste – sweet, sour, spice, bitter, salt and acid – in perfect harmony, and some thali meals today extend to 50+ dishes served on either a traditional banana leaf or a massive circular metal platter.
Today several world-class restaurants around the world offer curated degustation menus. Most format state dinners with heads of state, royalty and public dignitaries are also formalised curated menus experienced in very formal settings.
Earning a salary, I was able to start enjoying fine dining in some of the Michelin-starred restaurants in the city. The first true degustation menu I tried was at the famed Charlie Trotter’s. It was an experience that stunned me. Exquisite food, eye-popping presentation and superlative service. I began to understand what the epitome of fine dining truly was and I wanted to experience it more. I followed this with dinners at Arun’s, Topolobampo, and Spiaggia to name a few.
As a consultant, I travelled frequently to Europe and Asia. During these visits, I explored street vendors and fine restaurants around the world. Saffron risotto in Italy, tapas in Spain, beer and sausage in Germany, outstanding cheese, wine and elegant Bistro fare in Paris. “Rijsttafel” in Amsterdam, laksa and chill crab in Singapore, and charcoal grilled fish with sambal on the beaches of Bali. I spent more time searching for street stalls, farmers’ markets and fine dining than actually working.
In 2002, we moved to San Francisco and I quit my job to bring up my daughter. I was once again struck by the abundance of Michelin-starred restaurants. The French Laundry, Coi, Manresa, Benu, Atelier Crenn, Madrona Manor, Farmhouse Inn. So many of them. And a whole breadth of cuisine that I was absolutely new to – Cambodian, Vietnamese, Sri Lankan, Filipino, El Salvadorian, and the famed California creative food scene. These small cafes and hole-in-the-wall places served food that was superb.
I soon found myself immersed in the kitchen, obsessed with creating perfect recipes. A large-ish cookbook collection followed quickly, allowing me to learn technique, flavour and cooking styles. Most of all, the Bay Area taught me about wine, good wine, and how to pair it with food.
I started a small catering company as my first foray into catered dinners. I now had experience in catering and fine cuisine to learn about and start curating menus. This allowed me to highlight my knowledge and give the guest a dinner that flows well on the palate. It blossomed into a small business that kept me quite busy creating unique dishes and serving a small community of very fastidious diners with diverse backgrounds. My cuisine was always about great flavour derived from unique dishes and well-presented healthy menus. This grew into curated dinners quite by demand, a style of dining that brings all my experiences and depth of knowledge together.
Today, after testing over 300 recipes every year, and dining in several settings, I have brought together inspirations from many such travels like a wine-paired dinner in the vineyards of Napa, a Cambodian sunrise traditional breakfast set amid the ancient temples of Angkor Wat, in museums surrounded by history. Of course, the exceptional table service of the Ooty Lab.
And every day, I revisit the best of these places in my kitchen. Would you like to join me?
Today, Zafar runs The Curated Plate by Zafar in Bengaluru. He believes in an exceptional global dining at home that encompasses all the aspects of a great culinary experience. One of the keys to his dining experience is that he will custom create a menu for you for each occasion. Expect never having to ask for your glass of wine or water to be refilled, and non-intrusive, attentive service. An immersive experience with not just exquisite food, but history, new ingredients and a great conversation while the dinner is being served.
Translations and detailed descriptions are provided to give a better understanding of the story to people from different cultural backgrounds across the globe.