Chefs And Restaurants Aren't Doing Enough To Promote Local Indian Food: Chef Thomas Zacharias

In a candid tête-à-tête, the chef talks about what led him to diverse mission-driven events, what keeps him from opening his own restaurant and whether chefs are doing justice to progressive Indian cuisine.

Published On Dec 14, 2023 | Updated On Mar 08, 2024


Chef Thomas Zacharias has been a chef for close to 15 years. His culinary stint started with an exploration of European food, working at some of the best restaurants in the world in New York, followed by pushing the boundaries with Indian food as chef and partner (for about six and a half years) at The Bombay Canteen in Mumbai. After a two-year hiatus, last year, Zacharias announced his new venture - The Locavore, an initiative that aims to champion local Indian food through storytelling, partnerships, events and projects. Breaking away from being a full time chef has notably taken a different turn in his life, in a good way indeed.

Talking about the platform, he elaborates, “Doing good through food is the motto that The Locavore runs by. We work at the intersection of food and impact in India and for us impact runs across many themes from food waste, to hunger to food sovereignty to farm inequality, the loss of erosion of culinary heritage, etc.” Currently, he is busy prepping for a unique food stall at the Serendipity Arts Festival, that will serve India-inspired food to patrons. His installation at SAF is a longing for home food. He shares, “It captures the essence and emotions of how people share recipes, orally particularly in India.” Taking the candid tête-à-tête ahead, the chef shares what led him to diverse mission driven events, what keeps him from opening his own restaurant and whether chefs are doing justice to progressive Indian cuisine.

Through the course of my time at The Bombay Canteen, I knew little about Indian food. My lessons, learnings and inspiration come from travel. I have been to 25 states in the country just to explore and learn about the food in India. I saw a lot of deep-rooted food system issues such as inequality, casteism, malnutrition, mental health challenges in the food industry. I realised our recipes are getting lost and the diversity of what's on our plate is dwindling. And then I would come back to the restaurant and there would be this complete dissonance. It would be this dichotomous situation where I was in this glamorous restaurant serving food and winning awards and all that, and I just felt wrong. And so that's what led me to take a step away from being a full time chef. And I left trying to figure out how I can actually make an impact. And I realised through the process of introspection that I had also come across a lot of people organisations through my career across India, who have been doing some incredible work on the ground, with grassroots level communities around a lot of these issues. But they didn't either didn't have the means to take their missions forward, or they didn't have access to a large enough audience, or they didn't know how to craft the narrative. I realised that I could come in and that's what eventually materialised into The Locavore.

The biggest learning that keeps coming back over and over again is how little I know. And that's a humbling feeling. People harp about solutions for a lot of these problems, make sweeping statements or offer blanketed solutions. But what is missed are the nuances. And so I think the local context is important when tackling and dealing with anything related to food in India, there are similarities, but there are also complex nuances.

Not at all, not even close. And that's quite unfortunate. I don't think I'm doing enough either. And even during my time as a chef, I think beyond promoting Indian ingredients and traditional recipes, I wasn't really doing a lot as a chef in my capacity, which is what I'm trying to change. But chefs and restaurants in India aren't really doing a lot but it's quite unfortunate because today, a lot of food trends in India are driven by chefs and restaurants. So the opportunity to actually make a lot of change is there. But at the same time, I don't blame them because restaurants are a difficult business to run. It's hard enough to make ends meet and turn profits. So in the middle of all that, to expect chefs to also think about a lot of these issues is really, really challenging, it doesn't suddenly become high on your priority list even if you care about it. And then in India, you don't have the means to do anything about it. Because everything is operating in silos. If every restaurant suddenly started sourcing a handful of local ingredients, incorporating something seasonal on the menu, that itself can be such a massive shift. I empathise with the fact that chefs and restaurants aren't doing anything much about it.

My concern is that it cannot be just to exoticise Indian food and Indian ingredients. Because then you're only speaking about a niche set of Indian food. Firstly, my biggest pet peeve is sea buckthorn. Everyone talks about sea buckthorn nuts from Ladakh, but nobody is talking about what's growing 50 kilometres from them, or what is in the local market? Why aren't we celebrating locally grown tendli as much as we are sea buckthorn? Secondly, it shouldn't become a zero sum game. It cannot be about chefs and restaurants maximising their own interests and using it for publicity without taking stock of the communities where they source these ingredients from and what can be done for them. And also giving them some space to be recognized. It's really complex, but right now, it's being done in a very superficial way. And, and it's to me, it seems like it's being done largely for effect.

One, I don't think restaurants are a great business idea to get into. It's a lot of work and the margins are low. And that's if you're really successful. Secondly, I've done that right? Not particularly like owning one. But just like for me being confined to one restaurant is limiting and I am the kind of chef who would always want to be at the restaurant. I wouldn't like to just set up a restaurant, put my name on it and leave. So then I'll be confined to that physical space and not be able to really go beyond that and to do the work I want to be doing.

As of now, it's not looking likely because there's so much to do with The Locavore. And it's taking up so much of my time and energy and bandwidth. That doesn't mean I won't. That doesn't mean I'll stop cooking, I'm still cooking at events. So I'll find myself cooking in different situations, but a full fledged restaurant? I've very openly said the next time I'll be doing that is probably when I retire.

Photo: Instagram/Chef Thomas Zacharias