What does it take to stand out from the crowd?
Ask India’s leading chef Manu Chandra, co-curator of LF Epicurean Guild Awards (LFEGA), a food award that stands apart for its thoroughness and commitment to a transparent and honest process, and he says: “There is nothing in LFEGA which conforms to the larger narrative of Indian restaurant awards.” At the heart of LFEGA, launched in 2017, lies the zeal to reclaim and redefine the essence of an award, and particularly, restaurant awards, which for the longest time in India (specifically) have been in a horribly sorry state.
This is a vision chef and restaurateur Manu Chandra shares with LF. “I was recently at an award function and somebody won an accolade for being The Best Dressed Chef,” he says. The shock and disappointment in his voice – however humorous – conveys a certain urgency, which also explains why he makes for such a befitting choice as the curator for these awards, which now in its fourth edition, will commence at ITC Grand Central Parel on February 7, 2020.
Chandra’s journey with LFEGA began in 2018, when he came onboard as the co-curator of LFEGA. A lot has happened between then and now, from a fledging 3-city award, it now has a pan-India presence, and recognises premium dining spaces, hidden gems, inclusive F&B establishments, Indian spirits and wines and creative chefs and game changers of the world of food. Yet, transparency continues to be the driving principle behind LFEGA.
“Given that LFEGA has a long-drawn process, which is a good thing, it allowed us the opportunity to pick jurors from different walks of life and belonging to a variety of backgrounds, such as restaurateurs, chefs, sommeliers and critics. The most important thing was that these people didn’t mind spending their time eating at these restaurants and had the ability to differentiate between a really good one and a mediocre restaurant,” he says, referring to the final stage of the awards-process where the jury dines incognito, at every restaurant that has made it to the final list, in 12 cuisine categories.
The LFEGA jury is a mini melting pot, comprising stalwarts from various fields. Some names from the LFEGA 2020 jury include beer entrepreneur Narayan Manepally; lifestyle writer Ashwin Rajagopalan; popular pastry chef and author Pooja Dhingra; restaurateur Gauri Devidayal; sommelier Magandeep Singh; food writer Antoine Lewis; and Romil Ratra, founder of the A Club in Mumbai and Rocky Mohan, founder of Gourmet Passport and director Mohan Meakin Ltd.
Elaborating on the need for and paucity of credible restaurant awards in the country, Chandra says, “It’s bizarre, the reasons and whims based on which some restaurant awards are created. A food OTT app will create a property based on in-app ratings, which becomes a benchmark for them; award shows helmed by publications have sometimes come up with many new categories each year. One such award show once introduced the Best Vietnamese Restaurant category for Bengaluru at a time when the city had only one Vietnamese restaurant! How does this work?”
Keeping these things in mind, the LF think-tank including Amit Nair, Business Head, Srikant Malladi, Head-Programming, Adhishree Murdia, Head-Marketing and Priyamvada Kowshik, Lead Editor and Chandra have invested time in weaving transparency and thought into LFEGA, so as to ensure that it blossoms into a property that not only recognises genuine talent, but also, in some way, fills the gaping hole in the restaurant awards’ space in India. Open and honest debates and discussion have played an immense role to that end. Be it including the The Oyster Club which recognises hidden gems; to partnering with experts such as Goya Media to enlist quirky and quaint restaurants across the country; to researching inclusive establishments that are providing opportunities for sexual minorities and people with special needs; to changemakers who have done pathbreaking work in the F&B industry. Attention to detail has been a hallmark of the Awards—Chandra recalls how when the Best Nightlife category was introduced, the team decided that it would have to be helmed by someone who actually understands the nightlife space: “That’s why we roped in Anish Sood, a DJ and musician, who could have provided more insight into this,” shares Chandra.
And if honesty and fairness are at the crux of any idea, that idea must grow. “It is actually the best part about LFEGA,” he opines, adding that this has led chiefly to LFEGA’s evolution.
And how has co-curating a restaurant award impacted Chandra, considering that it’s his first? “Any large undertaking is going to have a bearing on you. For me, the biggest thing is that I have made a lot of new friends in the industry. I remember admiring some people as a fledgling new chef. Getting to know them has been great.”