'It should be considered one of the primary cuisines on Earth,' Zorawar Kalra tells Avantika Bhuyan.
It's 11.30 am on Wednesday morning and Farzi Cafe at Cyber Hub, Gurgaon, is slowly coming to life.
A couple of hours later, the scene will be dramatically different -- the space will be choc-a-bloc with diners, with the waiting period extending up to two hours.
"I want to take Indian food to the global palate," says Zorawar Kalra as soon as he enters the restaurant. "It should be considered one of the primary cuisines on Earth. But if the youth of India itself doesn't take to it, then how will it go global?"
It is to draw the hip 'n' cool into the fold of Indian food that Kalra started Massive Restaurants in December 2012, which now has brands such as Farzi Cafe, Masala Library, Masala Bar, Pa Pa Ya and Made in Punjab under its umbrella.
His restaurants look nothing like the cliched image of Indian eateries that one visited while growing up.
The decor doesn't burst into a profusion of reds and browns, food doesn't make an appearance in brass cutlery, nor are the customary ghazals playing in the background.
'Loud' has been replaced by 'understated' and 'subtle'. At Farzi, for instance, one is greeted by a European-style bistro with warm wooden panels and chic leather sofas.
Until three years ago, those under 35 would not have given Indian food a second thought.
"It was considered completely passe. The only way to get them back to the cuisine was to give them novelty. And that's what Kalra is doing," says food critic and writer Marryam H Reshii.
With every restaurant that he has opened since 2013, Kalra has tried to bring progressive Indian food closer to the masses.
"When we opened Masala Library by Jiggs Kalra in Mumbai in October 2013, it was envisioned as a fine dining, premium space," says Kalra. But the higher price points kept the youth out of the restaurant.
"You wouldn't go there on a date night. You would go for a lunch meeting or a celebration. So, we thought of Farzi Cafe as a space which you could visit every night."
Farzi was sold out within an hour of the phone lines being opened for the first time in 2014. "I knew it then that we had touched upon something that was worth the risk," he says.
According to Reshii, the very choice of locations of his restaurants tells of the demographic that he is targeting.
"Connaught Place, where he opened Farzi, is as high street as it can get. Cyber Hub is also where the youth hangs out," says Reshii, while comparing it to the more formal settings of restaurants such as Indian Accent or Caperberry, which also specialise in progressive Indian cuisine.
The presentation, ingredients and efforts at Farzi are the same as Masala Library, but at lower price points and within a high-energy space. While a basic salad at Masala Library would cost you Rs 300, at Farzi Cafe, a filling dish would be priced at around Rs 200.
The one other person, perhaps, who can be credited with bringing a fine dining experience to the masses, is chef Manu Chandra, who with Monkey Bar, and now Toast and Tonic, 'expands the midmarket -- a zone where per-person spending is between Rs 800 and Rs 1,800 -- while continuing to be among the country's top three chefs,' wrote Mint Lounge food editor Sumana Mukherjee recently.
Shuchir Suri, founder of Food Tech and marketing startup Food Talk India, who worked with Kalra on the launch of three of his restaurants, says that Kalra is his own target audience: 30-something, affluent, well-travelled.
"The food at his restaurants, while not cheap, is not very pricey either. If you have an investor to impress, you might take him to Indian Accent, but if you have foreign guests, you will take them to Farzi Cafe or Masala Library. These are safe choices with a lot of drama thrown in."
While the menu at his mid-priced restaurant, Made in Punjab, was kept typically Indian for the sticklers, with the kebabs and curries, Kalra unleashed his vision in Masala Library and Farzi by making the menu playful and affordable for this new demographic.
So, at Masala Library, you have a marriage of sophistication with the whimsical in dishes like the Wild Mushroom Chai topped with truffle and dehydrated mushrooms, Prawn Balchao Kulcha, a steamed John Dory served with a quenelle of chutneys, wild berry and lavender kheer, and more.
At Farzi, the dishes are more experimental, with a dash of theatrics. So there's the Phirni Oxide, which is uncovered amidst a cloud of smoke or the Milky Way, which is served live on the table. Then there's the Chicken Tikka Masala, which is served in a mini telephone booth. And Kalra is now extending this culinary philosophy to Asian food as well at Pa Pa Yeh where traditional flavours are being reinterpreted in dishes like Thai Green Curry Dimsums and Edamame Sliders.
He attributes his love for Indian food to the massive legacy built by his father, Jiggs Kalra.
"He took his knowledge of food to a level that even chefs at that time couldn't match. He is an encyclopedia," says Kalra.
Added to the legacy was exposure to world cuisine. As a child, holidays meant tasting new flavours at the best restaurants across the world. As a result, right from the pre-teens, Kalra knew that he wanted to build a career in the restaurant business.
"I pursued an MBA in Boston to arm myself with the business knowledge required to create restaurants back home," he says.
However, Kalra isn't without his share of detractors, especially for his use of molecular gastronomy.
'Smoke and mirror effects' and 'gimmicky' is what it has been called in the past. Puritans feel that use of compounds such as sodium alginate and gluco take away from the essence of cooking.
"This is sour grapes talking," he guffaws. "It's like saying, 'I will not use a fast computer because it's traditional to use a slow one'. Not all dishes are molecular, but when we do use it, it is to add value or to improve a product; not for theatrics or gimmicks."
His thoughts are echoed by Abhijit Saha, who uses techniques like sous-vide and spherification in his 'lab-kitchen' at Caperberry, Bengaluru.
'A basic knowledge of food preparation and the use of high-quality produce, combined with the physical and biochemical aspect, paired with a philosophical touch, is what makes molecular gastronomy special. It is not purely artistic or only out for special effects,' he has said in a previous media interview.
Kalra cites the example of the raj kachori served at Farzi Cafe, which uses a foam of sonth ki chutney.
"The brain thinks it's eating sonth ki chutney, but it's actually foam, with the fraction of the calories of the traditional chutney. We have used science to improve a 200-year-old product," says Kalra, who got his first taste of molecular gastronomy in 2006 at the famous El Bulli in Spain.
"It was a life altering experience. I had decided back then that we have to use molecular in some way, but at that time the world wasn't ready for it, let alone India."
Meanwhile, he is all set to take his brands global.
Farzi, which has five brands within India, is already making its presence felt in Dubai -- the first outpost of Farzi Cafe.
"It is such a vindication that an Indian cuisine restaurant can become so popular in one of the most sophisticated cities in the world, which has eateries by some of the world's best chefs," he says.
And now he plans to take Farzi to other locations across the globe in the next three to four years. Pa Pa Yeh too will be up and running in an international location within the next six months and Masala Library will go global in 2017.
"I can't disclose more than that," says Kalra. "We are under three years old, but by October this year, 20 restaurants will be operational within the casual and fine dining space. By the end of this month, we will have Rs 118 crore (Rs 1.18 billion) run rate, and by October, it will be around Rs 200 crore (Rs 2 billion)," says Kalra.
Fine dining for the masses doesn't mean cutting down on quality. "We are a very high-food costs company -- we don't compromise on the cost of produce. If you give the best chef a bad chicken, even he won't be able to turn it into a spectacular dish," he says.
Suri concurs: "Kalra is great with concepts and doesn't cut collars here and there."