Kanu Gupta Of Savor Experiences On How Food Is The Most Binding Commonality We Share
For everything it holds, life still is rather short to try everything, and in the midst of sticking it out to make ends meet, we’re only trying to experience as much as possible, right?. Savor, an entrepreneurial venture started by ex-investment banker and chef, Kanu Gupta, strives to attain similar experiences, but with food. The company first held its Secret Supper in Mumbai – a meal that brings together 40 odd strangers from different walks of life to enjoy a surprising menu they know nothing about – in 2012. Since then, it’s been a project that’s brought Mumbai together over the comfort of elegant, fresh and nutritious food. Recently, it’s brought back to life the #saddesklunch, for all those working across Bandra and Colaba and crave for satisfying food at work. Their motto, perhaps, says it all, ‘People matter more than things, timelessness matters more than time, experiences matter more than anything’.
Excerpts from an interview with Savor’s Kanu Gupta…
What was your childhood like? What were the first few very new food experiences you had had as a child?
KG: I was born in London and raised in the Middle-East. I’ve been very fortunate to live in many places and eat really phenomenal food. I had a very critical family that always pushed experimentation and trying new things and taught me to be discerning about all types of things, in particular, culture and food. And so, that’s kind of the upbringing I’ve had. I’ve always enjoyed being at people’s dinner tables in new and foreign places, which for me is the greatest form of travel.
I think tasting oysters for the first time was incredible. It was just like basically looks like you are drinking the ocean. The two things that I remembered that my mom cooked was a leg of lamb, as well as apple crumble, which are two dishes that evoke nostalgia.
It’s not common to find the ideology of always trying new food amongst families since most have their favourite choices or come from a cultural background that has conditioned them. But yours did. How come?
KG: I think that’s the way my parents were built, in the sense that we are always looking for new experiences and where is the joy in tasting something that you are already familiar with.
Life is short and there’s so much to try. You’ll never know how you feel about something until you try it, right? We all are different in what we like and what flavours appeal to us. It also makes you refine your palette and also makes you understand what you enjoy more when you try different things.
As a chef, it’s helped have a much better idea of which tastes and flavours go together. We meet a lot of chefs who don’t have any idea outside of what they cook and that’s very limiting of them and even in the cuisine they cook.
What was the idea behind starting Savor and the Secret Supper Project?
KG: I’ve been excited about this notion of bringing people together at a table, for what I consider the absolute lowest common denominator — food and that’s why we started the Secret Supper Project seven years ago. That’s a big part of what Savor is.
Of course, the Secret Supper Project took Mumbai quite by surprise. How did you build your team?
KG: It’s this sort of de facto, beautiful community that was built informally. Every time we did a dinner, ultimately, 5 of the diners would come up and say that they really want to be a part of this. Through mostly word-of-mouth, it was people doing it out of love and volunteering their time and energy to create something beautiful. So, Secret Supper became this bus stop where people come and go or come and stay or they’d go on and start their own restaurants or their own food enterprises. It happened organically.
In a sense, we were a community of people that only wanted to spend time with each other and so a lot of our spare time was spent in cooking and eating together, which was great. I think one of the issues in the food industry is that they don’t have enough people from a non-food background because they can often bring something very new, fresh and novel to a food experience.
What do you find fascinating about bringing together strangers over good food?
KG: The most incredible thing about this city is the diversity — the people don’t get to meet each other because they are so socially and economically stratified. People who work in banks socialise with people in banks. People who work in advertising socialise with people in advertising. That is the reason why Secret Supper exists. And the reason why its centred around food is because food is the most binding, common denominator for everybody. Even if you don’t like food, you have to stop what you do three times a day and eat food.
Why did you make the decision to keep the seating at the projects limited only to 40?
KG: The reason we limit the number of seats for dinner is because we do not want to compromise on the quality of experience. We do not want to make it a party for 100 because that’s not our area of expertise. Our expertise is a sit-down dinner for 40 people. So, the limitation is based on the optimum given space because venues change all the time and each venue has its own peculiarities about what’s the right combination. That said, it is for anybody to come. We have our price points vary all the time. It’s never a fixed price. Absolutely anybody can sign up. Our priority is to give preference to people who have never come before. There is absolutely no sense of exclusivity and the only thing we ask from our customers is to have a little faith and trust to come to an experience without knowing what’s on the menu, where it is or who it’s with.
You’ve also ventured into providing lunches for people working across South Bombay. Why?
KG: We play in spaces where we can be the best and where we think there is an exciting opportunity. The reason why we entered lunch is because we thought lunch was broken. The quality of lunch options are terrible, people eat bad quality food, there’s no variety and there’s no surprise. As a diner of one at a table for one, as we call it, it’s tough to get variety. So, our lunch box is based on the very same principals of Secret Supper, which is surprise, variety, nutrition, balance, and great flavour.
How do you maintain variety?
KG: We meet, we ideate every week and no menus are repeated in a month. And variety is not just the day to day but within the day also, because your lunch box today will have a salad, a soup, a main and a dessert so there’s also variety within the meal.
Is the food prepared from a health perspective as well?
KG: Health from food is the by-product of good quality eating. The focus of the food is the quality of the people and the quality of the ingredients, and we never compromise on those two. But, health is not our primary objective, it’s a secondary objective. It’s not a diet service or a weight loss or a calorie-counted service. We do believe that if you eat our service – and we also do a gluten-free service for people who have a performance-based diet – that being healthy is one beautiful byproduct of what we serve.
How do you scout for the ingredients?
KG: Well, one of the things is that our menu keeps changing, so we cook what’s seasonally available. Even the morning of, the menu will change depending on what our chefs find in the market. All the produce is bought most of the time the morning of for that day. We cook what’s seasonal, we keep playing with new ingredients, we buy as much from direct sources as possible and celebrate the beauty and diversity of the city, which actually has lots of vegetables and fruits and meat and people only focus on what it doesn’t have. You have to try our lunch. It’s tough to describe it without you trying it.
At the moment while you’re using logistical services to deliver your food, you soon plan on tying up with Mumbai’s celebrated dabbawalas. How does that feel?
KG: We are very excited about that! We ultimately want to expand the coverage more than between Colaba and Bandra. We think the dabbawalas are incredible, we want to support them. They make up an amazing institution. It also helps us get more reach and coverage so we are working on that part and we would announce something very soon. I won’t reveal any more details but it will be very exciting what we bring with that.
What are some of your favourite lunches that you create?
KG: For me, the French and the Japanese are the best because they are my two favourite cuisines. I love our Japanese pancake, miso chicken and spinach salad. I love our French menu and our cold soups. This company is 15 chefs, and the beauty is we are cooking stuff that we like to eat. And that totally varies across all 15 of us.
How have people responded to the Secret Supper Project and your lunch boxes?
KG: Amazingly, to be honest. We don’t reach out much, but all 15 of us market Savor. All of our customers come inbound and the beauty is that our Secret Supper customers are also our lunch customers. There’s a beautiful circularity here.
Can you just highlight some of the most definitive moments you’ve had through Savor’s journey till now?
KG: I have three stories that are most defining in my life, which talk about my life and are on the website, but I think starting Secret Supper in my living room was a defining moment in my life. It’s the closest I have come to having a child. Opening our dining room was a very defining moment for us and we’re very proud of it. We host dinners here every, say a week. I would say going for a big catering experiencewas very exciting and Secret Supper continues to be the source of creative tip of the sword for the company which I am very excited about.
I think we are so proud that we are always constantly striving to be producers and not just suppliers or caterers or what somebody else wants. A lot of the time a customer, we work with the customers’ requirement of what they want, but the beauty of that is so many of our customers have joined us as partners and not just vendors and they say, “I want to do a dinner for my daughter!” or “I want to do a dinner for my husband, what do you have in mind?” And that’s when it gets really exciting when it’s much more collaborative as opposed to a supplier based relationship or service.