Imagine being invited to an evening titled ‘Happy Ending’. An evening at the city’s first dessert-only pop-up bar, with a nine-course dessert menu paired with sake and wine created and hosted by a two-star Michelin chef. Yes, right here in Mumbai. It all happened last week.
The venue is in complete darkness except half-a-dozen candles lighting up parts of the table. The music is mellow. Everyone is chatting in hushed whispers. An air of expectancy hangs over the room. There are only 12 invitees. Almost all in their late 20s and early 30s. But all well heeled. Citizens of the world. Affluent. Nay, rich. Very rich. They know why they are here: for an unparalleled gourmet experience, which money can just about buy.
Chef Solo, a young lady chef who is just back from a 3-years innings at the legendary restaurant Gaggan at Bangkok is present at the table to ‘cook’ up the desserts in front of you. She is very soft spoken, almost to the point of being inaudible. She briefly runs the guests through her very impressive CV. She smiles. And then the ‘show’ begins.
The chef unveils a largish branch of a tree. The leaves are made of Miso Caramel. Titled, The Fall, they are crisp and crunchy. To be dipped in your choice of strawberry, kiwi or another five exquisite dips. The guests go oooh! and aaaah! Some partake of more than one leaf. The miso-caramel combo is irresistible. The first course is a big hit.
Next on the menu is a Spice Bomb. Inspired by the quintessential Indian pani-puri, it is an actual gol-gappa filled with spiced water and coated with white chocolate. Yummmmy! Khachak it goes burst in the mouth, releasing a thousand flavours of lemon, coriander, mint and cumin. The guests let out a cumulative gush of joy. Mind-blowing! Chef Solo’s next surprise is Mushroom Chocolate: fresh summer black truffles, sable and fleur de sel served atop a chocolate tablet. A Seaweed Macaroon with Salmon Roe follows. It is inspired by Solo’s love for Japan. It is sweet, it is salty, it is ‘sea-flavoured’ all at the same time. The Japanese journey continues with Matcha ice-cream served in a mini-Black Sesame cone. Exquisite! The guests are in a trance.
The chef then presents a unique dessert, Mascarpone-Honey & Coffee, with the cheese made in Gujarat, the honey from Thailand and the coffee beans from South India. Meanwhile, every course has been matched with chosen wines and authentic sake, replenished then replaced, course-by-course. It has been 60 minutes into the gourmet journey and there is yet no letting up. A strawberry gazpacho filled with compressed grape and mango appears magically in Chef Solo’s hands. The dessert is to die-for.
A cotton candy with lemon is up next. The chef uses a decoction made from Sicilian lemons sprayed on to the candy with an atomiser just before serving up the melt-in-the-mouth dessert. There is loud slurping to be heard all around, with child-like squeals of joy. Solo then pauses. The grand finale is her favourite Blossom-water-with-Yuzu-and-Umeboshi-Palettas. Applause. More applause. A standing ovation. Chef Solo bows. End of a maestro performance.
All of this could well have been happening at some tony restaurant in New York or London or Tokyo. The menu and the ambience is such. So is the talent. But the ‘Happy Ending’ evening is being hosted in a tiny 180-square feet kitchen-cum-dining area next to Parel Bus Depot, at 62/35, Sayani Road, Dighe Nagar, Parel, Mumbai. Sayani Road is difficult to find even on Google maps. It is a traffic packed street coming from Motilal Oswal Tower Junction on Gokhale Road, full of transport agents and charter buses. Dusty. Filthy. Crowded. Chef Solo’s evening venue is Savor Kitchen, which has an easy-to-miss blue door and a forlorn red Chinese lantern hung outside. But Savor is today easily Mumbai’s best kept gourmet secret, the headquarters of The Secret Supper Project, which has Mumbai’s glitterati enthralled. Experience obviously is today about the table, not the walls or the venue.
The brain child of Kanu Gupta (dapper, 30-something), a former Goldman Sachs banker, and a Switzerland/France trained chef, Secret Supper evenings are 1. Secretive (venue not disclosed till almost the appointed hour) 2. Stylish (a staff of 20-odd serving world-class silver and immaculate crystal and glass) 3. Exclusive (only for 18-20 select guests) 4. Pedigreed (with global chefs of repute making meals impossible to access locally) 5. Extravagant (with menus that are over the top) 6. Liquid (the best wines are on offer) 7. Expensive (evenings start mostimes at Rs. 5000++ … Happy Ending was low at Rs. 3750, but only by invitation).
Kanu has so far hosted about a 100 Secret Suppers in the past 2-3 years. He has not ever spent a rupee on advertising. He has a very very exclusive mailing list (you really need to have the right credentials to feature there). His Secret Supper invites go out on the e-mail. On an average, the evening is sold out in the next 3 minutes. After that not even Kanu’s dad or his grandpa can get you a place at the tables. Gupta is known to have turned back the India head of a large multinational bank, and a Bollywood beauty, last month because he was completely sold out for the evening and requests to accommodate more covers are flatly refused.
Kanu Gupta is today the King of Experiential Marketing in India. Gupta can afford to be snooty. As he puts it, “At Savor Secret Supper we look for those that enjoy surprise and wonder in their food as much as they do in their lives. You may share a table with a new entrepreneur intoxicated with a billion-dollar idea, an underground artist who moves with the wind or just someone on a quest to find themselves. You never know whom you’ll meet, but you can be sure that these encounters will enchant you and remain with you for a lifetime”. Venues vary. A refurbrished area in an abandoned mill. An old warehouse. A car workshop. Kanu is crazy about crazy venues that add to the charm of his experiences.
Later this week The Secret Supper actually goes super-large, hosting a cigar club for 250 expatriates on the rooftop of the former American Embassy building at Bhulabhai Desai Road, overlooking the Arabian Sea. Yes, just canapés, cognacs and cigars. Kanu is tight-lipped on the per head charge. He is equally secretive about who his clients are. But all the big law firms, hedge funds, multinational banks, boutique financial services use Kanu’s talents for evenings that are important for business. Porsche used him recently for an uber-private evening. The billionaire champagne family, the Taittingers were Gupta’s guests while in India earlier this year.
Kanu Gupta is taking experience to another level. The best brands in India are queuing up to get Kanu to work with them to target their top customers. Kanu however is totally snowed under with a long long waiting list. He does not want to expand beyond what he calls ‘select, subtle and sophisticated’. He charges top dollar. Clients pay. And pay happily.
What Kanu Gupta is teaching brand marketers is that experiential marketing is not only about big events, gala glitz and glamour. Experiences can, and perhaps must, be very very exclusive and very very special. So much so that you can have the pleasure of just saying no. The ability to deny access and do it with charm, and a half-smile, is the essence of Kanu’s marketing. His clients are private almost to the point of being obsessed about their privacy. He respects that. And they respect him for it.
Kanu is the new wave of specialists in engagement marketing. They are innovative. They are inventive. They are incisive. They are individualistic.
India is ready for a new tomorrow. Though, with the likes of Kanu Gupta, it seems tomorrow is already here.
(Sandeep Goyal keenly tracks trends and innovations. He tries to identify winners ahead of the curve.)