A Tale of Two Passions

Nandini Rao, founder of online fashion studio, Netelier, takes us through the parallel worlds of haute cuisine and haute couture.

Food is the new Black

It doesn’t get more personal than food. What you eat, how you make it, who makes it for you, who used to make it for you. Food is survival, it’s need, it’s desire, love, passion. 

These days, it is also fashion. Never has there been a time when chefs were more celebrated, or when you got cool points for knowing when to stop stirring that risotto. 

Though it’s been making waves in the western world since the 80s, the so-called foodie phenomenon first hit India in a big way along with the surging tide of Masterchef Australia and, I’ll admit, that was my initiation too. I wish I could say I discovered the joy of a perfectly wobbly pannacotta on a cobble-stoned street in a little village in Italy, but I would be blowing liquid nitrogen-induced smoke (when I could instead be using it to make ice-cream). 

Growing up, for years, I stubbornly evaded my mother’s ploys to get me into a kitchen. To me, capitulating was as good as stepping into the abyss of female domesticity, and I was determined never to be known for my chapati-making prowess. When I flew the nest for university, I was forced to learn a few basics, out of necessity and nothing else. (In the same way that a strident fashion decrier still needs to throw on a sweater when it’s cold.) 

But then, one fine episode, it all changed. Amongst contestants’ tired tricks of ballantining chickens and roasting root vegetables, a Malaysian otak otak – minced fish, aromatics and coconut cream, wrapped and steamed in a banana leaf – triggered the switch. Maybe it was the novelty of a savoury custard, maybe the accessibility of familiar yet unusual ingredients. But when the lights came on, I suddenly saw the potential for cooking as creative expression. Here was an opportunity to view material, ideas, and traditions through my own lens, and always in the pursuit of producing something beautiful. It is pretty much the same thing that drew me to fashion. 

F is for Food, Fashion, and France

Context is eveything,  and the high arts of food and fashion are no different. It may be surprising to some that both have walked a similar path down history – often in tandem. Due respect to the Japanese art of kaiseki, haute cuisine, like haute couture the way we’ve come to think of it today, began to take shape as codified art forms around the needs of French and other European aristocracy in the 17th and 18th centuries. 

The reign of the gluttonous King Louis XIV, whose appetite for luxury was insatiable, sparked a revolution in French cuisine,  documented through 800 recipes in François Pierre de la Varenne’s book Le Cuisinier François. 

Published in 1651, it was the first European text dedicated to instructing chefs how to cook, kindling in them a passionate love affair with butter that exists till today. And the influence of the indulgent French court at Versailles didn’t stop at béchamels and mille-feuilles. Soon after Louis XVI’s coronation in 1774, a milliner and dress-maker named Rose Bertin would present her newest creations to the young queen Marie Antoinette, spending hours discussing them with her. She was the first celebrated fashion designer in Europe, and is said to have brought fashion to the forefront of popular culture. From then on, dresses made in Paris were sent to London, Venice, Vienna, Saint Petersburg and Constantinople, gaining the city its worldwide reputation for couture, and establishing it as the centre of the fashion industry. 

Of course, soon after, the indulgences of French royalty sparked an altogether different sort of revolution, leaving cooks of deposed aristocracy looking for work, and resulting in the development of a beloved bastion of modern culture - the restaurant. Another prototype of modern culture was also in the making, along with elaborate sculptured confections of sugar, marzipan, and pastry that any self-respecting Masterchef viewer should be able to guess the name of. Marie Antoine Carême gained fame in Paris and beyond for his croquembouches, which he modeled on temples, pyramids, and ancient ruins. Carême, the first 'celebrity chef' so to speak, is often cited as the founder of gastronomy, his creations reaching the table of Napoleon himself, before he went to London to serve as chef de cuisine for King George IV.

In 1846, a little more than a decade after the death of Carême, a 21-year-old Englishman by the name of Charles Frederick Worth arrived in Paris speaking no French and with £5 in his pocket. He would go on to set up shop on the Rue de la Paix, the same street where Carême once displayed his croquembouches in his pâtisserie window. Never before in the world of European fashion had a man undertaken to design and stitch dresses, but by making 19th century clothing more suited to everyday life, sewing labels on to his garments, and using live models to promote them to his clients, Charles Frederick Worth and The House of Worth changed the business of fashion forever. 

Throughout the 20th century, France continued to produce a simultaneous slew of pioneers in food and fashion alike. In the early 1900s, it was Escoffier and Chanel; in the 60s, it was the new guard of Paul Bocuse and Yves Saint Laurent. And so on.

Since then, you could say (if you aren’t French, that is), that Europe’s fashion and food hierarchies have been turned on their heads. With the former, change came by way of Milan, London, and the ready-to-wear or pret-a-porter phenomenon propelled by international demand for clothes that were more accessible and affordable. With the latter, it was the fusion of European with Asian techniques, and a groundswell of innovation in Catalonia and San Sebastian. 

As of 2011, Japan overtook France in number of Michelin starred restaurants and has maintained the title since. A jaunt through the latest ‘World’s 50 Best Restaurants’ list will take you from Italy to Spain, Peru, Denmark, Brazil, Mexico, Thailand, and Sweden, to name a few, while stopping conspicuously fewer times in France. (Chef Manish Mehrotra’s Indian Accent in New Delhi made it to the extended 100 Best list for the second year in a row.) In the same vein, fashion weeks in New York, London, and Milan, and increasingly, Berlin, Los Angeles, Shanghai, and Tokyo, get as much attention from the press and public as their Parisian counterpart. France holding onto its status as the epicentre of modern art and culture is a woman in her 40s watchfully eyeing a stream of debutantes flutter around the ballroom – with unwavering elegance, a hint of bitter-sweetness, and of course, always smoking a cigarette.

The Art of Living. Well.

They say that food, clothing, and shelter – in that order – are the basic needs of survival. So it makes sense that, when we can, we tend to luxuriate in that order as well. You probably splurged on a meal at a fancy restaurant before you shelled out for that to-die-for jacket or opulent sari, before you invested in the ‘good’ silverware. 

It turns out that what’s considered ‘fancy’ within each of these categories, while always changing with time, continues to bear an uncanny resemblance to each other. The slow food movement, which pushed back against waste, unhealthiness, and unfair labour practices of the fast food industry was followed by the slow fashion movement, which decries overconsumption, poor quality, environmental impact and unethical standards that the fast fashion industry is plagued by. Words ascribed to the worlds of both high fashion and high food have, in the recent past, shifted from ‘glamorous, decadent, exotic, ornamental, excessive,’ to ‘authentic, simple, local, clean, and minimal.’

Ideas around luxury in food and fashion also have a way of trickling down – and then cycling back up. Macarons are making their way into McDonalds, just as burgers are becoming gourmet, and fast-fashion brands are ripping off runway styles just as workout clothes, sweatshirts and sneakers are making an appearance on catwalks. 

The word ‘trend’ may seem like a dirty word, in the sense that it conjures images of sheep flocking behind a shepherd or rats lured away by the Pied Piper. But I prefer another way of looking at it – as participating in an ephemeral wave of humanity and culture, if nothing else but for the joy of it. It’s a one-of-a-kind moment in time after all, so what’s the harm in sporting those cool white sneakers or that man bun if it gives you a kick (and you can pull it off)? And why not sip your cocktail out of a mason jar every so often, or Instagram a beautiful plate of food as long as the food and conversation haven’t gone cold in the process? 

There’s something to be said for living life with style, putting in the extra time and effort to make it beautiful, whether anyone’s watching or not. Granted, it’s the privilege of a few – all the more reason to cherish it; to assume the duty of ensuring that is it not at the expense of someone else; and to realise the potential it has to uplift and empower – whether a local farmer or an out-of-work artisan. What we choose to wear, and what we choose to eat, says a lot about who we are, more now than ever, in a world that’s spoilt for choice. 

When I list food and fashion as two of my biggest passions, I’m often met with puzzlement. I never imagined you would be so into cooking, or, oh, what about theatre? Life is theatre, and the arts of food and fashion are less superficial than we might imagine, being as they are intricately entwined with our identities, our cultures, our memories, and our evolution. They’re always telling us something about ourselves – sometimes stuff we don’t really want to hear, and sometimes stuff we don’t really need to hear, because being frivolous every once in awhile is OK. As they say, the best art is always deeply superficial.

“We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.
All art is quite useless.”

- Oscar Wilde

Nandini Rao is co-founder of online fashion studio, netelier.com. She has lived in Paris and Stockholm, and studied at The Oxford School of Drama. In her free time - when she’s not writing for the heck of it -  she can be found stirring a risotto or watching Masterchef Australia.

Concept by Nandini Rao & Anisha Oommen; photos by Aysha Tanya.