India’s Silicon Valley is also incubating a nascent French food industry

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For years, urban Indians in search of French food were stuck with less-than-alluring options: floppy croissants from the local bakery or rock-hard baguettes from gourmet supermarkets.

However, things have been changing lately, and nowhere is this more apparent than in Bengaluru.

With many people dining out at least twice or thrice a week, thousands of restaurants, dishing out everything from Japanese ramen to Mexican tacos, have cropped up across the city in the past two decades to slake its increasingly adventurous palate. In most cases, these restaurants are run by food-loving Indians inspired by their travels abroad. When it comes to crêpes, quiches, baguettes, and croissants, though, it is a crop of French entrepreneurs that is taking the lead, establishing restaurants, kiosks, and even a food truck, to bring the flavours of France to Bengaluru.

Take Nicolas Grossemy, co-founder of the red, white, and blue French food truck, Le Casse-Croûte. In January 2014, after studying business and entrepreneurship, the 22-year-old from Lille in northern France moved to Bengaluru to intern at a French outsourcing startup. Three months into his internship, Grossemy felt the time was right to convert his long-held passion for food into a business.

In late 2014, Grossemy and two of his French friends embarked on a year-long process of finetuning his idea. By September 2015, Le Casse-Croûte was in operation, serving crispy grilled sandwiches such as the Monsieur Martin (made with bacon, tomato, béchamel sauce, and cheese) and the Madame Garcia (featuring pesto and mozzarella), along with homemade frites, or French fries, in various city neighbourhoods and its many tech parks.

“The main idea of Le Casse-Croûte is to bring affordable French food to Bangalore,” Grossemy said, adding that he wanted to adapt the French standard of boulangeries (bakeries) and sandwich shops to the Indian market.

However, the sandwiches on offer in Bengaluru aren’t exactly what one will find in Paris. They’re a product of the many months Grossemy spent experimenting with recipes. During this time he learned, for instance, that a crusty baguette is a tough sell in India and the dry sandwiches commonly consumed in France a complete no-go. So, his food truck serves sandwiches on a softer panini-style bread with lots of homemade sauces, some of which are now available for sale on the company’s website.

Though initially the locals were often bewildered to see foreigners in a food truck, Grossemy said they’ve quickly warmed to his flavours. Today, Le Casse-Croûte makes at least 100 sandwiches a day, selling them via the truck, through the food delivery app Swiggy, and at its kitchen in the Indiranagar neighbourhood.

“Everyone in Bangalore is fascinated by food,” Grossemy explained, noting that though many of the customers haven’t experienced French cuisine before, they’re open to trying it.

That’s something former tax lawyer Pierre Gregoire from Grenoble in southeastern France discovered, too.

Gregoire, whose wife is from Bengaluru, moved to the city in early 2015 after quitting his job in Paris. While trying to figure out what to do next, he spent several months travelling between India and France, carrying pickles, papads and spices one way, and breads, cheeses, and wine the other. Eventually, he decided to put his love for food to good use, setting up Pierre Artisan Bakery in Indiranagar this September to sell fresh breads and spreads.

“India is generally not a bread-eating country, at least not leavened breads. The same goes for cheese and wine. At the same time, many people are looking for these products and they are really enthusiastic about food,” Gregoire said.

His goal is to get Indians to buy locally-made breads and cheeses, instead of spending big on expensive imported products. At his brightly-coloured kiosk, customers can pick up sandwiches made with fresh bread, as well as tarts and crêpes made with spreads that are soon to be available for sale.

Gregoire and Grossemy, however, say that doing any business here as a foreigner comes with its own difficulties. For Grossemy, it’s the bribes (as much as Rs10,000 extra for certain licences) and navigating his food truck through Bengaluru’s terrible traffic. For Gregoire, it’s the language; communicating with his staff and vendors, who sometimes speak many different languages, is a task.

For survival lessons, these two can look to one of Bengaluru’s French food pioneers—long-time city resident Thierry Jasserand, the founder of Café Noir.

Éclairs for everyone

In 2009, Jasserand was looking for a new challenge after having spent many years managing a telecom company in Paris. So, at the urging of his younger brother Jean-Michel, who had earlier been the head chef at Bengaluru’s Leela Palace hotel, the 50-year-old moved to the city to start a French bistro, though he had no experience in the business. (Jean-Michel himself went on to start the Italian restaurant Toscano.)

Café Noir opened in Bengaluru’s high-end UB City shopping mall in January 2010 with decor straight out of Paris and sandwiches named after its neighbourhoods, including the St. Germain (the very traditional ham and cheese) and the Montmartre (roasted chicken, caramelised onions and mustard butter), as well as quiches and croque-monsieurs. But it was the vast array of Parisian pâtisserie, from the chocolate and coffee éclairs to the multi-layered chocolate and vanilla mille-feuilles, that really appealed to the local sweet tooth.

“Initially people came for the pastry,” Jasserand, 57, explained. Customers soon began to welcome the food on offer, too, because his team made an effort to include a wide variety of vegetarian options, as well as more chicken-based dishes instead of the usual pork or beef-heavy options commonly enjoyed in France (though these are available, too).

“We learn, we tune, we adapt,” he said, noting that the restaurant did draw a line when it came to making dishes spicy to suit Indian tastes. Nevertheless, the cafe began to attract repeat customers, many getting to know the menu better than Jasserand himself did.

Over the years, Café Noir has expanded to five other locations in the city, including one at the airport. This despite the fact that it’s not easy in India to get funding as a foreigner as banks don’t usually give out loans unless you own property or land in the country. Jasserand launched the business with his own money and remains self-funded.

All his outlets are serviced by a 24-hour production centre in Koramangala that makes fresh croissants, baguettes and more everyday. When he started out in 2010, Jasserand’s team numbered just around 35. Today, it’s grown to 175 people.

In his seven years in Bengaluru, Jasserand has witnessed the city’s rapid transformation, with its restaurant boom drawing brands from across India and abroad and its traffic making locals less likely to travel long distances for a meal, turning to home delivery services instead. But through it all, he maintains that the city is an exciting place to be in—even better than Paris itself. And that stands true for its French food, too.

“Sometimes the croissants I eat in Bangalore are better than the croissants I eat in Paris,” Jasserand said.