Cooking up a food podcast

Updated: Mar 18, 2019, 16:33 IST | Anju Maskeri and Jane Borges

What is food without the chefs who make them? Up and coming food podcasters are experimenting with material to make their shows as delectable as the dish

Cooking up a food podcast
Amrita Gupta (extreme left) of Food Radio Project, recording on site

How is it that oysters, a delicacy savoured across the globe, have been so overlooked by nearly a billion people on the [Indian] subcontinent?" Amrita Gupta asks on her website foodradioproject.com, as she takes us into her two-part audio series, Oyster Culture, which delves into the emerging industry of oyster farming in the country. Another series discusses India's food waste crisis, while a more comprehensive three-episode podcast talks about how climate change in Uttarakhand has manifested rapidly and is "predicted to intensify with far-reaching impacts on food security".

The 34-year-old journalist, currently based out of California, chooses rather unusual subjects for her food podcast. "Food is not necessarily about eating or the art of preparing. It's a lot more than that. I wanted to understand issues from production to consumption, how food relates to policy and environment," says Gupta.

The Food Radio Project, which began in 2016, as an offshoot of her thesis when she was completing her degree in Food Studies at New York University, has since evolved. She now hopes to make it a more exhaustive, journalistic exercise that "seeks to examine the culture, politics, economics and environmental impact of the country's food system".

Gupta isn't the only one attempting to create new narratives around food. While food podcasting is still at a nascent stage here, the handful of podcasters running this race are going back to the drawing room to provide fresh material, so that what you hear is more than just about chefs, their dishes, or restaurant-hopping.

Food Podcasters Guari and Devidayal and team at Miss T in Colaba
Food Podcasters Gauri Devidayal and team at Miss T in Colaba

The business of food
In July last year, homegrown platform IVM Podcasts produced The Colaba Cartel, which featured five Mumbai-based restaurateurs - Gauri Devidayal, Jay Yousuf, Abhishek Honawar, Pankil Shah and Sumit Gambhir. In the 10-episode podcast, the quintet shared their insights on what it takes to build and sustain eateries in the run-up to opening their own restaurant, Miss T in Colaba.

Late last year, celebrity baker Pooja Dhingra also started her own weekly podcast, NoSugarcoat, where she interviewed feted Indian and international chefs who talked about their cooking process, and how to run restaurants and hustle in the food world. Often, it's the food, rather than the making of the restaurant that tends to be publicised, says Devidayal. "But at the end of the day, hospitality is a team sport. It's about everyone contributing to the best level every single day, to make it a great experience," adds Honawar.

Pronoti Datta, Purva Mehra and Amit Gurbaxani of The Paodcast
Pronoti Datta, Purva Mehra and Amit Gurbaxani of The Paodcast

Devidayal and team decided to talk about their own experience with launching Miss T, because they felt that there were "a lot of false ideas associated with getting into the restaurant business".

The show has them discuss everything from Miss T's conceptualisation, its investors, the architecture and menu. "We just wanted to share the knowledge of what we had learnt over the years, because between the five of us we had a number of years of experience.

We wished we had this, when we started out," says Devidayal. "In the hospitality business, emotion and expression are most integral. Sometimes, that is forgotten when you are in the crazy phase of building the restaurant. So, this podcast was also a therapy session for us," says Honawar. Dhingra feels that podcasts have the ability to dig deeper and truly get to the heart of the matter. "In a world where everything is quick and bite-sized, podcasts are a healthier meal," she says.

The struggle is real
Journalist Vikram Doctor was the first to attempt the genre with The Real Food Podcast back in 2015 in collaboration with Audiomatic, India's first podcast network. The episodes, released twice a week, delved into diverse topics ranging from the legends associated with various Indian ingredients to community-specific cuisines. "At the time, because there were no other Indian food podcasts, I would refer to the international ones to get an idea," he says, who worked on the show for two-and-a-half years.

According to Doctor, the most important part about podcasts is the story line. "You need to capture and sustain people's attention. When people are listening [to podcasts], they are doing other things as well, like commuting or their eyes may be simply wandering. Therefore, it's easy for them to lose interest." It became all the more challenging for Doctor given the fact that he had to work around a specific theme.

"Interviews are more loose in structure and you can play around a bit. But here, the story is integral." There were topics that he had to shelve because of the trouble of generating content for it. "One was about potatoes, which although commonplace is strangely something that people don't think about. So we could not find anybody who had adequate knowledge on the subject. The only people I could find were agricultural scientists, who didn't want to talk because of government issues. I avoided companies because then it became very corporate." He remembers running into copyright issues when it came to music, because they couldn't lift Bollywood songs, and didn't have the budget to pay for the music. In 2.5 years, they ended up using songs only on two occasions.

One podcast would call for several retakes. "Many of the sessions, I would say one or two sentences and he [the sound engineer] would stitch them together. A lot of people think that with podcasts you can just go and talk. But that's not the case. You have to invest in a good sound engineer and a studio with good sound proofing."

For Gupta, who was former food and drink editor with a leading magazine in Bengaluru, overdone ideas in the food journalism scene compelled her to try out something new for her podcast. Having interned with the Heritage Radio Network, a non-profit radio station covering the world of food, drink and agriculture, Gupta gained hands-on experience in scripting, recording, production and editing. While she has a basic home-studio set-up and enough equipment, what she struggles with, is funds to produce her show. "One way to go about it, is applying for journalism grants," she says. This report on Climate Change in Uttarakhand, for instance, was produced with the support of the Earth Journalism Network, and published in February. Before that, there was a big lull. "As of now, I am still trying to figure how to monetise my content. Someone told me that unless it is cricket or Bollywood, a podcast like mine won't work, so it's definitely a challenge," she says.

Thinking out of the box
The Daily Pao's Purva Mehra, Pronoti Datta and Amit Gurbaxani, who launched The Paodcast a few months after Doctor's in December 2015, and are now two seasons old, have constantly felt the need to revisit their content, which is primarily a weekly low-down on Mumbai's food and culture scene. "In the initial format, each episode was divided into three sections: Bombay Binge (on food), The Scene (on culture), Metro Station (on local news and history). Each episode would go on for about 35-45 minutes. In time, we changed the format. We reduced the length of each episode. The idea being that not everyone has the patience to listen to a 45-minute podcast especially since the format is new here," says Mehra and team.

While the Paodcast team found that round-ups of neighbourhood food guides or favourite restaurants worked best for them, they also ran trend stories and interviews with chefs. The team has currently taken a break to figure how best to revise The Paodcast, so that it engages more listeners. "The audience for podcasts is highly niche and it's a challenge to sustain the activity," says Mehra. Devidayal too, is planning to focus on home-grown produce and producers for her next show, the idea for which is still being worked on. Hopefully, she says, it will help listeners experience food beyond food.

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