Thomas Zacharias, founder of 'The Locavore'
Thomas Zacharias, founder of 'The Locavore'thelocavore.in/website

Chef Zac On Creating A Food Revolution Through 'The Locavore'

'The Locavore' aims to make people aware of dying indigenous flavours and the imbalance in food systems through storytelling and food tours

Besides the tourist attractions, what leaves a lasting impression about a journey is the food. The local cuisine is an integral part of the itinerary as tourists ensure they don't miss out on any outlet that acquaints them with regional flavours. My travels made me experience a multitude of tastes, familiarising me with the synergy between travel and food. For example, when I visited Maharashtra's Nashik last year, I bought a packet of locally produced biscuits made with indigenous grains from a food festival promoting tribal heritage. It made me witness a prevailing sense of urgency to save traditional offerings and curb the mushrooming impact of changing food habits, such as the dominance of quick bites and fast food.

With subsidies for grains like rice and wheat and the onset of highly processed foods, the traditional food system is weakening, and indigenous flavours have taken a back seat. Thomas Zacharias felt the same when he set off on a culinary expedition in 2014 across India. Seeing traditional recipes vanishing into oblivion and tribal communities being pushed to the fringes, he decided to play his part as an informed food connoisseur.

Thomas Zacharias at the Indian Responsible Tourism Awards 2024
Thomas Zacharias at the Indian Responsible Tourism Awards 2024IRTA

As chef-partner at 'The Bombay Canteen,' Zacharias blended indigenous ingredients into contemporary cuisines, offering patrons a taste of the regional flavours. In 2022, he channelled his passion for culinary adventures and founded 'The Locavore' to create a "food revolution."

Speaking at the Indian Responsible Tourism Awards 2024, he told OT, "I realised that my work as a chef was disconnected from what is happening at the grassroots level. The lack of awareness regarding indigenous foods nudged me to create a collaborative platform that brings different stakeholders together, builds communities, and engages the audience and the consumer to think about food and sustainability in India differently.

Delving further into the variance in the food system, 'The Locavore' aims to forge a pan-Indian movement to revive indigenous flavours through storytelling and food tours.

Excerpts from the interview:

Thomas Zacharias, founder of 'The Locavore'
Thomas Zacharias, founder of 'The Locavore'cheftzac/Thomas Zacharias
Q

How has travel contributed to understanding the challenges within the food ecosystem for you?

A

For me, it is through my travels that I discovered the realities of the food system as I witnessed the problems first hand. At the same time, it is also through travelling that I discovered the many possibilities of addressing these challenges. I found out many solutions that were often initiated by grassroots organisations.

Since travelling has been so fundamental, at 'The Locavore,' I fuse the two worlds—of travel and food—by offering collaborative food tours spanning from four days to two weeks. These tours aim to immerse people in the local food culture, offering a unique experience. I conducted one trip last year, with more scheduled in the coming months.

Q

Please tell us about your initiatives promoting local cuisine and ingredients.

A

Our core remains storytelling and documenting food markets and lesser-known Indian regional recipes as we try to promote them. Through our producer partnership program, we identify and collaborate with farmers and food producers to offer them visibility. However, we aim to go beyond the commercial aspects usually highlighted by the e-commerce platforms, as our intention is to provide in-depth information through compelling storytelling.

Sohphie Nam, or Bay Berry, is a berry native to the hills of Meghalaya.
Sohphie Nam, or Bay Berry, is a berry native to the hills of Meghalaya.cheftzac/Instagram
Q

How have your interactions been with local and tribal communities? What challenges do they face in preserving and promoting their heritage and products?

A

Challenges are consistent across the country—limited funds, market access, and a lack of knowledge in packaging and promotion. Even in terms of perception, tribal culture and tribal food are looked down upon by mainstream society. This complicates things for younger generations hailing from hamlets but have new aspirations influenced by the latest trends. They begin to develop a disinterest (towards the traditional way of being). But from my learnings and interactions, tribal communities are way ahead, and shifting this narrative could level the playing field.

Q

What has been the government's response in supporting local products or ingredients?

A

From my observation, there hasn't been a lot of government support. A lot of the small-scale producers require help and support. However, they are not being assisted in a structured way by governments around the country.

Karimeen Fry, a traditional meal served in Kochi
Karimeen Fry, a traditional meal served in Kochicheftzac/Instagram
Q

Have you noticed changes in people's perception towards fine dining versus local ingredients in India?

A

There has been a significant shift in the perception of Indian ingredients and local flavours in the past decade. And I will take some credit for it because I've been promoting it for a long time. Successful initiatives, like the Bombay Canteen, have contributed to this change, turning it into a movement rather than a passing trend.

Q

Tell us about your experiences in lesser-known markets, like the Mao Market in Kohima, Nagaland.

A

These markets, rooted in community culture, face challenges as people now prefer online grocery or food shopping platforms. Documenting them preserves their heritage and encourages a return to communal market experiences. Many communities are dependent on these markets for their livelihood. Some of the markets we documented are on the verge of getting closed down. So, besides showcasing them, we are also archiving them to encourage people to go back to markets again.

Q

How has the response been to your cause in the digital age when everything is available at our doorsteps?

A

The shift is positive but slow. Despite the rural-urban divide, a growing community has emerged, particularly after the pandemic, prompting people to rethink their food sources. The aim is to build on this community, turning it into a full-fledged movement for positive change.

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