New passage to India: a handful of Indian chefs have embarked on a journey to redefine and modernize their complex native cuisine

New passage to India: a handful of Indian chefs have embarked on a journey to redefine and modernize their complex native cuisineThe patrons were well into their second course, sipping glassfuls of Bordeaux and slicing into thick filets, when the background music stopped and a voice came over the speaker system.

"Dear friends," the voice said. "Let us pray to Mary for Pope Benedict XVI." Moments later, the lights dimmed, prayer cards were distributed and a dozen Asian and African waitresses processed into the dining room, clad in traditional dress and bearing votive candles. To the strum of a guitar, they lifted their candles toward a Madonna statuette at the far end of the room and chanted a hymn penned by the restaurant's founder.

"The Lord calls us. The Lord wants to convert us," they sang.

The chants are a nightly ritual at L'Eau Vive (Living Water), an international chain of French restaurants that has turned gastronomy into an instrument of global evangelization.

Run by the Travailleuses Missionaires de la Conception Immaculee (Missionary Workers of the Immaculate Conception), a French-speaking group of lay Carmelites mainly from Asia and Africa, the chain counts on plates of canard a l'orange and loaves of thin-sliced foie gras to sustain a worldwide network of virgin women who've dedicated themselves to missionary work. Although members of the group wear wedding bands connoting their "marriage" to Jesus Christ and observe rules of chastity, poverty and charity traditionally associated with religious life, the women do not take formal vows.

The chain's flagship restaurant in Rome is well known for being one of the few places where Vatican officialdom comes to see and been seen. As cardinals, both John Paul II and Benedict dined at L'Eau Vive. Scores of reporters and television crews mobbed the establishment last spring as cardinals gathered in Rome to elect a new pope. Hoping to catch the prelates breaking bread in public view, cameramen were regularly seen lugging equipment in and out of the restaurant's modest doorway, which peeks above street level just steps from Rome's ancient Pantheon.

The restaurant's staff, which lives in a convent-like residence nearby, is still recovering from the wave of media coverage that has been washing over the restaurant since John Paul's death.

"We were praying and they kept flashing their cameras," said Sr. Martine Kabre, a L'Eau Vive waitress originally from Burkina-Faso in Africa. "It was annoying."

Kabre has been waiting tables at L'Eau Vive restaurants ever since she joined the Travailleuses Missionaires in 1989 at the age of 17, when recruiters based in the African city Ouagandougou visited her nearby village. Kabre signed up even though she had never heard of L'Eau Vive, nor tasted French cuisine. She was subsequently assigned to a L'Eau Vive in France where she was tutored on the arts of sauce-making and table-waiting by "elder" members who trained at Cordon Bleu, the famed Parisian culinary institute. Since then, she has worked at L'Eau Vive restaurants in Burkina-Faso, France, Argentina, England and the Philippines. In Rome, she and 40 other women, who also cover shifts at the restaurant, live together at a Spartan residence house, observing a strict prayer and meal schedule.

The chain was pioneered by Fr. Marcel Roussel, a French abbot who founded Travailleuses Missionaires in 1953 as a lay movement. Billed as a "spiritual family," the association enjoyed a rare form of autonomy in the church, remaining outside the jurisdiction of diocesan or congregational authorities. The chain thrived over the decades, racking up stars in the Michelin dining guide and gaining an elite clientele. Its workforce was invited on several occasions to pray with John Paul II in his private chapel.

In the years prior to Roussel's death in 1984, however, the chain experienced a brief period of disrepute when organization's labor practices were called into question by group of former members who accused Roussel of exploitation. The accusations brought a temporary halt to prayer services at the Rome restaurant in an effort to lower its profile.

By the time Kabre joined Travailleuses Missionaires in 1989, both the chain and its workforce were under new management. As a Carmelite group, the organization falls under the authority of an international religious order, which regards their activities as missionary work compliant with the "Carmel in the world" code of conduct. While the move initially created some grumbling within the group, and even desertions, the affiliation has to some extent silenced Travailleuses critics.

"Some orders teach. Others do nursing. We cook and serve," Kabre said.

Tucked beneath the facade of the 16th-century Palazzo Lante della Rovere, which once housed Pope Julius II and is still owned by members of his family, the della Rovere clan, the Rome restaurant has two main floors. On the first level, the interior decor evokes the folksy yet pious atmosphere of a spiritual retreat house. Bushels of artificial flora hang from wood paneled walls, as do numerous "Halleluiah" banners and crucifixes. A poster-size image of Roussel kneeling in prayer faces a recent portrait of Benedict XVI hanging on the opposite wall.

The second floor, dubbed the "VIP lounge," is reached by way of a winding staircase that opens onto two large salons, capped with frescoed ceilings. It is here, among crisp table settings and long-stemmed wine glasses, that the prayers take place. In harmony with the hymn, waitresses sway together in tightly choreographed routines that feature kneeling and robotic pivots. Although patrons are requested to join in, participation is not obligatory.

Apart from the pageantry, most clients are drawn to the restaurant by its noteworthy filet de boeuf au poivre vert ($25), a filet of beef flambeed in cognac and served with green pepper sauce and dauphine potato swirls. Begin with an appetizer of feuillete de gambas aux moules ($18), a flaky pastry decked with broiled prawns and mussels, or the coquilles Saint Jacques, scallops in a cream sauce. Finish with the mousse aux fruits des bois ($7), a mousse covered in mixed berry sauce. The wine list is predominately French with a smattering of popular Italian wines. Depending which bottle is chosen, a three-course meal for two ranges from $80 to $100.