After having worked at various five star hotels, airline catering companies and cruise liners, it was an unprecedented transition for Chef Bakul Kodikal when he was appointed as the brand chef of a US based casual dining restaurant chain, California Pizza Kitchen in India. Chef Kodikal talks about his transition and of the brand in the India market since his arrival By Rituparna Chatterjee
It has been a long and interesting culinary journey for Chef Bakul Kodikal. After having worked for more than 14 years across a range of sectors in the hospitality industry spanning from five star hotels, airline catering companies, cruise-liners and as a consultant, the defining moment came in for him when he became the brand chef of a US based casual dining restaurant chain, California Pizza Kitchen (CPK) in India. This transition was not only unprecedented but was also a learning experience for the chef. “The experience of working in a casual dining restaurant is different compared to a hotel or a cruise liner. When I saw CPK’s outlet in Bandra Kurla Complex (BKC), Mumbai I wondered whether that was all the space I was going to get for the back area and the dining room. I was trying to compare it to a five star hotel kitchen. But I realised it wasn’t going to be so,” reminisces Chef Kodikal, brand chef, CPK India. The experience was different indeed for in this new domain he had to hone multiple hats apart from that of a chef. “When you come into a casual dining restaurant as a chef you have multiple roles, the challenges are huge. Apart from cooking you also need to look into the maintenance aspect of the restaurant. While the main focus for a hotel is to sell rooms, for a restaurant it is just to sell food so if I don’t sell good food then I lose four covers which into the number of days in a month equals to 120 covers. Average cost per head is Rs 650 which multiplied by 120 covers is a lot of money by the end of the month,” he opines.
A 1998 graduate from the Institute of Hotel Management, Mumbai, Chef Kodikal started his career with the Oberoi Hotels and Towers. He later moved abroad with Emirates (catering division) at Dubai International Airport. However, he moved back into the hotel business with Hilton Dubai Jumeirah Resort where he was part of the opening team. “I worked at Hilton for two years. It was a learning experience since I worked with Chef Gordon Ramsay and we were involved in the pre-opening of Hilton Dubai Jumeirah Resort and Hilton Dubai Creek,” says Chef Kodikal. After his stint with Hilton, he moved on to work with cruise liners for the next seven years and then joined Radhakrishna Hospitality Services where he stayed for another two years before shifting to Radisson Blu Resort & Spa, Alibaug and finally to CPK India in 2010 where he underwent a 10 week training programme in Los Angeles. He then went on to launch the first CPK in Mumbai and four more CPKs in Mumbai and Bengaluru.
Since he took the helm of CPK India, he played a significant role in making it the first global CPK franchisee to have minimum imports with sauces, dough and desserts being made in-house by setting up dairy outlets in Mumbai and Bengaluru. “Because of logistics and strict FSSAI guidelines, we started depending less on imports for the past one and a half years. Only 20-25 per cent of our ingredients are imported,” points out Chef Kodikal, adding that their focus is on sourcing local ingredients since it is cost effective and healthy. The dairy outlets sell around 50 products specifically made for CPK which includes cheese, preserves, butter, breads, cakes, etc. The ingredients for the dishes are sourced from these dairy outlets which arrive within three days and require to be consumed in the next three days. The maximum shelf life being seven days. Apart from supplying fresh ingredients to the CPK outlets, the dairy outlets also sell ingredients to customers. “People used to ask us about the ingredients we put in our dishes like the sauces, etc. Hence we thought of selling our breads, sauces. These are actual counters with a cold display,” says the chef.
To bring innovation on to the table, Chef Kodikal introduced food festivals at CPK last year to appeal to the Indian palate. “Since we have lot of regulars at the BKC outlet for the past four years, we decided to organise food festivals. As CPK is a franchisee, we had to educate and inform the US based team about the India market and their demand to try something different,” mentions the chef adding that this year they launched a Mexican menu wherein customers can make their own tapas on a live counter. “Last year we also has a Mexican menu but without a live counter. This year we had to make it interactive since it was the ongoing trend in the market,” states Chef Kodikal. Apart from the Mexican menu, last year also witnessed the launch of the tapas and desert festival. While the IPL platter was launched this year. Moving in tandem with the festivals is a continuous menu change twice a year based on guest feedback. However, the biggest change for the brand in India was the change in the way the doe was being made by moving from machine to hand stretched doe.
On being asked about the latest trends in the pizza space in the India market, Chef Kodikal opines, “Seventy per cent of the pizza market is dominated by thin crust pizzas. Hence, when I do menu engineering I see that 70 per cent of pizzas is on thin crust. In the last five years, the Indian taste profile has become diverse. Until now Italian and Mexican cuisines were in but now Asian cuisine has become quite popular. The last two years has also seen the emergence of home bakers.”