For the very first time, Western India Culinary Association (WICA) organised its Chef’s Connect Conference at FHW, Mumbai this year, which also saw the launch of the coffee table book ‘Çulinary Flavours of Western India’
Studies and Research gave an interesting presentation on ‘Managing Change in a VUCA world’. VUCA is an acronym for challenges like volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity.
Profitable F&B programmes
The importance of F&B programmes was the talking point of the Chef’s Connect presented by Pillsbury (a brand of General Milss India) at FHW Mumbai 2018. The first panel discussion was on ‘How to create relevant and profitable beverage programmes in hotels and restaurants and the changing role of the beverage manager’ with leading experts in the industry. The panelists included Sovna Puri, wine and spirits taster and trainer; Pankaj Balachandran, Indian ambassador, Monkey Shoulder; Ritesh Choudhary, director of F&B at the Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai and Yash Bhanage, partner, O Pedro and The Bombay Canteen.
Speaking about the recently introduced F&B programmes, Bhanage said, “It has now become approachable and accessible. We are now leaving the conventional mocktail programmes behind.” Puri observed, “It’s not just about how our programmes have changed but even the customer has grown conscious of his/ her tastes and health preferences. Having salads is not just cool anymore but having a different menu now satisfies the customer.” From five-star hotels to newly opened restaurants, guests and customers are no longer happy with a set menu but rather prefer a completely customised menu. “The market segment is taken into consideration along with change of seasons and planning accordingly, we create seasonal menus during Christmas and New Year,” said Choudhary.
Inclusion of chefs
Balachandran commented on how it’s difficult to get work done in a huge setup. “I worked in a bar for almost two years. In recent years, hotels are doing away with norms but standalones will always have that flexible way of working and doing things.” Puri added, “Yes, I agree that the work environment needs to be flexible and in hotels, the friction between the chef and F&B manager needs to be addressed. In London, the wine list is not just decided with the wine department but even the chefs are asked to be involved. Many misconceptions exist, for example like with Indian food people would like beers. But when the chefs sit with you such myths are busted.”
One needs to constantly evolve and the entrepreneurial approach works for many F&B managers giving customers a great experience. Bhanage further highlighted, “We constantly innovate with our cocktails, mix and match a little. On this one occasion, I had the idea of infusing the mocktail with turmeric. I would have gone on to infuse turmeric powder but then the chef advised me to use turmeric leaves instead to give the mocktail a balanced flavour. Such things only chefs will know.”
Choudhary mentioned how he works hand in hand with his chefs. “We have participated in numerous food and cocktail competitions. And our chefs have won making amazing dishes. We don’t put anything on the menu if the chef feels it shouldn’t go there.”
Choudhary commented, “We work closely with a finance team and through inventory management, we make sure that each of us makes use of all the resources provided by the company to help the company grow. Having a plan in place and execution of the same requires teamwork and the chef and F&B managers need to work together which will bring in more profits.”
Balachandran observed, “There are over 346 labels out of which the waiters are only familiar with around 26 labels or so. It’s important that the waiters be trained accordingly and are well-informed of the rest of the wines. This will help in marketing the other wines leading to higher sales.”
Changing food trends
In today’s age and time, if the food on your plate is not instagrammable, it’s not newsworthy. This directly affects the restaurant in terms of popularity and the chefs too are caught in the middle of this. The food gets negatively reviewed even without a bite of it taken. How then do chefs manage to maintain the balance between food that not only tastes great but looks good as well?
To discuss this and many other issues surrounding food, the Chef’s Connect at FHW Mumbai 2018 hosted a panel discussion on ‘Changing food trends in India’ with leading chefs in the industry. The panel included Chef Vicky Ratnani, author, celebrity chef and culinary consultant; Chef Sabyasachi Gorai, director and mentor, Lavaash by Saby; Chef Thomas Zacharias, executive chef and partner, The Bombay Canteen and Chef Amninder Sandhu, executive chef, Arth and a Bar Called Life.
Speaking about the presentation factor in food, Chef Vicky said, “Presentation and tasting are completely two different things like walking and talking. I just focus on what inspires me and from seasoning to plating the dish, it all flows.” Chef Saby further added, “Usually bright colours get the customer’s attention and that is one way to plate your food, either with dark greens or bright yellows.”
Chef Thomas mentioned how there is a very thin line between both and what tends to happen is that the food loses it’s soul and gets lost in being just a mere model to admire for the customer rather than to taste. “Keeping this point in mind, we use different salads or vegetable textures to add to the dish rather than taking away anything from the dish,” he said.
Innovations in the food industry
Several new fads are becoming popular these days. Activated charcoal and gasless kitchens are gaining in popularity. But are these sustainable trends? Joining the discussion Chef Amninder said, “One has to constantly innovate in cooking. So either you go absolutely new or or you go back to your roots. I travelled extensively and had the chance to encounter some people who had recipes from their great great grandmother’s time, which included ingredients you’ve never heard of as well as innovative ways of cooking, long before your lpg cylinders existed.”
The chefs were in agreement when it came to representation of Indian food in the west. Chef Saby commented, “In the west, the cuisine of India is shown typically as north Indian food, but in India every few kms, the taste of the food changes. India still needs to be discovered. I keep travelling the world and once when I had gone to Shillong, for me it was like some Jurassic Park even though it’s in India itself. The soil there was very different and the fruits you get there are so unique and can make one’s cooking very different.”
Chef Vicky said, “Always look for inspiration from the places you visit, books you read and people you meet. A chef must always go out in search for his ingredients to create his dishes. Instead of having chicken that has been frozen over many months and stored in vacuum sealed bags, it’s better to arrange your own chickens that make a huge difference and give an added flavour to the dishes.”
A chef’s food represents his philosophy and set of principles that in turn connects with the customers and pushes them to keep coming back. Chef Thomas added, “Before innovating the dish, make the original dish in the way it has been made. Only when that is accomplished, should you experiment with it.”
Agreeing to this Chef Saby said that old techniques and new methodology is the best way to go. “There are new trends picking up like woodfire and smokeless choolahs. I remember when I was young, my grandmother used to cook for me and my eyes used to water. This one is smoke-free, making it hassle-free and delivering top-class flavour at the same time,” he mentioned.
Chef – employee or entrepreneur?
Giving his views Chef Vicky commented, “A chef has to spend a good amount of time in the kitchen. So maybe you can have a partner, but that partner should understand that crazy side of you and must have a soul to soul connect with you to be able to make decisions how you would like them to be made.”
It’s no secret that to be an entrepreneur one has to be business minded and be willing to work twice as hard on one’s passion as well as keep the business running. “It’s like jumping off the cliff without a parachute. You need to own a business shoe, without which you can miserably fail at it,” said Chef Saby. He went on to add that when he was working under somebody he used to hate it when he was told what to cook and how to cook. “And then a time came, it was like here is the food cost, now you can make the food. That experience was terrible. I can’t measure the value of my food according to the cost. So then started my entrepreneurial journey and it’s been great. I get to make my own food and don’t have to shy away from showing off my wild side,” remarked Chef Saby.
Chef Thomas and Chef Amninder, who have just started their entrepreneurial journeys, pointed out that it was too soon to tell. Chef Thomas mentioned, “You need to find the right partners and not let the business side take you away from your passion.”
The Chef’s Connect saw a presentation by Nasir Sayed, head of Bakeries Sales India, General Mills India. There were other presentations by Prashant Issar, co-founder & CEO of Squaremeal Foods and Anurag Sharma, co-founder & general partner, Mumbai Incubator. There were further sessions by Chef Y B Mathur, executive director, Institute of Culinary Economics and Culinary Design & Application group and by Naaznin Husein, director, Freedom Lifestyle and Wellness Management.