Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Gramin: How a small restaurant managed to grow and succeed

Gramin in Koramangala, the restaurant hub of Bangalore, has just completed 13 years – a remarkable achievement given Bangalore’s open-and-shutdown rate – and has marked the milestone with an expansion, acquiring space, adding covers and augmenting the kitchen.
Gramin began life as a tiny, even cramped restaurant in November 2002 and I went there in the early days on the recommendation of a colleague, a vegetarian, who ate there almost every day. I was utterly impressed on my first visit by the sharpness of focus and the commitment to quality that the owners, Sima and Kashyap Doshi displayed. I went several times after that, always dining on excellent vegetarian food -- cooked with good ingredients and eschewing artificial colour, flavouring agents and other tricks that commercial kitchens resort to – and served in a simple, rustic setting. It was my pleasure to pick Gramin as Best Vegetarian Restaurant in Bangalore for the Times Food Awards the next year.
So, it’s most gratifying to see this restaurant grow from its original 20-seater version to a space that seats 150 diners now. I was there on a Friday afternoon and it was reassuringly packed. The all-in-one thali is a hot-seller at lunch time, but guests can order a la carte, too. The menu hasn’t deviated from the original concept: a line-up of tasty vegetable dishes, dals, well-made rotis and rice dishes. They’ve now added on ‘diet subziyan’, low or no-oil dishes that taste just like home-cooked and also do home deliveries.
The success of Gramin lies in what the Doshis have done as well as not done. They have resisted the urge to expand too soon, waiting for nearly a decade to do that. They haven’t wanted to scale up or even open another branch, despite many demands to do so. This is because the very essence of this restaurant is the quality that can only be assured by the hands-on approach and involvement of the restaurateurs. Kashyap Doshi is there, day in day out, at every meal service, keeping an eye on the kitchen, interacting with customers, rushing to address the smallest complaint. And it’s all paid off.
Here’s wishing this gem of a little restaurant many more years of success.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Flashback 2015: What and how we ate this year

As the year draws to its inevitable close, here’s looking back on the trends that ruled the business of eating out (and also ordering in). These will also provide pointers to what to expect in the new year.
Casual was the new cool: Restaurants kept opening everywhere, but you’d be hard put to it to spot a formal dining space among them. Perhaps it’s the stressed-out lives we lead, especially in our Metros, but when people went out, they wanted to kick back and just chill. Nearly all new restaurants wanted to cater to this segment and went casual with design, menu and service.
Brewpubs and gastropubs were the in thing: More microbreweries opened – even in Bangalore where there already seemed to be a surfeit of them – and also did decent business. Other new drinking places wanted to call themselves gastropubs which are, essentially, watering holes that also take their food seriously. But many just ended up being pretenders and didn’t make it past nachos and masala fries.
Chefs became more eco-conscious: In the high-end restaurants, especially the ones with name chefs, we noticed a conscious attempt to cook with local, seasonal produce. The over-use of imported ingredients, no matter how exotic, began to look decidedly regressive. Beyond the gourmet destinations, even small restaurants in small towns began to work with millets and natural ingredients – a reassuring sign that eating out can also be a healthy pursuit.
Playing with the classics: So, Manish Mehrotra can serve burrata papdi chaat and drizzle his wild mushroom kulcha with truffle oil.  And Monkey Bar added playful twists to familiar dishes. Elsewhere, ‘me-too’ chefs decided to introduce quirky elements to the classics, frequently with unsavoury results.  Tweaking dishes, particularly Indian ones, takes expertise and mastery, else the effort ends up being mere gimmick.
Cocktails got quirky: Bartenders were in the mood to experiment, serving cocktails in anything from a steel lota to a pipette balanced precariously on a martini glass. Smoke, dry ice and other drama surrounded the drinks as well. I would, however, draw the line at serving a Mojito in a saline drip bottle. As for the cocktails themselves, most bars still relied on synthetic syrups and flavourings, which isn’t what top bars across the world are doing.
We’re the fast food nation: You’ve seen the packed tables at KFC and McDonald’s. And don’t need me to tell you that going out to grab a Zinger Burger and a portion of fries is a great meal outing for a vast majority of people.
We want VFM: While eating out has become a top form of recreation in Indian cities – with more people eating out more often – we seek value as much as we seek great food experiences. This meant even restaurants in five-star hotels, especially the newly opened ones, had to ensure they were perceived as good value for money. It also meant that buffet restaurants and eat-all-you-want offerings continued to enjoy popularity.
Tap that app: So, urban dwellers work long hours, they don’t have the energy to dress up and go out to eat, let alone cook at home. What could be better than simply ordering in! Download app, choose, order, pay and wait for delivery. The food tech business – a misnomer, as Jayanth has explained in an earlier post – saw a boom and has since hit a rough patch. We’ll have to wait and watch how this one pans out in the coming year.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Does service matter in buffet restaurants?

I went for lunch to Ginger Tiger in Indiranagar with some colleagues the other day. It was Friday afternoon, apparently the preferred time for team lunches, and the place was filled with large groups from the offices around. It’s only a small restaurant and the inside space was packed, so we were sent off to sit outside. It turned out to be their corner of Siberia.
No waiter appeared for the longest time and so we manoeuvred ourselves to the buffet counter at the far end of the restaurant. Then, a waiter turned up and shepherded us right back to our tables, saying soup and starter would be served at the table. We returned to our tables and took another 10 minutes for the soup to arrive, another 10 for two plates of momos. There was another grilled starter but that didn’t arrive at the table and so we decided to hit the buffet instead.
Meanwhile, one of the waiters told us we could have a custom-made stir-fry and asked us to tick boxes -- veggies, meat, sauce etc – on the slips that were on the table. We did that and walked up to the buffet. There must have been ten chafing dishes and half of them were empty. The waiters were all scurrying around, looking hassled and when I asked one of them if the dishes didn’t need topping up, he said, ‘Yes, ma’am’, so I waited around for a bit, but the chafing dishes were still empty, so I served myself some rice and salt ’n’ pepper vegetables and returned to my table.
One person at the table asked again for the grilled starter and that arrived mid-way through our ‘meal’ of only half the dishes on the buffet. And, oh, the stir-fry bowl, that arrived long after we finished. And even later, by some strange quirk, waiters brought around another order of stir-fries, asking if anyone had ordered a repeat. We hadn’t.
 I have said before in this very space, that good food takes time. But this buffet meal – which is usually a question of  walking up and serving yourself – took inordinately long. Besides that, service seemed to be all over the place. A manager appeared, ostensibly to chip in and take some of the pressure off, but displayed such a bad attitude that even I, normally very forgiving of service slip-ups, was riled. That’s when someone at my table said, ‘All we need to do is get on to Zomato and talk about the service here.’
There’s a lesson in this for restaurants, other than the fact that they have to deal with the pitfalls of social media. It’s that people are willing to overlook some shortcomings in the food, but when service stumbles, it usually upsets customers.

What was this particular restaurant doing wrong? Were they understaffed? Surely, they know Friday afternoons are busy times and needed to be prepared for that. Why did it take so long for the chafing dishes to get replenished or for a bowl of soup to reach from counter to customer? It looked like the place depended on the crowd that looks for ‘eat-all-you-want’ offers. But does that mean those customers don’t care about being served well? My guess is that even a simple work flow was not in place here and a not very customer-friendly manager was only dragging things down even further.

Monday, December 7, 2015

When restaurants are stung by social media

This is an unusually long -- unusual for the writer, that is -- post from Manu Chandra, one of the country's most admired and respected chefs.
It recounts how the misdeed of one errant member of The Fatty Bao team in Delhi went 'viral' on social media, with the mud-slinging turning into a barrage of allegations against the brand and its owners.
Manu Chandra narrates how swiftly they acted in the wake of the incident and what action was taken. Still, there was no undoing the damage that had already been done.
Social media allows customers to take public every complaint -- from a delay in service to, as in this case, 'swindling'. Disgruntled customers would rather vent and share than have their grievances redressed by the management of a restaurant, which is what any sensible person should do in such a circumstance. That, as Manu puts it, is 'the nature of the beast' and some people seem to derive a perverse pleasure from being able to rip apart restaurants and reputations on these very public platforms.
If it's merely a bad review, the restaurant can, perhaps, dismiss it. But accusations of a lack of professional ethics cannot be dismissed thus. So, a response such as this is called for and completely justified. Many of those who commented on Manu Chandra's post welcomed the stand he took and were clear they would not be swayed by the negative publicity.
Other restaurateurs who face similar situations may want to take a cue from this -- provided their commitment to running an ethical business is clearly established.
The other issue this incident raises is, of course, that of the integrity of your staff. I know for certain that Manu Chandra handpicks and trains his teams across his restaurants. Still, there are no guarantees against hiring the odd employee whose integrity is questionable. It's always a challenge for restaurant owners. Constant scrutiny and the sternest action against errant staff  is the only way you could possibly hope to tackle these situations. It also pays to bear in mind that social media is out there, licking its chops and rubbing its hands, waiting for the slightest slip-up on the part of restaurants.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Lessons from a 25-year-old restaurant

Every November, Karavalli, the award-winning coastal cuisine at Gateway Hotel, Bangalore, stages Aquafest, an annual celebration of seafood. I’ve been going every year now for several years and was there the other night, to taste the off-the-regular-menu dishes and to catch up with the hotel’s Executive Chef Naren Thimmaiah.
While much effort goes into creating the Aquafest menu – this time including seafood cutlets, coconut-rich squid thoran and spicy crab ghee roast – Chef Thimmaiah tells me food festivals and promotions today are now really about brand-building. There was, of course, a time when restaurants, especially those in five-star hotels, peppered the calendar with food festivals as a way of offering guests variety and off-menu dining experiences. But now, with the multitude of choices available all around, thanks to the burgeoning number of restaurants, the food promo has become a marketing activity than a culinary initiative.
But heavy duty marketing is not what brings the crowds into Karavalli. On the evening I was there, the restaurant was close to full with regulars, families, out-of-towners and expats. It’s this sort of custom that has kept Karavalli in business for 25 years, while once-popular restaurants even within the Taj group have shut shop, the Zodiac Grill at Taj Mahal, Mumbai, being the most recent.
Karavalli has got many things right. To begin with, it’s built on a simple, yet clear concept: bring the traditional home cooking of the west coast of India to a restaurant setting and serve it in style. The core of the menu has remained the same all these years and there has been no succumbing to the temptation to tweak, get quirky or ‘progressive’ with an ethnic Indian cuisine. This need to be different and surprising I see spreading like a rash amongst new restaurants where callow chefs run the kitchens. Karavalli’s unchanging nature is also thanks to the steadying presence of Chef Thimmaiah who has been at its helm for well over two decades.
He and his team stay on track without making any compromises on the quality of ingredients or in the cooking techniques. The fish and seafood is of superior quality, the spices are freshly ground and they are concerned about provenance, sourcing the best chillies, coconuts and jaggery from where they are grown or produced.  They care as much about the chutneys that are served with complimentary nibbles as they do about the Karimeen Pollichathu.
Guests come here – and the restaurant possibly attracts more diners than any other five-star place in town – for comfort and familiarity. They know that the Aleppey fish curry and appams will taste the same on every visit, that the meal will please and satisfy and that the staff will be warm and friendly.
The Karavalli lesson is that success isn’t about dazzling the crowd with exotica or extravagant cooking. It’s merely about doing the simple things well and all the time. Clearly, that’s easier said than done or we’d have lots more restaurants celebrating silver jubilees.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Food Tech wave in India - is it for real?

Over the last few months, the term "Food-Tech" has been in the news because of the extensive venture capital funding activity in the space. The larger players in this space are Foodpanda (which has acquired both Justeat and Tastykhana), Tinyowl, Swiggy, Freshmenu, Roadrunnr and of course Zomato. There are several smaller players such as Yumist, Holachef, Spoonjoy, Dineout, Delyver, Opinio, Limetray, Pickingo, Grab, Jomaange etc., who have all raised some sort of funding.
I have been grappling with food tech in the same manner brick & mortar retailers have been grappling with e-commerce. First off, calling these companies "Food-Tech" seems very misplaced to me - there is nothing these folks are doing with respect to technology related to food. All they are doing is enabling consumers to order food/transact with a restaurant.

They are really providing a computer/mobile device channel for consumers to do 4 things in a loop - search for info on food joints, transact with them (order food for delivery, book a table etc.), handle logistics (i.e. deliver the food) in some cases and provide feedback for everyone else to search better. For convenience and to go with the flow, I am also going to use the term "Food Tech" to refer to these companies, but in the above context.

I do believe that tech & "e" in the food space is different from other segments because of the following reasons. I will explain each of these reasons in detail in separate posts. I will also try and evaluate each of the companies in this space and provide my perspective on their business models.

1) This is a segment where the entire transaction needs to be completed within a very short time frame - i.e. the food needs to be delivered to the customer within 30-45 minutes. This makes it virtually impossible to achieve efficiency in logistics since orders cannot be easily clubbed based on just the delivery location as both the source and the destination are variables. I am not sure how technology (other than something like drones) can really make a significant difference to this. Having a Uber style model where you have delivery boys on standby in the local locations to go the restaurant, pick up the food and deliver it, seems unsustainable because of the dependencies involved with the restaurant and the concern mentioned in point 2 below. If companies like Roadrunnr, Swiggy are able to crack this, I expect them to be more like a on-demand delivery staffing firm with a lot of staff in every local area. Restaurants would love this as they don't need to employ delivery staff, buy bikes, maintain them etc. The trouble will be with the economics - the cost of delivery is estimated to be upwards of Rs. 80-100 per order, when you average it out over a week. This means that the delivery companies will need to charge restaurants over 25% of the bill value as their fees for the service for the model to make economic sense.

I will write a separate post evaluating the business model of the specific companies mentioned above. The trouble is that this becomes more a staffing business (like what a Group4 is to the security space) and managing labour on the ground will not be easy.

2) The orders are clustered in short time blocks - Lunch & dinner times account for 90% of a restaurant's business and within this the window for orders is about 90 minutes. Majority of customers eat lunch and dinner around the same time - in a block of about 90 minutes. This makes staffing and the associated logistics of delivery impossible to manage in an efficient manner. For e.g. if a restaurant has 4 delivery boys, it will be great if they receive lunch orders sequentially between 12 noon and 330 PM. The problem is that the orders come in a bell curve pattern - 10% of order between 12 and 1 PM, 80% of order between 1 and 2 PM and the remaining 10% post 2 PM. The restaurant needs only 1 delivery boy between 12 and 1 PM and post 2 PM to deliver the food promptly. But they would love to have 10+ delivery boys between 1 and 2 PM. This problem cannot be solved using fancy tech - whatever analytics, clustering you do, the only real solution is to have more staff available between 1 and 2 PM.  

3) The product has a very short shelf-life - therefore cannot be stored in a ware-house and shipped upon receiving the order like with a product such as a phone or a digital camera. This again makes the opportunity to use central warehouses, logistics planning, optimisation etc. ineffective.

4) The product needs to be prepared and packed only upon order - cannot be shipped right away. The moment of truth in food retail is at the retail unit. This means that the restaurant needs a minimum of 10-15 minutes to keep the product in a manner that is ready to be shipped. Companies like Freshmenu have cut down this 10-15 minute period by having a small fixed menu everyday, allowing them to prepare and pack in advance and upon receiving an order, simply handle the delivery process.

In summary, I believe that food-tech companies will be better off focusing on static restaurant activities like information services and pure technology related components such as order taking (with payment). Handling logistics at the last mile is going to involve dealing with ground level and labour management issues.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Folks who have figured it out - Rajdhani

In my assessment, there are a few restaurant concepts/businesses in India, who have figured out a scalable model (i.e. create a chain of restaurants), have got their basics right, have executed well and are on the path to becoming a really large and successful restaurant company. I will talk about one such business in each posting under this title.

Rajdhani - A single product offering (A Gujarati/Rajasthani Thali) served in a comfortable ambience - they seem to have made a decision to try and open all their new units primarily in malls. 

Why I like their model:

1) In general have a strong liking/bias for single product models - It makes the operations very easy to manage, customers exactly know what I will try and explain this in a separate post.

2) Whenever a customer walks into their restaurant, the APC is given (Rs. 325 to Rs. 400). From a customer's perspective, it is unlikely that he/she will go unsatisfied after the meal, simply because of the variety of food on offer and the great desserts. Feels like an Indian wedding lunch.

3) From an operational perspective, the local chef has some flexibility to choose which dishes to make based on the cost of the ingredients/vegetables in season. Plus there is no order taking - so saves a lot of time and confusion in the kitchen, but helps them rotate the seats in the restaurant a few times without the customer feeling rushed.

4) All Veg model - Attracts a lot of customers who simply won't visit a restaurant that also serves non-vegetarian food.

I believe that their concept can be tweaked to make it a very successful international brand. 

Challenge: Their service levels need to be kept in check as with their aggressive growth, they seem to be focusing less on training heir front-line staff to be polite to their customers.

Rajdhani is experimenting with a premium version of their offering "Rasovara". The early reads of this is that the same Rajdhani food is served in a slightly more elaborate manner and in courses. The service levels, the ambience and food quality differences are very minimal. In my assessment, additional effort needs to be put into their premium brand to allow customers to clearly understand the additional value they are getting from the premium brand.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

From concept to opening: An expert guide

During my early peeks into the new Shangri-La hotel in Bangalore I happened to meet a most interesting hotel professional with an even more interesting job description. He’s ‎Director of Corporate Food and Beverage - Projects and Development, or the ‘Openings Specialist’, if you will.
Anurag Bali’s enthusiasm for what he does is infectious and he’s an expert on planning new restaurants and getting them off the ground. Even if he specialises in restaurants within hotels, I thought his insights would be valuable to aspiring restaurateurs out there. Here, in his words, is a blue print for starting a restaurant, from concept to opening:
“Restaurants in five-star hotels can no longer be the stiff, starched, formal spaces they once were. With such a creative surge  in the standalone restaurant business, it’s important to create concepts that are approachable, fun, even quirky.
With that premise, we first set out to understand the markets which we are planning to enter. What are the existing restaurants serving? What are people eating? How price-sensitive are diners in a particular geography? What’s the local produce like? It’s important to ask and find answers to these questions.
Based on these inputs, we come up with a positioning statement – a one-page concept and, simultaneously, the finance team puts the numbers to this plan. This articulation of concept happens, ideally, about 20 months ahead of the opening.
This is followed by a detailed design brief being shared with the interior décor company we choose to work with. USPs or memory-makers, as we call them, are a key aspect at this stage of planning. The menu is also articulated as a one-page concept, outlining the food and beverages – not just what these will be, but also the presentation style. It must all tie in with the overall mood you wish to create.
We then handhold the interior design team while they come up with a vision and layout plan. Everything, down to the type of seating, is discussed and agreed upon at this stage. The colour palette is chosen – and I personally am not a fan of white – and other décor elements are finalised.
The next step is to fine-tune the operating brief and the operations team comes in. All the while, you are putting all the elements together, from selecting service ware to how the flow around you buffet stations will move.
The various teams then bring it all together and we begin working towards the opening. Because leadership teams can change, we create and sign off on what’s known as a ‘venue promise document’, so that the core concept remains unaltered for a reasonable length of time. Any changes must be backed with solid reasons.
In the days before opening, we invite various groups to simulated dining sessions. At the end of these, diners are given exhaustive feedback forms to fill, asking them to rate the entire experience, with details such as how they were received at the entrance and whether foods were served at the correct temperature.
Then you open and see your dream restaurant become reality. If you’ve done your job properly and left almost nothing to chance, it should work, and well.”

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Why can’t some of our best bars serve better food?

I went to Toit after several months the other day and loved it as always. It’s got beer that cannot be faulted, the buzziest vibe and efficient service, even when the place is packed to the rafters. But, oh the food! I wouldn't say it's abysmally bad, just very boring and uninspired, which is such a pity for a place that seems to have got everything else right.
I’m aware this gripe will evoke howls of protest from devoted Toit fans or, at the least, have them wondering what on earth I’m complaining about.  I note from restaurant review sites that they seem to love the pizza most. But I wasn’t in the mood for pizza and simply wanted some hit-the-spot nibbles to go with my Basmati Blonde. I pored over the menu and found nothing that jumped out saying 'Pick me'. My companion, a Toit regular who's tried pretty much everything on the menu -- and is rather forgiving when it comes to food -- turned down anything that seemed like a possibility.
Eventually, we settled for baked nachos with an extra of bacon. It was a mountain of masala papad, drizzled with some runny cheese, chopped onions, tomatoes and bacon that was far from crisp. Let's just say, it didn't get me raving.
It's not just this particular brewpub. Most places I go to leave me asking, why can’t bars here do better food? Sure, there are the few like the Socials and Monkey Bar which have given pub grub an exciting new twist and interpretation. But for the most part, we seem so stuck in a rut of nachos and potato wedges that come out of a freezer bag, it's a definite dampener on an outing to these places. I wonder why they cannot, for instance, dip into the endless array of Indian snacks and street foods and come up with finger foods that can really lift up the drinking experience. When in doubt, deep-fry, is not the best approach to building a finger food menu.
I can think of things that can be done with murukkus, sev and chakli, chaat, vadas of every sort, kebabs and mini rotis and naans. A chef I was chatting with, told me of a snack menu he’d devised which had small triangles of khakra with an array of chatpata toppings. Now that’s an inspired idea, to be sure.
I don’t think I can face another plate of nachos anytime soon, unless they are the real deal. And I’m waiting for a time when pubs and bars here get truly inventive with their food, coming up with dishes that use fresh ingredients and capture local flavours. All it takes is some imagination and a determination not to look in the direction of nachos, French fries and jalapeno poppers.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Raise a toast to this Indian wine

‘Indian wines have finally come of age.’ It’s a statement that’s been uttered often in recent times and still sounded more like wishful thinking than fact. But a quiet revolution certainly seems afoot and leading it, I’m convinced, is KRSMA, being produced in the Hampi Hills, not far from the UNESCO World Heritage site.
The other day, I attended a vertical tasting of the KRSMA Cabernet Sauvignon. Passionate wine-maker couple Uma and Krishna Prasad Chigurupati, unveiled their 2015 version – still fresh from the barrel – and invited guests to compare the 2011, 2012 and 2014 vintages alongside.  
I am not the sort of wine connoisseur who can detect cassis fruit, pear drops and freshly-cut grass in my glass. And I don’t subscribe to the belief that it’s important either. I know what wines I like to drink and derive endless pleasure from these. By that standard, I thoroughly enjoyed the KRSMA Cab Sauv, particularly the 2012 vintage.
The serious wine buffs at the tasting gave the various vintages a thumbs-up, but each had their personal favourites – again proving how subjective the business of wine-tasting is.
What emerges clearly is that KRSMA, a boutique winery that focuses a great deal more on quality than on volumes, is doing a superb job making a truly Indian wine. Their Sauvignon Blanc is splendid, too, by the way.
KRSMA wines are now also available in New York City and grace the tables of such reputed restaurants as Le Cirque. If you’re a restaurateur, you’d do well to have KRSMA on your wine-list. And for wine drinkers, it’s a lovely wine at an excellent price.

Friday, September 11, 2015

A kitchen tour at Bangalore’s new Shangri La

I’ve had a pre-opening peek into the towering Shangri La on Palace Road. The façade is still getting finishing touches and inside it’s all vast and opulent. What really had me gasping in wonder though was the hotel’s central kitchen. It’s a marvel of planning, design, top class fittings and equipment. Naturally, Executive Chef Antonio Tardi and his team are proud to show it off and that’s exactly what they did.
I’ve seen some modern restaurant kitchens, but nothing quite like this. The flow of supplies and food has been carefully mapped. Raw and cooked foods are kept well apart, to cut down any chance of contamination. The floors are gleaming white, the fittings all high grade stainless steel. Even the garbage room is spotless and they have ideal recycling systems in place, including composting on the premises.
The hotel has a food safety management expert and he wields a glow torch to randomly check bacteria counts on the hands of kitchen staff. Training vendors and suppliers on maintaining hygiene standards is also part of his responsibility.
The store rooms are a delight, with smooth, sliding doors to close off shelves. An Indian spice room has stainless steel grinders for making fresh dry and wet masalas and cool cabinets for storing these.
It’s a kitchen good enough to eat in, and that’s what we did. Chef Antonio conducted a short, fun class on pasta-making in the pastry kitchen and we hung about there, nibbling on pass-arounds. There was bruschetta on crisp toasted rustic bread, mini pita pockets filled with shrimp, served with hummous, sous-vide cooked chicken and fresh pasta with mushrooms.
For dessert, we trooped off to the ice-cream and chocolate room. The pastry chef told me he had to do very little, except make the crème anglaise, because the fabulous – and intelligent – ice-cream maker does all the work. It’s a Carpigiani, widely recognized as one of the world’s best ice-cream machines and makes the smoothest, creamiest gelato in just 10 minutes. A smaller machine from the same brand makes the perfect whipped cream and I had a swirl to crown my fresh mango ice cream.
B Cafe is the hotel’s all-day diner and is also packed with the coolest gadgets and fittings. The chef de cuisine ran his hands along a cooking station, saying, ‘Working on this, is the chef’s equivalent of driving a BMW.’

Shangri La will have some 9 F&B outlets, offering everything from global tapas to Chinese, Japanese, Indian and Mediterranean. With the food coming from those kitchens, I’m expecting it to be something special. 

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Freedom Café: Size doesn’t matter

This tiny eatery in North Bangalore is commendable for all the thoughtfulness that has gone into it.

It doesn’t have to be Riedel glasses and rose petal-dusted desserts. A small café can make a huge impact, too. The Freedom Café, newly opened near M.S Ramaiah Collge, is one such place. It impressed me especially, with its simplicity and honesty. And several other little things that count.
The Freedom Café is tiny, seating only 20, and still manages to be warm and welcoming, thanks mainly to a certain openness in its design. 

There’s a newsprint graphic element that adds a zing to the muted walls and it’s made up of carefully chosen words:
Affection Calm Compassion Creativity Debate Degrowth Feminism Green Integrity Kindness Solidarity Think Touch Transparency Values Walk Warmth – all ideas that represent freedom.
Owner and first-time restaurateur Manohar Elavarthi is a social activist and establishing the freedom to be, regardless of gender, caste, religion or sexual preference, defines much of his work, whether with transgender people or farmers in Karnataka.
His philosophies also inform much of how things are done at Freedom Café. Even with his small team, he has an inclusive hiring policy and wants more women on the staff. He pays better than market rates and strives to create a positive workplace experience for them.
While, in his activist role, Manohar Elavarthi espouses sustainable agriculture, as a restaurateur he’s attempting to be as eco-friendly as possible. The furniture is crafted from re-purposed wood, areca leaf plates are in use and the water is in reusable glass bottles.
Freedom Café’s menu is small and unpretentious, comprising breaded chicken and veg strips, served with four flavoured mayos, rolls, soups, burgers and two rice dishes – a Mexican rice and a veg dum biryani which I tasted and found most satisfying. There are hot and cold drinks, such as cold coffee made with filter coffee. For dessert there was a Mizo rice cake, a lovely thing Manohar apparently discovered while working with the Mizo community here during the time they were fleeing the city in droves because of a perceived threat.
There are several dishes priced under Rs 50 and nothing priced above Rs 100 – perfect for the student population in this area. Customers are welcome to linger, chat, debate or work here. It’s about freedom, remember?
My hope for this little venture, created from so much positive thought and energy, is that it should quickly become a commercial success as well.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

A reading list for chefs and restaurateurs

Let's talk books. Not those that list recipes, but books that delve into the depths of restaurants, capturing for readers all the drama, the highs and the heart-aching lows that go into the making of a culinary landmark. Here are some of my favourite books about restaurants; some are insightful, others inspiring and yet others simply a rollicking good read about one of the world's most exciting businesses.
The Art of the Restaurateur by Nicholas Lander
Nicholas Lander is a respected food critic for the Financial Times and was also once a restaurateur, having owned the legendary L’Escargot in London in the 1980s. His book traces the untold stories of 20 remarkable restaurants across the globe -- from Michelin star winners, to vastly popular bistros and stylish cafes. It's also about the highs and lows of the business and what it takes to succeed and be celebrated. This beautifully illustrated book is a keeper. 
Memorable lines: “While chefs may use plates for their art, restaurateur’s imaginations work on much bigger canvases. They look at empty spaces – modern, old, on one floor or on several, in bustling parts of town or in down-at-heel areas -- and begin to paint pictures in their heads of what these spaces will look like when they are full and bustling with customers and staff. This exhilarating experience is the most exciting aspect of this noble profession.”
Restaurant Man, by Joe Bastianich

Yes, he's the nasty guy on American MasterChef. He's also the man behind some of New York's most successful restaurants such as Babbo, Del Posto and Eataly. Bastianich also produces a signature line of Italian wines. Vulgar, but vivid is how this New York Times best-seller has been described. Restaurant Man is also the story of a man, who grew up as an alienated immigrant kid in Queens, spent his teens in a drug-fuelled haze and went on to become one of the city's most celebrated food entrepreneurs, eventually making his peace with his past.
Memorable lines: “He (Bastianich’s Father) taught me at an early age the enigma of the business - you need to appear to be generous, but you have to be an inherently cheap f*** to make it work. It’s a nickel and dime business and you make dollars by accumulating nickels. If you try and make dollars by grabbing dollars you will never survive. It’s come down to a simple concept that my partner Mario Batali and I live by in all our restaurants: We buy things, we fix them up and we sell them for profit."
Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain
If Bastianich's book was rated highly for its no-holds-barred 'macho memoir' tenor, it's the irrepressible Anthony Bourdain, chef, author and TV star, who set the trend. Part professional story, part behind-the-scenes peek into restaurant kitchens, Kitchen Confidential holds up a mirror to the restaurant business with unapologetic honesty. Bourdain describes restaurant kitchens as intense, unpleasant, sometimes hazardous workplaces staffed by misfits. His account will either have you drawn inexorably into the underbelly of the culinary world or have your running scared, depending on how adventurous you are.
Memorable lines: "For a moment, or a second, the pinched expressions of the cynical, world-weary, throat-cutting, miserable bastards we've all had to become disappears when we're confronted with a something as simple as a plate of food. When we remember what it was that moved us down this road in the first place."

Setting the Table, by Danny Meyer
It's well worth reading what Danny Meyer has to say. He opened his first restaurant in 1985 at the age of 27, and spent the next 30 years building an empire. Meyer now heads the Union Square hospitality group which includes a landmark restaurants like Union Square Cafe, Gramercy Tavern, the Modern, Maialino, Blue Smoke and Shake Shack.  Danny, his restaurants and his chefs have won a stupendous 25-plus James Beard Awards. Setting the Table is both an excellent business book and the remarkable story of a restaurateur.
Memorable lines: “Understanding the distinction between service and hospitality has been at the foundation of our success. Service is the technical delivery of a product. Hospitality is how the delivery of that product makes the recipient feel. Service is a monologue- we decide how we want to do things and set our own standards for service. Hospitality on the other hand, is a dialogue. To be on a guests side requires listening to that person on every sense, and following up with a thoughtful, gracious appropriate response. It takes both great service and great hospitality to rise to the top”.
Life on the Line, by Grant Achatz & Nick Kokonas
While Anthony Bourdain and Joe Bastianich make you chuckle and, occasionally, shudder at the goings-on in restaurant kitchens, here is a touching story that will overwhelm you with its eye-watering intensity. It's the story of Chef Grant Achatz of the conceptually radical and much-starred Alinea. Achatz was on top of his game, awarded the James Beard Rising Star Chef of the Year multiple times when he was diagnosed with stage IV tongue cancer. Unwilling to lose his tongue, Achatz opted out of surgery and went in for aggressive chemotherapy and radiation. The treatments resulted in him losing his sense of taste. Achatz then trained his chefs to mimic his palate and learned how to cook with his other senses. This is the story of one man's love affair with cooking, and how he survived terrible odds to keep that love alive.
Memorable lines: “You can’t decide to turn creativity on or off.  All you can do is present yourself with interesting problems and try to find solutions.” 

Monday, August 31, 2015

Good food takes time, but try telling the Indian diner that

During a summer school session I conducted for young managers at a five star hotel, the discussion turned to reviews, ratings and, specifically, customer complaints. The F&B professionals, without exception, told me the complaint they receive most often and which drives them to desperation is that of delayed orders.
It is, I think, a trait peculiar to Indian diners, this inability to wait for food. Even while dining in speciality restaurants they want the meal to reach their table in the time it takes for a McChicken Burger to be placed in their hands. They will drive through excruciatingly slow traffic to get to a restaurant, but then be unwilling to wait 20 minutes for a plate of kebabs. Scour through restaurant reviews on social media and you’ll find proof of this. ‘Slow service’, ‘food took too long’, ‘main course took time’ are comments you’ll see over and over again.
In other parts of the world, when people go out for a meal experience – as opposed to grabbing a bite – they are willing to wait for it. The wine list, the bread basket or other nibbles, not to mention the disappearing art of dinner table conversation are intended to fill in those intervening minutes. The notion of ‘leisurely meal’ is fully grasped.
While laggardly kitchen teams and waiting staff can sometimes be the cause of delays, most often the food is taking time to reach the table simply because it’s actually being cooked then. The only pasta worth eating is that which is cooked a la minute. Whether it’s grilled fish, tandoori chicken, dim sum or an Oriental stir-fry, the best food is that which is freshly made. And that takes time.
What this enormous pressure to serve up orders super fast does is to compel chefs to look for shortcuts. So, lots of dishes are pre-cooked and stored in freezers and coolers to be reheated or zapped in a microwave oven the minute orders come in. Surely, that can’t be what the discerning diner is paying for? So, while the evolved dining cultures are celebrating slow food and freshness we are turning to convenience foods in the kitchen. I don’t think that’s a good way to go.
Meanwhile, I stumbled upon this on Facebook. Someone had commented that the technology could solve a headache for restaurateurs constantly harangued for delays in food service. The work of the Belgian duo Filip Sterckx and Antoon Verbeek, the brains behind SkullMapping, it’s 3D projection mapping on a dinner table. Le Petit Chef arrives on your plate and keeps you entertained while you wait for your meal. And will, hopefully, silence those hollers for ‘Where’s my food?’
Take a look, it’s pretty cool:

Friday, August 28, 2015

What should you do with a bad review?

I couldn’t help but feel bad reading this FB post by a young restaurateur:
‘It's so hurtful when someone comes to your restaurant and says your food is not authentic. I am a Vietnamese and I know how my country food is. People write anything they want, they say we charge a lot of taxes, c’mon did we make the tax rules? I am sorry but I had to let this out. We have put all our heart in our work, please do not write reviews without any understanding on anyone’s food, be responsible, your actions can be very hurtful.’
I know these restaurateurs and realise how upsetting harsh reviews can be, especially when they are so committed to serving good Vietnamese food in Bangalore. These are young, first-time restaurateurs and the reaction is understandable. In fact, I know that even seasoned chefs and restaurateurs take adverse comments very badly, especially if they believe they are without justification.
That, as it happens, is the nature of the beast. With social media allowing every diner to be a restaurant critic, restaurateurs are, in effect, sitting ducks for everything from mild swipes to vitriolic attacks. Feedback, no matter how adverse, is useful, particularly if it helps a restaurant to correct a flaw in the food or to up the service quality.
I’ve noticed, though, that often a small glitch like, say, the water taking a few minutes to reach the table, is blown out of all proportion and diners will vent on social media.
Comments on the food, meanwhile, are a tricky area. What, for instance, does a diner mean by ‘authentic’ or ‘not authentic’? I remember when I was writing a weekly restaurant review for a newspaper I’d rated highly a restaurant serving Bengali food. I heard back from a reader who ranted that my rating was all wrong, that the food was terrible. Now, I may not know my Peruvian cuisine or Hungarian for that matter, but I have a good understanding of Bengali food having spent a great deal of time in Kolkata and eating in homes that pride themselves on their cooking. So, my reading is that my disgruntled reader went expecting, perhaps, chicken tikka masala and had no taste for murghir jhol.
It is not possible for restaurateurs who take real pride in what they do to cater to every palate. They can be crowd-pleasers, but cannot be all things to all people. They should be able to sift through reviews and act on comments that will actually help up quality of food and service. If they believe in their concept and the goodness of their food, they cannot be swayed by adverse comments. It’s about trusting your instincts, having confidence and soldiering on. As Hemingway said, ‘You must be prepared to work always without applause.’ After all, chefs and restaurateurs are artistes, too.

Friday, August 21, 2015

What you learn in the heat of the kitchen

As restaurant-goers, few of us get to see where all the real action is – the kitchen. I’ve walked through a few in my time, but it’s only recently, while curating a special menu for a hotel chain, that I actually felt its heat, not to mention the chilli powder that lands in your eye as spatulas fly over sizzling handis.
It’s an atmosphere far removed from the elegance of starched table linen, sparkling glasses and smooth service. Here, all is noise, heat and chaos, or seemingly so. Of course, there’s method in this madness, or no food would make it to the table. And those who’ve mastered it are the kitchen staff – chefs, sous chefs, line cooks – a group of people unlike any you’ll encounter elsewhere.
In the days I spent in this particular kitchen, I observed that, like any workplace, this team is made up of ‘types’. There’s the natural born leader, who, whether he’s head chef or not, conducts the kitchen orchestra with remarkable assuredness, a pat here, a kick there, and ensuring food reaches ‘pick-up’ in the quickest time. There’s the cook who’s put in 20 years and yet lost none of his passion, moving between prep area, cold storage and blazing fire with a grace that comes with time. There’s the angry young man, with a permanent snarl, and another who chops, stirs, tastes and serves with Zen-like calm.
They were all so different, sometimes clashing and hurling abuse at each other, sometimes bonding long enough to share a loud and risqué joke and, at others, closing ranks against the serving staff screaming for their orders. With all their peculiarities, amidst the heightened emotions and the high drama, I came to understand that every member of this kitchen team was completely devoted to his task, that of putting out the best food possible. They were so palpably driven by the confidence that they are, indeed, the beating heart of a restaurant.
There’s a description in Anthony Bourdain’s book, Kitchen Confidential that pins down this unique quality of kitchen staff:  ‘We're too busy, and too close, and we spend too much time together as an extended, dysfunctional family to care about sex, gender preference, race or national origin. After level of skills, it's how sensitive you are to criticism and perceived insult - and how well you can give it right back - that determines your place in the food chain.’

I guess the best kitchen teams are made up of people who might be considered misfits elsewhere. Despite their differences in age, language or background, they have the remarkable ability to come together and function as a team, fulfilling those KOTs meal service after meal service. Sure, cooking skills count, but restaurateurs would also do well to look for that unique ability and a definite love for the heat of the kitchen when hiring staff.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The big case for small menus

As a restaurant critic, I’ve always favoured restaurants with small menus. I found my reasons for this bias reinforced during my recent interaction with MasterChef judge, chef and restaurateur George Calombaris. His top-rated Melbourne restaurant, The Press Club, lists just 12 dishes on the menu and guests can turn these into 4-, 6- or 9-course meals. At the other end of the market, he has the Jimmy Grants chain which serves just Souvlaki, Salad and a few sweets.
Narrowing down the range of their offerings is something many of our traditional food businesses do really well. Take, for instance, Brahmin’s Coffee Bar in Basavangudi, which has just four dishes on its hugely popular menu, or Tamil Nadu’s favourite Murugan Idli Shop which thrives by selling idlis and, at the most, dosas.
It’s the casual dining and so-called fine dining restaurants that seem unable to give customers the pleasures only a small, highly specialized menu can offer. So, we have Andhra restaurants serving hakka noodles and sweet corn chicken soup; even chefs who set out to deliver gourmet class can rarely settle for a menu that has less than several dozen dishes.
The concept of small menus can work for both customers and restaurateurs. For the diner it means an assurance of freshness; long menus mean many dishes that are cooked ahead and stored. When a kitchen cooks fewer dishes, these can be prepared with greater care and attention to detail and the dining experience is enhanced.
For the kitchen team, it certainly means less stress. The chef and his assistants need to master fewer dishes and have a better chance of perfecting them. Inventories are smaller and restaurateurs can pay for better quality ingredients. Serving staff, too, can have a better understanding of, say, 60 dishes, rather than trying to remember what goes into 120 menu items.
And still, even the smartest chefs and restaurateurs are wary of cutting down the number of dishes on their menus. They worry that it will evoke that constant complaint of ‘Not enough choice’. The worry is justified, for Indian customers do indeed want to see huge menus and find satisfaction in the notion that they are spoilt for choice. They don’t seem to grasp that restaurants that attempt too many things, do not get most of them right.
 Clearly, we are still some time away from diners patronizing restaurants with small, specialized menus. Meanwhile, I’d love to see at least a few adventurous restaurateurs have the confidence to present small menus, backed by the belief that they are putting out their very best.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Exclusive interview with George Calombaris of Masterchef Australia

Draw from your culture, don’t set out to be the next Blumenthal or Redzepi, says MasterChef judge George Calombaris

Announce that you’re off to meet George Calombaris and you’re suddenly in an enviable position. In his role of MasterChef judge he’s become a celebrity, particularly in India, but he is primarily – by his own admission -- a chef and restaurateur. George was in Bangalore over the Independence Day weekend to present a taste of his highly acclaimed Melbourne Restaurant, The Press Club, and I got to chat with him at a tasting session here.
Chef or TV star, I ask him? ‘I’ll always be close to my kitchens,’ he says. George’s restaurant collection currently includes the swank Press Club, The Press Club Projects – which creates exclusive dining experiences on request – Gazi, which is a more approachable, affordable restaurant, the Hellenic Club, Mastic Café and Jimmy Grants, the fourth branch of which opens this month, serving souvlaki, salads and sweets in a casual setting.
All the menus find their origins in the chef’s Greek roots and he pushes them to the next level with his imagination and skill. Especially at The Press Club, the food is ultra-modern, but George abhors the term ‘molecular gastronomy’. ‘It’s a made-up word that means nothing,’ he says, adding that he’s all for experimenting and pushing boundaries in the kitchen. The master of such experiments is, of course, Heston Blumenthal and the two are friends. In fact, when George conjured up a rendition that resembled a clothes line with chips and crisps hanging from it, as if in a lawn, he wanted to infuse the presentation with the smell of cut grass. ‘We tried and failed several times, when Heston suggested using a rotting banana whose components give off the same smell. It’s about understanding those elements,’ George says.
It’s all about the food for this passionate chef. ‘As a restaurateur, I’m lucky that I have a great team that looks after the stuff I don’t particularly like doing,’ he says. So, George can continue to work on elevating the meal experiences he creates, sometimes borrowing an ingredient from another cuisine, at others, using a revolutionary new technique. While the imagination can run wild in George’s kitchens there is no compromising on the basics. ‘It’s about the freshest produce and the best ingredients,’ he says. That insistence was on display when, at the cooking demo-cum-tasting session, he swapped the salmon for Indian sea bass in a dish, because the former didn’t make the quality cut. He also used naan as the souvlaki wrap and made the observation that ‘You have to respect where you are’.
For George, it’s about celebrating the very essence of local culture and its culinary traditions. ‘India has such a wealth of cuisines and such a rich food heritage. That’s what young chefs should be drawing on, rather than aspiring to be the next Blumenthal or Rene Redzepi,’ he says with conviction. ‘On my visits to Delhi, I’ve seen these street stalls that do just one thing, say, jalebis, and do it so well,’ he says.
He’s a firm believer that specialization is important. At the Press Club, for instance, you wouldn’t see more than a dozen dishes on the menu. ‘It has to be that way if you want to deliver quality,’ he says. ‘It’s 12 dishes, 34 diners and 20 staff.’ I tell him that in most restaurants here anything less than 100 dishes on the menu would evoke howls of ‘no choice.’ ‘You come to my restaurant to be in my hands, right?’ asks George. Clearly, the Indian diner has some way to go before he appreciates that sort of specialization and the quality it can deliver.
Besides the food, George’s restaurants are known for their superb service and earn high ratings on customer review sites. ‘I’m not particular about whether they drape the napkin correctly over their arm or pour the water from the left. I enable them only to create a warm, fuzzy feeling for the customers who walk into my restaurants. My staff is my family, I love these guys,’ he says.
His faith in his staff doesn’t mean he’s not watching every move. Can he never stop looking at his phone? ‘Have you been talking to Matt Preston?’ he laughs. ‘Well, I wouldn’t say I’m a control freak, just a very controlling person.’
Among the things he controls is what he feeds his guests, himself and his family. Is it true that when his 4-year-old son James goes to birthday parties at fastfood restaurants he’s given a packed meal?’
‘Would you give a child drugs and alcohol? Junk food – processed, over-refined, bleached  -- is just as bad,’ George says. ‘People have religions, mine is food and I will not have it desecrated.’

Interview & Post by Priya Bala