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

Friday, August 7, 2015

9 Of Mumbai’s best burgers: The most delicious takes on this fave food

9 Of Mumbai’s best burgers: The most delicious takes on this fave food

The burger is enjoying a revival. No longer an assembly line product you grab and go, the meat-in-a-bun meal has taken on a distinct gourmet attitude. Here’s our guide to the must-eat burgers of Mumbai.

This Colaba restaurant serves burgers that bear no resemblance to what the fastfood chains dish out. Try the In ‘n’ Out style Burger made up of brioche, beef patty, cucumber pickle, tomato, onions, cheese and ‘animal sauce’, which is a house speciality. You’d be lucky to finish it without sauce running down the front of your shirt.

Indigo Deli
Possibly among the priciest burgers in these parts, Indigo Deli’s creations also rank amongst the best. Indigo Deli’s Pulled Pork BBQ Burger is a big hit. For a deliciously different burger, order the Blackened Salmon Burger which has gourmets drooling about it.

Monkey Bar
The recently-opened Monkey Bar has been getting rave reviews for its food. Among the top orders is the Mobar Burger of two meat patties, American cheese and bacon in a delicious black bun.

Hard Rock Café
Hard Rock Café promises robust, American-style burgers and delivers just that. There’s the 10 Ounce Burger which will send beef lovers to meaty heaven. HRC also does burgers with a twist such as California, Tex-Mex and Mediterranean.

212 Café
This café at BKC stakes a claim for handmade burgers. Vegetarians, who often have to settle for boring veg patties, get lucky here with the flavour-packed Shroom Burger which uses Portobello mushrooms.

Café Sundance
Hearty, hit-the-spot burgers are a Sundance speciality with the classic Tenderloin Burger topping the charts. Try also the Fish ‘n’ Chips Burger which has a nice mustard kick. If you’ve got a gargantuan appetite for burgers go for the Sundance Sasquatch with nearly 600 gms of tenderloin, crisp bacon, egg, guacamole and cheese. They dare you to finish one by yourself.

Jamjar Diner
Regulars flock to this Versova diner for the Juicy Lucy, one of the stars of the burger menu. Check out also the Chicken Honey Mustard and Bacon Burger with Chipotle mayo giving it a nice zing.

Café Zoe
Meat, cheese and warm bun combine wonderfully in Cafe Zoe’s Tenderloin Cheese Burger. There’s also the recent addition of a Turkey Burger which is guilt-free, relatively speaking, that is.

The Nutcracker
The cozy café has quite a reputation for its comfort food. Check out here the Blackbean Burger. A great pick for vegetarians, it comes with caramelized onions and garlic mayo.

Compiled, written & posted by Priya Bala