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The future belongs to ghost kitchens

Have you ever seen the inside of a restaurant kitchen?

If you have, you will know that it is nothing like the pretty space you see on food shows on TV where celebrity chefs demonstrate dishes.


A restaurant kitchen is usually a busy, bustling, not-very-pretty (okay, ugly) space where chefs jostle each other, a lot of shouting goes on and an air of chaos prevails.


   They are not supposed to be like that, of course. The legendary French chef Auguste Escoffier, who designed the staffing for the modern restaurant kitchen, wanted it to be like a well-run military operation (the kitchen team is called ‘brigade’) with various army-style ranks for the various chefs. The top chef (the man who took final responsibility) would stand proudly at the pass, from where the dishes were collected by the waiters. The chef acted like the general in command. In a classic French kitchen, the top man is never addressed by name, he is just called “Chef” by everyone. (Would a lesser rank ever address a general by name?)


   At expensive places in France, the ghost of Escoffier still stalks the stoves. But at most other restaurants, it is a chaotic free-for-all. And even the best restaurant kitchens have more in common with factories or workshops than home kitchens. This is why the few chefs who run happy relaxed kitchens (Daniel Humm at Eleven Madison Park in New York and Davies and Brook in London) encourage guests to eat a little snack in the kitchen halfway through the meal. (This has been copied by many inferior restaurants the world over.) At Mugaritz in Spain, Andoni Luis Aduriz shows guests the zen-like calm of his kitchen to indicate how different his style is.


   For the most part, however, kitchens have been the dirty little secret of the restaurant business. Restaurants want to restrict guests to the plusher dining room and not let them see the madness in the kitchen. (Sometimes there may be hygiene issues as well.) At Chinese restaurants in India where the chefs are not remotely Chinese, guests are actively discouraged from seeing the kitchen.


   In the 1970s, as the microwave oven grew in popularity in America, many restaurants used their do-not-enter kitchens for skulduggery. Because nobody knew what was going on in the kitchens, restaurateurs could just buy microwavable packets of dishes from catering suppliers, and reheat them in the microwave when the order came in. Then they would serve them on fancy plates.


   This practice continues all over the world. If you go to a moderately-priced restaurant in any tourist centre in Europe (Venice, for instance) and the menu is very large, get up and walk out. It is usually all frozen food that they will microwave for you.


   But this year, as delivery has boomed, all the old rules have changed. The great growth area in the food business has been the cloud or ghost kitchen. This, as you probably know already, is a kitchen in an inexpensive area that is proud of functioning like a factory where different cuisines can be cooked in different sections. Most successful ghost kitchen operators in India like Karan Tanna or Cross Border Kitchens have several brands, all of which are cooked in the same kitchen by faceless chefs and cooks.


"Though Daniel Boulud has an empire of high-end restaurants around the world, the New York-based French chef will also enter the delivery space using separate kitchens."

   Over the last few months, I have tried the food from many ghost kitchens and it is usually of the same quality as all but the top restaurants. But because ghost kitchen operators do not incur restaurant-level expenses (low rent, no waiter salaries, no air conditioning, etc.) they can price their food at less than half of what restaurants charge. And most of them are better organised when it comes to delivery.


   This is now a global trend and, in the US, large restaurant companies are opening their own ghost kitchens. For instance, The New York Times reports, SBE Collection, a major hotel and restaurant company now uses ghost kitchens to fulfill orders for its restaurant brands: Umami Burger, Sam’s Crispy Chicken and Krispy Rice. Customers don’t necessarily know that the food does not come from the restaurants but from ghost kitchens.


   When Dani García, the three Michelin-starred Spanish chef was in Delhi a few months ago for a pop-up, he told me that he had turned his back on Michelin-star food and closed his three-star restaurant. García has now tied up with SBE to develop cheaper brands that can be run out of ghost kitchens. No restaurants will be opened.


   Other chefs have had the same idea. Though Daniel Boulud has an empire of (relatively) high-end restaurants around the world, the New York-based French chef will also enter the delivery space using separate kitchens. Boulud has had to lay off many of his kitchen staff during the pandemic. He thinks the delivery kitchen will allow him to rehire many of his cooks.


   In India too, the big boys are now getting into the delivery business. Lite Bite Foods (owner of Punjab Grill, Tres and other popular restaurants) has already opened one ghost kitchen and is in the process of opening three more.


   All this is well and good but it is the next step that I am really intrigued by. Assume you run a mid-level restaurant. Assume now that you have to put Butter Chicken, Biryani etc. on the menu. What do you do? Do you hire a great Punjabi chef? A biryani guy? And another cook to make, say, your momos for you?


   At the moment, restaurants are either hiring expensive specialist chefs or they are getting the guy who makes Chicken Manchurian to also make the biryani. That is why the food at many mid-level standalones in India is so bad.


   But imagine if they could sign up with a ghost kitchen to have Butter Chicken, Biryani and Momos delivered to them every morning. The quality would probably be better and the ghost kitchen would offer competitive prices. The customer would never know that the food came from a ghost kitchen because he or she would not be allowed to see the restaurant kitchen.


   It’s the same principle as the mid-range restaurants in the West who buy their food from catering giants and then just microwave it before serving.


   It is certain to happen here: not only are ghost kitchens the future, so are ghost chefs — and ghosted food!





Posted On: 12 Sep 2020 12:00 PM
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