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The best chef jobs are now in the standalone sector

For reasons that are not entirely clear to me, the Indian chef community invites me to every national Chef’s Congress to offer insights into the food scene.

They have been kind enough to do this since the 1990s, when the first Chef’s Congress was held at the (now shut) Juhu Centaur in Mumbai.


I accept the invitation each time. But I’m always frightened that I end up giving the same speech at every Congress! I spoke again this year (at the Ashoka in Delhi) on Sunday and here are some of the points I made about chefs and dining in India.


   There are now more restaurants and more hotels in India than there have ever been. This provides huge opportunities for chefs in terms of employment and advancement. You could even argue that as a consequence, the advancement has been swifter than it should be.  At many hotels, chefs who can barely run outlets become executive chefs. At too many restaurants, the chefs do not have the requisite experience but get hired anyway because the demand is so high.


   This means that the boom in restaurants has not necessarily been accompanied by a boom in quality. Yes, there are some excellent new restaurants but I do not think that the quality of food at the average restaurant (hotel or standalone) has improved very much.


   But what is clear is that the hotel domination of the food scene is over. There was a time when people who were finishing catering college wanted to be interviewed by Taj/ITC/Oberoi because those were the only good jobs in the market. A chef who said he had been selected by Taj had much to brag about. A chap who said he was going off to join say, Kwality’s in Kanpur, had nothing to boast about.


   That’s changed. The best chef jobs are now in the standalone sector. The money is better and there is a chance of putting your own stamp on the food. Hotels, on the other hand, are vast bureaucracies which may be why so many hotel chefs switch to being managers. Because that’s the way to rise.


   If you look at people who run hotel chains in India, they come from all over: From food & beverage, from accounts, from front office and from housekeeping. But it is hard to think of a chef who has ever got the top job.


   In the standalone sector, on the other hand, there are chefs who run their own businesses and some chefs, like Sanjeev Kapoor, have created massive empires of their own. When I first met Sanjeev (at the first Chef’s Congress, appropriately enough) he was executive chef of the Centaur. If he had stuck to that path, I very much doubt that many of us would have heard of him. It was only when he left hotels that he blossomed.


   And yet, some of the young chefs who attended the Chef’s Congress complained that catering colleges in India are still hotel-focussed. They still see it as their job to prepare people to work for a hotel chain. The standalone boom has passed them by. I don’t know if this complaint is valid. But if it is, then that’s something to worry about.


"You can say, in favour of hotels, that many of today’s celebrity chefs started their careers in the hotel industry."

   I may have been the first person to write about chefs on a regular basis so I have seen the rise of chefs at close quarters. In the old days, the only hotel chain that was willing to promote its chefs was the Taj group so the earliest chefs I wrote about were people like Satish Arora, Arvind Saraswat, and Nat Natarajan. ITC broke with tradition when it started putting Imtiaz Querishi (who had worked for the group for years) in the ads for Dum Pukht only in the late 1980s and the Oberois have never seemed totally comfortable with promoting any of their chefs.


   By the 1990s/2000s, when magazines and newspapers all featured chefs, it was still Taj chefs (Hemant Oberoi, Ananda Solomon, for instance) who became famous. Then ITC changed its attitude after Nakul Anand took over and today it is justly proud of its chefs and promoted them.


   The global chains still don’t do it. I may be the only person who writes about Devender Bungla, the pastry chef at the Hyatt Regency in Delhi even though he has been a legend in the profession for over two decades now. The same hotel has the single best Chinese chef in India Zhang Hongsheng and a well-respected North Indian chef in Anil Khurana. But they hardly get written about or promoted by Hyatt.


   Personally, I think hotels have missed the bus. I knew Prateek Sadhu in his days with the Leela and the Taj but he never broke through to the public at large till he launched Masque. I was among those who encouraged Regi Mathew to leave the Taj and set up something on his own: Today he is one of the best known chefs in Chennai.


   Kunal Kapoor, Ranveer Brar and Gaggan Anand were near contemporaries at the Taj group. Would you have heard of any them if they had stayed in hotel jobs? Kunal worked for the Leela till relatively recently and though he was widely admired for his skills, he only became famous when he struck out on his own. Now, both Kunal and Ranveer are so well known that whether Master Chef India is on the air or not, they are besieged by autograph hunters and brands line up to get them to endorse their products.


   You can say, in favour of hotels, that many of today’s celebrity chefs started their careers in the hotel industry. Vineet Bhatia, Atul Kochchar and Chintan Pandya all worked for the Oberoi, for instance. On the other hand, most of the chefs we hear of today have never worked for an Indian hotel. Manu Chandra, Ritu Dalmia, Hussain Shahzad,Garima Arora,  Himanshu Saini, Saurabh Udinia, Varun Totlani, Thomas Zacharia, and so many others.


   Chefs often ask me whether it is fine to specialise in non-Indian cuisines. Of course it is. Manu Chandra’s European food is world class. Ritu Dalmia cooks Italian food that Italians love. Ananda Solomon is a master of Thai food.


   But I do believe that if you are going to leave a mark or make distinctive dishes, then it may be better to focus on Indian food.


   Think about it this way. If you heard about an American who cooked great Kerala food, you would be intrigued. And it is possible that his food would be good.  But would it have much impact on the cuisine of Kerala? I doubt it.


   It is the same for us. Our chefs can probably make great Thai food or excellent French dishes. But would they ever be in the top rank of Thai or French chefs? I don’t think so.


   There are exceptions, of course. The Australian chef David Thompson had a major role to play in winning global recognition for Thai food. But I can’t think of many others like him.


   The best hope of making an impact for an Indian chef is to cook the cuisine he was born to cook. Indian food offers huge scope for re-interpretation, re-invention even. So why look elsewhere when the best opportunities are right here?



Posted On: 13 Feb 2023 07:10 PM
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