Potato evangelist is probably a better descriptor for the managing director of McCain Foods India Pvt. Ltd, the Indian arm of the privately owned Canadian firm that makes one out of every three French fries consumed in the world. Narayanan never misses an opportunity to play preacher.
Give him a chance and he’s bound to say: “There are a lot of misconceptions about potatoes…” He might, then, whip out his ready reckoner that compares the calories of 100g of your favourite snack (Haldiram’s salted peanuts 644 calories; Frito Lay Kurkure 561 calories) with the sugar-free fries he sells to McDonald’s (290 calories only). Last month he was a speaker at the India International Potato Expo held in Delhi. His topic? Potato is good for us.
Spud the word: Narayanan points out that McCain’s potatoes are sugar-free. Jayachandran/Mint
Yet these days 46-year-old Narayanan, who has worked at the $6.5 billion (around Rs.30,225 crore) frozen foods company for a year now, is equally obsessed with the perfectly shaped frozen idli—all 35g of it. “Fries are a foreign product. We thought, let’s take a traditional product that has never been made any other way, and see what it takes for people to go from a fresh form to a frozen food,” he says. McCain began test marketing its rice idlis in Delhi last month.
The R&D team worked on the preservative-free frozen idli for more than a year. Every little process had to be rethought. Grinding the batter in a regular colloid mill, for instance, produced the wrong texture. So the company custom-made and fitted 4ft tall stone grinders into the production line. Post grinding, the batter is left to ferment in a temperature-controlled room for 24 hours; exactly 35g is then dispensed into idli-shaped grooves, and the rice discs steam slowly on a conveyor belt before a specially designed instrument scoops them out without damaging them. Of course, idlis are still a minuscule part of McCain’s business.
After spending one and a half hours with him at Rick’s Bar in Delhi’s Taj Mansingh, I’m convinced Narayanan dreams of McCain’s boulder-sized Shepody potatoes full of the “northern vigour” that comes from their high-altitude seeds grown in Lahaul-Spiti—and a world free from power cuts.
Five minutes into a discussion on the challenges of the cold chain distribution network in this country, perfectly on cue, the lights go out and we are briefly plunged into darkness. “Oops there goes the power and there goes the cold chain,” he guffaws.
Narayanan laughs a lot. It could be because I repeatedly ask him how his wife Bharathi handles the potato hard sell, and before that, a job that involved him feeling passionately about ice cream. As a father, his professional choices have always ensured he’s high on his daughters’ popularity charts. “I used to be the ice-cream man, and now I’m the potato man. So in this respect I’m definitely a cooler father than most,” he agrees.
But I guess you need a sense of humour to survive in the frozen foods business in this country. Narayanan’s full of stories from the paleolithic era of frozen foods, 10 years ago, when he first took charge of Hindustan Lever’s (now Hindustan Unilever) ice-cream division. Those were the days when storekeepers switched off the mains every night when they shut shop, disregarding the fact that the ice cream in their freezer cabinets would melt. “When ice cream melts you can’t refreeze it. When the air escapes the volume comes down by half,” he says. Back then he always cautioned his daughters, Deepti, 14, and Sandhya, 9, to opt for an ice cream on a stick rather than in a cup.
Of course, like most people with cool jobs, he has an engineering degree. His father worked in the government’s civil aviation department and Narayanan grew up in several metros across India. “Guilty,” he laughs when I ask why engineers rarely do whatever it is they’re supposed to do. After he graduated as a civil engineer, he worked for five years in Asian Paints until he found his life’s calling.
He’s worked in the processed foods industry for nearly two decades now, or since he joined Hindustan Lever in 1992. There he got a taste for all kinds of food from tea/coffee to jams/sauces and dairy. The vegetarian worked with ice cream for six years before moving to Barcelona to market Lever’s frozen seafood exports. After a “transforming” three-year stint there (among other things, he discovered paella and the Mediterranean diet), he returned to head the company’s food solutions business where he stayed until last year.
Though Narayanan joined McCain only a year ago, the company has been in India for more than 10 years. McCain has spent the last decade researching the types of potatoes that would grow well in India. After experiments in the traditional potato-growing belt of Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal, the company opted to set up camp in Gujarat’s Mehsana. In 2007, after they were convinced they had cracked the spud cycle, they invested Rs.100 crore in a plant that has the ability to process 40,000 tonnes of potatoes a year. “To be successful in the frozen food business in India, you need to control the whole supply chain from farm to fork,” says Narayanan.
When we meet, Narayanan is wearing his navy McCain polo, the one he usually wears when he’s travelling (good branding, he believes) or when, like today, his sales managers from across the country are in town to review growth plans for next year. He sits on the edge of the couch, one arm resting on the chair next to him, eyes darting to me and away, both hands gesticulating, as he tells me his story. I rarely see him take a sip of his beer but his glass is finished long before mine.
He shuttles between his office in Delhi and Mumbai (where his family lives) and ran the half marathons in both cities. He runs regularly and ensures that he mixes the cardio with weights. Narayanan likes to think of himself as a quack nutritionist and occasionally we divert to potato-free discussions such as the one about the merits of different cooking oils (he’s recently rediscovered the health benefits of virgin coconut oil).
As I listen to him attempt to convince me that potatoes could even help alleviate India’s hunger problem, I wonder what powers all his excess energy. Maybe, just maybe, it is all that celebrated northern vigour in McCain’s potatoes.