On a knife’s edge
The food service industry is bigger than ever, but there’s a crisis looming at the pass
Earlier this month, Sathya Raj, 26, packed his bags, bid adieu to his colleagues at The Ritz-Carlton, Bengaluru, and caught a flight to Budapest, Hungary. It was the first time he was travelling out of India and, through the last-minute preparations and apprehensions, he had only one regret.
“My mother was always certain that I would go places. But now that I am all set to leave, she is in no state to appreciate that her dream is coming true. She has been in a coma for the past year and a half,” says Raj. “My parents were hooked to all the television cookery shows and it was they who suggested I train to work in the kitchen. They were always impressed by the chef’s whites and the tall hat, you know...”
His voice trails off, his mind busy going over exactly how far he, the son of a tea estate worker near Ooty, has come. In May, he took part in a young chefs competition organized by the Indian chapter of La Confrérie de la Chaîne des Rôtisseurs—at 65, the world’s oldest gastronomic society. A total of 10 contestants, drawn from top hotels and restaurants in Bengaluru, were presented a “mystery box”—a format familiar to reality food show fans—and asked to prepare a three-course meal in three-and-a-half hours. Raj came up with pomfret roulade, served with a mushroom-fennel-apple slaw and oil nage, grilled lamb rack with a sweet potato walnut crumble, aubergine parcels and a red wine jus, and mango crêpes with a chilli-orange jelly, and bagged the top prize, including a trip to Budapest to compete against 21 winners from among La Chaîne’s more than 80 member-countries.
From watching his mother cook rice and rasam to putting himself through the 18-month diploma course in food production at the Institute of Hotel Management Catering Technology and Applied Nutrition, Chennai, Raj went on to work in various five-star hotel kitchens in Chennai and New Delhi before moving to Bengaluru two years ago, just before The Ritz-Carlton opened its doors in the city. He began in the butchery and was employed in the Western kitchen as a chef de partie when Anupam Banerjee, the hotel’s executive chef, pushed him, at a day’s notice, to participate in the competition.
Breakthrough cases—as Raj has the potential to be—are rare in India. In fact, his example symbolizes the gaps in training and, consequently, the need for retraining, skill supplementation and mentoring, essential for career upgrades. With the exception of ITC’s Imtiaz Qureshi a couple of generations ago, India’s culture of celebrating chefs is relatively new and, in recent years, has focused almost exclusively on a breed of adventurous, identifiable, media-savvy entrepreneurs of middle- or upper-middle-class origin, with foreign culinary degrees or without, spearheading directional spaces in stand-alones and hotels.
But figures tell an alarming story: The food service industry—including chains, stand-alones and the unorganized market (government definitions)—is projected to touch around Rs.4.1 trillion by 2018, with the organized sector growing from 30% in 2013 to 41% in five years, according to the National Restaurant Association of India (NRAI). However, even as five-star food and beverage (F&B) capacity grows year on year, successful city-specific restaurants seek to scale into nationwide brands and lower-key establishments proliferate faster than one can spell “hungry”, the backroom faces a curious manpower crisis. A 2015 report by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (Ficci) pegs the unavailability of skilled manpower—only about 9-12% of the demand is met—as one of the two top challenges for the sector.
It’s not merely the numbers; the concerns extend to basic skill sets, creativity, management nous, even mathematical abilities. As of March 2010, according to Ficci, there were 337 training institutes in India but, while a few industry-affiliated schools, like Welcomgroup’s at Manipal or Taj’s at Aurangabad, Maharashtra (or, for that matter, the Oberoi Centre for Learning and Development in New Delhi), produce graduates equipped to make a difference, for the most part training in other institutes is hopelessly out of sync with the times and market demands.
The Culinary Institute, however, opened his eyes to the possibilities beyond the subtle channelling into the five-star route, just as it had done for Manu Chandra, chef-partner, Monkey Bar and The Fatty Bao, a few years earlier. “The best thing about the institute was that there was no orientation,” says Chandra one evening in Bengaluru, as the rain plays an incessant tune on the high fibreglass roof over Olive Beach, where he continues to be executive chef. “That is clearly not the case in this country. So what happens is a false negative: We sense a dearth of talent when that clearly isn’t the case. With a few exceptions, like Sushil Dwarkanath (head of the department of hotel management) at Bengaluru’s Christ University or P. Soundararajan (who holds the unlikely designation of corporate executive chef at Mahindra Holidays & Resorts, part of the Mahindra group), the pool of educators is not deep, and I see no effort on their part to reach out to trained chef-entrepreneurs like us. Nor do interested corporates invest in the future of chefs, as All-Clad or Pellegrino do in The Culinary Institute, for instance, equipping the kitchens with their metal cookware or mineral water (respectively). It’s a pity because, at this point of time, F&B is a fantastic career opportunity.”
This scenario has two corollary implications: One, most graduates of the various institutes of hotel management still follow the path carved by its earliest alumni, straight to the top tier of hotels, attracted by the promise of steady salaries and job security. And so hotels regularly spend up to a year and a half retraining graduates, diploma- and certificate-holders in basic skills to bring them up to speed.
Second, because the greatest ferment in the food and beverage sector, in the past 15 years at least, has been in the non-hotel sector, there’s a gaping hole in the stand-alone kitchens.
But training and manpower issues apply to almost every industry in India, right from administration to, well, zoo management. Why should the paying customer care about restaurant issues, as long as the food arrives at the table?
The simple answer is, yes, you should—if you care about good food. If the hallmark of a good restaurant is consistency, whether in individual dishes on the menu or across a multi-course spread at a five-star restaurant, the lack of sufficient (and sufficiently trained) kitchen staff means the entire industry is on thin ice.
It is an observation I come across time and again as I talk to leaders in the kitchen, both in five-stars and in stand-alones. Chef Y.B. Mathur, who graduated from IHM, Pusa in 1972, retired as a senior executive chef from the ITC in 2009, and continues to remain engaged with culinary training as a hospitality skills expert, is scathing: “Nothing much has changed at the IHM in the 43 years since I was there. See, this is a touch-and-feel industry, you can’t learn how to fillet a fish by watching videos! There is too much emphasis on theoretical studies, not enough on the practical. For instance, the training kitchen at IHM, Bengaluru possesses a Rational combi oven—an extremely common piece of equipment in the industry for steaming, roasting, grilling—but students need special permissions to even touch it. Or consider burners: They still use gas whereas commercial kitchens use induction cooktops.”
Mathur, entrusted with the training of India’s candidate for the cooking trade at the World Skills Competition in São Paulo, Brazil, in August, makes no bones about his frustration with the system. “Be it on the counts of equipment, hygiene, hands-on practice or even industry-familiar lecturers, there’s just no comparison between the training kitchens we offer our students and a professional kitchen. Our institutes start teaching Western cuisines only in the third year of studies. I had to train a second-year student for the competition... In a contest heavily weighted towards Euro-American standards, we go in with too many disadvantages.”
Closer home, the same disadvantages are magnified in the commercial space. In line with practices worldwide, commercial kitchens in India—structured the French way (brigade de cuisine) at the top-end restaurants and more informally lower down the ladder—are nominally led by executive chefs. Fine-dine establishments will have a sous chef or a chef de partie (senior chefs) but, across the line, the hands-on cooking is usually the lot of commis chefs, cooks by another name. And that is where the crisis is most manifest.
So what’s the solution? Mentoring and on-the-jobs skills upgrades for the new graduates, where they essentially unlearn and then start again. Consultants, entrepreneurs, chefs across price categories have no option but to take charge of training their recruits. In Bengaluru, where the start-up ecosystem has rubbed off on to the F&B space, creating a flush of cafés, gastropubs and restaurants funded by enthusiasts with no prior experience in the field, hospitality consultant Madhu Menon—a self-taught chef who had a good run with his South-East Asian restaurant Shiok before closing it down in 2010—encounters “a huge number of untrained people who have to do the majority of the cooking. At my projects, I try to teach them the fundamentals but, on the whole, you know, these aren’t people with the highest IQs.”
The scenario Menon describes is not unique to Bengaluru. New Delhi-based pop-up chef Pritha Sen, who helped set up Goa’s much talked about Bengali restaurant Mustard earlier this year, faces the same predicament. “You have to understand that these are not people who joined the field for love of food. For them, it’s a livelihood, a way out of poverty,” she points out.
Menon agrees. “They’re mostly Nepali, Manipuri, other North-Easterners, and a few Tamilians, Bengalis, Odias of late, who have left their home states for multiple reasons. For them, a restaurant is simply an economic opportunity,” he says. “Typically, they’re class X pass and they start as dishwashers. If they are any good, they’ll work their way up. I’ve known a few guys like that: A fellow who worked as a washer at Shiok was interested enough in cooking to watch YouTube videos on his own time and come back to me with questions when I was project-managing a Thai restaurant, where he got a job as a cook. When it changed hands, he moved on to a restaurant in Koramangala.”
Consider the head of her team, a young man from Uttarakhand by the name of Prakash Ram. At 26, he already has 12 years’ experience in Delhi restaurants. “But it’s only in the past nine years that I’ve been cooking,” he says. “Before that, I used to do the washing up, scrub down work surfaces.... Gradually, I began cooking, mostly south Indian food. My last place of work was Gunpowder, in Hauz Khas Village; I moved to Rustom’s after Gunpowder shut down.”
Sachin Tambe’s story is slightly different. Starting as a cleaner at Olive Bar and Kitchen, Mumbai, he stood out for his willingness to do just about anything. “After finishing my housekeeping shift in the morning, when I got my break at noon, chef (Chandra) would ask me to help him in the butchery,” says the diminutive, soft-spoken 25-year-old one evening at Monkey Bar, Chandra’s flagship gastropub on Wood Street, Bengaluru.
Fifty-plus David P., who worked with Taipan, the restaurant in Bengaluru that stood at the spot Monkey Bar now occupies, came to Chandra’s notice for his wok skills. After a lifetime spent working in Indo-Chinese restaurants, David also had the multitasking part down pat; in the past few years, it has been a natural progression for him to managing the Wood Street kitchen, while US-trained chef Varun Pareira is in overall charge of the outlets in Mumbai and Bengaluru.
While Menon’s empirical methods were born of his own experiences in a professional kitchen, Sen faced issues of a completely different kind when it came to training commercial cooks in her own home-perfected Bengali recipes. A delicate cuisine, an unfamiliar, sophisticated clientele, and inexperience in the kitchen can make for quite a combination. “One of the popular dishes on the Mustard menu was my fish chop (croquette),” says Sen. “But right after I came away following the launch, I began receiving feedback that the chop was delicious, but it wasn’t fishy enough. I thought it was because of the basa, which I was using against my better judgement. So I replaced it with the rui peti—the fleshiest part of the rohu—though the deboning added to the workload. But the complaints continued. Then I finally figured that the cooks, trained to skimp on expensive proteins at their previous workplaces, were actually stuffing the croquette with lots of potato and just a hint of fish! They weren’t being dishonest, they just didn’t know better.”
Genuine, two-way, mentor-protégé relationships in the F&B industry, however, are far more rare than may appear from these accounts. Raj, for instance, worked in at least two separate five-star establishments before finding a guide and coach in Banerjee, who makes it a point to make available his library, equipment and time to anyone who asks.
“Everyone needs a vision of their future,” Banerjee responds lightly, when I point out the role he has played in Raj’s growth. “I’d want everyone who works in the kitchen to learn a skill—why, right now, I have a steward, the most overlooked employee in a hotel, apprenticing under the halwai. When our main man is off, he’s the one making the gulab jamuns and rasmalais.”
A graduate of IHM, Chennai himself, Banerjee has a steady stream of fresh diploma-holders and graduates knocking on his door. Yet, he admits, any recruit will spend up to nine months in each section—butchery, garde manger, boulangerie, what you will—learning basic skills. “Once he knows how to cut, he will know how to cook,” he states categorically.
The most telling symptom of how highly prized trained cooks are is the turnover in staff at reputed establishments; the inducement can be as low as a few hundred rupees for commis chefs to thousands for those in the higher rung. “There are no secrets in my kitchen. So the moment I hear of another modern Indian eatery opening, I know I will lose a few people,” says Manish Mehrotra, whose Indian Accent restaurant put the new genre of cuisine on the map. “For a businessman to offer a Rs.10,000 monthly pay hike to a cook with a few years’ experience is easy, and it makes a significant difference to the cook himself. But I can’t increase salaries to coincide with every new restaurant in town!”
What also makes a difference with a junior kitchen hand, though, is opportunity and the occasional pat on the back. As with Raj. Working with sturgeon, venison and assorted squashes and citrus fruits to create a three-course meal, he didn’t make it to the top three in Budapest but the experience in the multicultural competition, he says, was invaluable. The biggest takeaway, says Banerjee, who accompanied Raj, was the public commendation he received from all the jury members for both his calmness in the kitchen and the food he plated up. “He’d worked with all the ingredients at The Ritz-Carlton, he was also familiar with the equipment he had to use: Both were a huge advantage,” Banerjee adds.
Right there, then, is food for thought for the industry—and us all.
WHAT THE CHEF NEEDS TO KNOW
Why fresh graduates from hospitality schools are not ready to manage the kitchen, and what the Oberoi Group is doing about it
Abolfazl Fallah, a kitchen management intern at the Oberoi Centre for Learning and Development (OCLD) in New Delhi, has been on his feet for about 9 hours. Since 8am, he has learnt to make 14 chicken dishes, with a geography lesson thrown in on the origins of the different preparations: harissa (Tunisia), chimichurri (Argentina), ras el hanout (North Africa) and jerk (Jamaica), among others.
Though he is learning new things every day, this is not Fallah’s first brush with hospitality training. His undergraduate programme at the Kohinoor IMI School of Hospitality Management, in Pune, was a 360-degree course, training students to do everything from housekeeping to waiting tables and marketing. Fallah says he got to spend less time in the kitchen than he would have liked, and never saw a Thermomix (a multipurpose gadget that can steam, emulsify, blend, heat/cool, mill, whip, knead, chop and grind) or a dehydrator in his two years there. “Resources were limited; even pans, grills, whisks were limited,” he says.
Fallah’s story is typical of his batch of 15 kitchen interns at the OCLD, each of whom has a bachelor’s in hospitality from schools such as the Institutes of Hotel Management (IHMs) and who, according to Parvinder S. Bali, programme manager—culinary services, OCLD, are “not job-ready”.
“Every day in the professional kitchen is a bloodbath,” says Bali. “The students are raw (when they complete their respective hospitality programmes). If they were to go into a professional kitchen now, they would likely join as commis chefs—the lowest level in a kitchen. It will be six months before they get to do anything other than butchering, cutting.”
So, Bali trains them in three distinct stages over 24 months. Stage 1 is the fundamentals of ingredients and cooking techniques, as well as learning to manage an all-day dining restaurant at one of the Oberoi properties. The second stage, a “comprehension stage”, includes understanding global cuisines and flavours as well as complex sugar and chocolate work. Stage 3 is what Bali calls the “evaluation and analysis stage”. At this point, the intern is ready to take on challenges like designing a festival menu, or calling in a specialized chef for a promotion. Each stage is further divided into three months of learning at the OCLD kitchen and five months of applying that training in the Oberoi hotel kitchens across the country. Starting from the second month, the interns also prepare and serve meals to Oberoi employees at the staff-only OCLD “restaurant”, Bougainvillea. Bali says: “The idea is that everyone in the course can become an executive chef at the end of the two years.”
The OCLD, which was started in 1966, has altered its culinary training drastically in the last decade because of the way the food industry has changed. Bali, who himself trained at IHM, Kolkata before joining the OCLD as a student in 1993, says that in the late 1990s, the schools were still teaching ice-carving. “The syllabus was pretty old-school. We learnt to make terrines, canapés and pâtés. The old books (we referenced) talked about Chicken Gelatin and Shepherd’s Pie. We learnt to make a mother sauce, maybe a white sauce that could go with many dishes, instead of experimenting with a jus.”
Gadgets like the Thermomix and cold-press juicer, too, have only come into the market in the last 10 years. Chefs trained the old-school way had to learn how to use these on the job. The new batch of chefs joining the kitchens are expected to know, from the get-go, how to set a retarder-proofer to get freshly baked bread 48 hours later and take a call on which cut of lamb to cook for 8 hours at 65 degrees Celsius using a sous-vide machine. The OCLD kitchen has a bunch of this new-age equipment, including a Rs.1.4 lakh sous-vide machine, Thermomix, a Hurom cold-press juicer, a foam gun and a molecular gastronomy kit, which, Bali says is “the carrot” he dangles in front of the interns to help them get through a tonne of grunge work.
So, of course, the training that Fallah and his classmates are getting is different from Bali’s in the mid-1990s. But Bali thinks the pace of change has quickened even more in the last three-four years. “Everybody has a smartphone. When they are watching Heston Blumenthal on YouTube, I can’t be talking about Chicken Gelatin. You have to stay one notch ahead of the students. I revise the modules each year,” he says.
Mixing it up also keeps the students engaged. For example, Bali and the interns, including Fallah, recently went to the Khari Baoli spice market in Old Delhi on a field trip. The interns are in Stage 1, which includes getting to know their ingredients. “I wanted to show them things like the difference between the Rs.600 and Rs.1,200 a kilo cloves and how to tell them apart,” says Bali. But Fallah is even more impressed with a trick Bali pulled. “He took some 56 cloves out of a jar, and picked out 14 that added up to exactly 1g,” says Fallah.
It’s definitely something Fallah wants to be able to do soon. In addition to getting his hands on that Thermomix, of course: Fallah has already begun researching Spanish dishes like ajoblanco (a garlic-almond cold soup), which he is raring to make in the Thermomix at the first opportunity.