If it isn’t quite what the guest ordered, so what’s the value addition?
What started as an exception 10 years ago is now the norm. Almost every large hotel in the metros and in popular holiday destinations today has at least one expatriate chef in the kitchen. Some exist in executive capacities: they do minimal cooking— they’re there in largely supervisory roles. Others are in charge of specific concept restaurants or the bakery — Chinese, Thai, Japanese, Italian. They are there entirely because of their cooking skills. There are a couple of similarities between the two. One is that both are expected to train the local chefs, or at least to expose them to a more superior way of doing things. The other is to raise the bar for the hotel and its F & B operations. This is especially true in the case of South-east Asian cuisines, Italian cuisine and the patisserie.
So what is it that hotels and increasing numbers of standalone restaurants are looking for when they pay big bucks for executive chefs from abroad? And is it something that Indian chefs can’t do? Almost everybody from the trade that I spoke to agrees on the desirability of chefs de cuisine who look after concept restaurants. As for executive chefs, the jury’s out on that one. Says the Indian general manager of a large chain, “No other civilisation on earth can take stress like we Indians can. Watching the clock and taking off your toque at 6:00 pm is a no-no in our industry, yet that’s how Westerners work.”
Says another F & B manager who has worked with two expatriate chefs and one Indian national, “Basically they’re white elephants. Apart from the fact that none of them know Indian cuisine at all, any good Indian executive chef can lead a team. Expatriates only come in useful when they go out to the restaurant to take guest complaints. Indian guests tend to back down when they see a foreigner. Other than that, I haven’t seen standards in my hotel dip when there was an Indian chef, or rise now that we have a Westerner.”
Expatriate executive chefs, naturally enough, don’t share the same views. Elaborates chef Francis Luzinier, “Conforming to HACCP (hazard analysis and critical control point, a quality rating) standards and driving restaurant revenues are two of the things that every international employer wants his chefs to do. Tell me how many Indian chefs can do that? That’s why I’m here.”
Comments a spokesperson from the Oberoi group, “We’ve always had more expat chefs than the competition. Our reasoning is simple: we want international standards and a face for our foreign room guests to relate to. In our Vilas properties, there is usually only one dining outlet, a foreign clientele of over 85 per cent, little local business and certainly no banqueting. Keeping up with international trends, especially in the metros is vital, and that’s where expat executive chefs come in.”
The charge that Westerners are clock watchers hits executive chef Marcus Mathyssek of Hyatt Regency Delhi hard. “I live in the hotel premises itself. I report to work at 7:00 am and never leave before 11:30 pm. Our Indian clientele usually eat dinner as late as 10:30 pm or later, so if I leave for the day at 6:00 pm, what kind of message will I send out to my team?”
It’s not only the five-star brigade that hires chefs from overseas: increasingly, standalone restaurants are beginning to see the necessity of expertise from abroad. Most of these are chefs de cuisine, but Sonia and Manu Mohindra of Under One Roof, restaurant consultants, have a word of caution: “Figure out exactly what you’re looking for, and then maximise the benefits that your expat chef brings with him. In the process of cooking 100 percent of the orders in his first month with you, he should, in time, take a back seat while his staff proves themselves. That way, you will have got your money’s worth.”
A D Singh’s Olive, with with branches in Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore, says of his decision to hire chef Massimiliano “Max” Orlati as his Italian chef de cuisine, “Chef Max has a family that has been running a restaurant with mama’s cuisine for the last 60 years. Who better than him to showcase the rustic cuisine of the region of Emilia Romagna?” There’s no doubt that the rough walls and outdoor setting of Olive’s three branches beg for a cuisine that is as rustic as the surroundings. Comments chef Max himself, “This grilled chicken with butter sauce that you’re eating — it has the richness of dairy produce, it’s tangy and it fits with the north Indian concept of interesting cuisine. I know my Italian food, plus I know the Indian market. So I know what to serve and, more important-ly, what not to serve.”
Meanwhile, there’s the other side of the fence. Rohit Khattar of Old World Hospitality, which manages Chor Bizarre, Oriental Octopus and all the F&B outlets in Delhi’s Indian Habitat Centre, would never dream of hiring an expat chef in an executive capacity. “My executive chef, doesn’t turn a hair when, at 7:00 pm, I tell him that there’s a banquet function for 300 persons in three hours’ time. Which foreigner can work like that?”
Other challenges for expat chefs come from the three groups of people they work with: guests, staff and suppliers. It’s the last that raises hackles. “We are paying customers and given the sheer volume of our business — important ones at that,” fumes chef Mathyssek. “But the suppliers treat us shabbily: my assistant stands at the receiving gate for four hours every single day, looking over every vegetable that is delivered, and rejecting a fair percentage. How’s that for waste of time?” Chef Thomas Figovc, executive chef at New Delhi’s Shangri-La Hotel, has coined three golden rules for Indian suppliers:
* There are no rules.
* No variously means yes, maybe or no, just as yes can mean no, maybe or yes.
* Tomorrow is a word describing the distant future. Everyone knows it’s going to come one day, but exactly when, only god knows.
Another chef confesses to staring in horror at the cavalier lack of hygiene in the meats section when he first arrived in the country. “You see the appalling conditions of carcasses in roadside butcher’s shops,” he says, repressing a shudder. “And when I told my butcher I required best end of neck, he proudly told me that Indian sheep had no such anatomical structure.”
Chef Hiroyuki Hashimoto, Japanese chef at the Shangri-La, waited 10 full months to get Japanese rice vinegar. “I have a set of brands I like to work with for soy, mirin and so forth. My supplier hasn’t been able to show me any of my favourite brands. After 10 months, just seeing a rice vinegar had me so relieved, I don’t care whether it is my preferred brand or not.”
Corporate pastry chef of ITC Welcomgroup, Noel Nalin Fonseka is the lone voice in the wilderness. “I see why compound, rather than pure chocolate, finds it way to India. Pure chocolate is five times the price of compound, which is made with vegetable oil rather than cocoa butter. Is the customer sufficiently aware to pay for such quality ingredients? He isn’t, for the most part.” Chef Fonseka, himself an Asian, has nothing but scorn for the quality of cream in this country, which doesn’t stand any test for purity. “It’s safer, more expeditious and economical to use imported non-dairy whip rather than imported cream. Why blame the supplier?”
Perceptions about staff fare better than suppliers. Figovc rates Indian kitchen employees far higher than those in the Philippines and Indonesia, where just getting into a five-star kitchen represents the highest achievement for a chef. “They’re not motivated to learn after that, and it signals the death knell of a chef.” The Lalit’s executive chef Francis Luzinier adds a codicil. “Indian cooks have knowledge, but they don’t build on it. They’re not inclined to taste the food they cook, they never surf the net for cuisine sites. or read books about food. Why, they’d never dream of going out for a Western meal on their day off.”
Chef Mathyssek puts another construction on the matter. “My last post was Australia where young chefs do go to check out the competition. If my team here doesn’t, it’s because of the more modest salary structure. And many of my cooks can turn out near perfect food every time, which they can’t taste because they are vegetarian. To me, it’s amazing.”
And what of the third group of people that chefs deal with: the guest? No sooner had I mentioned the word than eyes began to roll and lips began to be pursed. One Italian national claims that he almost suffered a cardiac arrest when a guest who ordered al dente pasta, called him out of the kitchen angrily. “I don’t find any al dente in it? Have you forgotten to put it in?” Another guest who had ordered a gorgonzola sauce on his pasta sent it back because “the gorgonzola tasted like cheese”.
It’s the oriental chefs who have the most complaints in this regard. “We don’t grumble to the management because, after all, we are earning handsome dollar salaries, but if all the guest wants is chilli chicken and paneer manchurian, what exactly are we doing here?” This can lead to all sorts of hilarious situations. Oriental restaurants have become so used to Indian customers wanting dollops of hot garlic sauce on everything they order, that even when they get an Indian customer with a taste for authentic oriental fare, they assume that he wants hot garlic sauce sloshed all over an order of fried noodles and fried rice, and cook accordingly.
Chef Max of Olive thinks he has found a way around the problem. There is no risotto on any of his menus because it’s his favourite dish and he doesn’t want to serve bastardised versions. Instead, if a guest makes a specific request, he’ll dash out of his kitchen to ascertain whether the guest knows the finer points of risotto or not. “If he’s willing to wait 30 minutes, or if he is Italian, I make it for him. If not, I tell him it’s not on the menu,” he chuckles with glee. “No way I’m going to make overcooked risotto from pre-prepared rice in my restaurant.”
Finally, when you’re dealing with a chef who is three continents away, how exactly do you make sure you make the right choice? “Hotels,” says Amit Oberoi, resident manager of the Shangri-La, “would do well to choose their expatriate chefs carefully. Look closely at his bio-data. If he’s only been associated with three-star Michelin restaurants, he’ll expect to work with a high standard of ingredients which Indian suppliers may not be able to provide. What were the menus in the places he’s worked in? Were they full of venison and ostrich? Or was he able to inject some excitement into local conditions? If so, he’s your man. If you’re looking at someone who’s never been to Asia, count on a high settling down period before he gets the feel of local conditions.” Oberoi warns of the perils of hiring an expat on the strength of his cooking skills, if what you want is an executive chef. He has heard of two instances where chefs de cuisine were forced into executive roles by hotels that didn’t know better, and the chefs interfered with cuisines that shouldn’t have been tampered with. “It happened because both thought like doers, not leaders.”
You may get saddled with a dud, someone who doesn’t pass on his skills to your staff, or someone who is permanently on sick leave. Or, you may land yourself a gem who, in his three-year contract with you, makes your F&B operation the talk of the town. Either way, you will only know the same time your guest does.