Versatile, lissome and with a razor-sharp wit, celebrity chef Shipra Khanna, the winner of Season II of MasterChef India, shares her culinary vision with FoodService India. Shipra talks of her love for Japanese and Peruvian cuisines. “What I love about these cuisines is the techniques, skills, the combination of ingredients, the flavours…each dish is simply mind blowing!,“ says Shipra who counts legendary chefs Nobu Matsuhisa and Heston Blumenthal as her role models.
How did you come into the world of Foodservice?
I got a chance to break into the culinary world through Masterchef India. After winning Masterchef India, I travelled across the globe and started learning new techniques from various chefs. I started making my fusion recipes and educated myself with practical food experiences in India and across the world. One thing led to another and I have experienced a great organic growth in the food service business, which is so vast and diverse.
What keeps you busy?
I set up restaurants and menus for several establishments, and do cooking shows for TV and digital media. I do consultation for restaurants across all Foodservice segments, depending on their requirements.
Do you see yourself more as a chef or a hospitality entrepreneur? Which is closer to your heart – managing food or managing business?
I am a chef first, and business follows. I follow a strict discipline and my focus is on being a chef first and foremost. To be a restaurateur, one needs to be a passionate foodie or chef. The ability to grow in the restaurant business depends on the same skill set that you bring to bear as a chef. You have to be a master at hospitality and good at personalising the experience with a team by persuading all to follow the same set of rules.
Do chefs really make good restaurateurs or is it just a myth? What are the chances of a good chef botching up as a restaurant business?
A restaurant runs because of the quality of food and that is dependent on the chef who is in charge. So this is not a myth but one of the greatest realities in the food business. A good chef will first create and train a team of chefs to perfection for one restaurant and then think of expanding the business with time.
Food, presentation, ambience – in today’s time all the three are equally important. What’s your take?
As I consult for restaurants, I recommend all the three to be balanced as they are all an integral part of the Foodservice business.
As a globe trotting chef, which are your favourite cuisines?
Japanese and Peruvian. What I love about these cuisines is of course the techniques, skills, the combination of ingredients – simple or exotic, the flavours of each dish is simply mind blowing! Zuma, Coya and Nobu in London are some of the best places to experience these cuisines.
How about your most inspirational dishes?
They are way too many. However, dishes that are made using authentic methods of cooking, inspire me a lot.
Who are the chefs you admire?
Nobu Matsuhisa, who is a world renowned chef known for his fusion cuisine – blending traditional Japanese dishes with Peruvian ingredients – and Heston Blumenthal, an equally acclaimed British chef and owner of one of four restaurants in Great Britain to have three Michelin stars.
Skills, technique and their approach to food makes me admire them. Whether it’s a combination of ingredients and their treatment or whether it is applying scientific principles to food to make it more interesting and fun, these two masterchefs are consummate artists and they keep food lovers craving for more. They have taken food to another level, and have created many their own specialised cuisines. Then, there are a few others whom I admire for their originality and versatility.
Why is it that chefs profess to their liking for simple home-made food despite spending their life-time concocting lavish dishes? Isn’t there an underlying hypocrisy in chefs liking home-made food for themselves and expecting more people to come and consume restaurant food?
It’s purely on account of the law of having too much. As a chef, you are constantly tasting and eating lavish food and so there is a tendency to prefer softer, lighter food cooked at home to neutralise one’s intake. It is like taking a break from work.
How do you see the evolving role of chefs in a changing food scenario?
Chefs have a huge responsibility when it comes to influencing food culture and trends. Whether it’s bringing in new concepts or evolving the existing ones and even changing the old, chefs will have a great influence on our eating habits. For example, due to the increasing health issues coming to the fore, I really stress on healthy food habits and styles of cooking.
Some of the restaurants we know lay their claim to fame on their exemplary pairing of modern cuisine with contemporary Indian food. What is your culinary approach and how would you describe the hallmarks of your cooking method and presentation?
As I do a lot of fusion cooking, I agree with the philosophy of marrying the different styles of cooking. This marriage and coming together of different styles has made an otherwise large and vast world become a smaller place for food aficionados. This is the trend for the future as taste buds across the world are getting more experimental and accepting, giving the way to innovation and creativity.
What are the twists you make in your recipes?
Fire and Ice! To marry extremely opposite flavours and create a distinct taste to the dish makes for a good twist with a high after-taste.
Today’s generation is hungry for social networking posts and they try to find an opportunity to click their pictures with a good backdrop. So, are an aesthetically done ambience, furnishings, lighting, music, props, spacing, fragrance, paintings, décor and colours becoming more vital elements for a pleasant and memorable restaurant experience than the quality of food itself?
I disagree. It is the food first. Unless you visit a restaurant, how will you click pictures, Aspirational decor, artistic approach, etc, are all important in their own ways but they are all secondary to the food.
Today, restaurants have become multidimensional spaces for events and marketing events have become very important for the restaurants to attract clientele. Is it because products across restaurants are getting more and more common and indistinguishable?
Not all restaurants fall in the same slot. The work related restraints seldom allow many of them to become multi-dimensional. Yes, as a promotion strategy, events, etc, are done to build the client base and break the monotony of just dining.
As a restaurant consultant, do you believe in organising events like book reading or yoga session, Sufi nights, DJ nights and so on and so forth?
An event is truly an event and a positive activity for a restaurant when it is not overdone. It is unique to have some activity to kill the monotony; however it can’t be the basis. Also, activities should match with the profile of the place. The activity has to fit in with the brand of the restaurant. One can’t do every and any activity and create a clutter of activities in the process. This creates for a confused positioning of the restaurant.
What do you feel about the future of the food industry in India and how do you see it evolving?
It has already started to evolve with new cuisines being accepted and appreciated in the metros and we are seeing these trends moving to Tier I and II cities as well. Fast food, healthy food, small bites and fine dine are all going to coexist in India as we are a continent and not a country when it comes to food preferences and tastes.
In your opinion, what is a decent profit margin for a restaurant business?
Profit margins can not be generalised. Restaurants range across various budgets, cities and clients. We can’t have a thumb rule. It depends entirely on the vision of the promotors. But what I can say is that food usually follows either high volumes with thin profit margins or controlled volumes with high profit margins. But the important thing is to first build the sustainability of any restaurant.
Many hospitality entrepreneurs believe that the biggest challenge in the F&B sector is to try and make every customer happy. How do you look at it and how do you react to adverse publicity?
It’s all part of the business.
Do you think that customers who post reviews on sites like Zomato do so without having an understanding of the nuances of cuisine? What can restaurateurs do to counter unscrupulous reviews?
You can not control a negative thought or comment. But you can definitely get feedback. One has to know that any art form is dependant on myriad opinions, which are often subjective. Thus, it is important to have a window for critical comments on movies, food, fashion, et al. One has to know when someone is being objective and have the sincerity to absorb what those opinions have to say or else just ignore them. Good food talks for itself.
How do you decide and act on changing any particular food product on the menu? How do you look at the various options of replacement and what actually goes into menu planning and development?
It all starts with first making a menu keeping in mind the availability of the ingredients and the in-demand dishes, followed by testing and tasting it in its initial stages. The key to this whole process is the chef who gets the feedback from the customers and accordingly then tweaks the recipes to the liking of the clients. A dish might not move and there could be many reasons for it, and that might include the tastes of the customers. So, at times even a superb dish might not cater to the taste buds of the visitors. In such cases, it is best to get it off the menu. Trial and Error is the reality when it comes to making a
Which is a better approach to menu planning – having 100 dishes on the menu or just a few compelling ones. From the perception of customers, do restaurants with more number of menus score higher than a place which may have less number of dishes?
I would definitely go for a few compelling ones. However, one also needs to create more variety. Unless new dishes are available, how will the customer get to know about them and evolve to finding more than just the standard dishes. So a constant effort to introduce new recipes and make them work is a challenge but at the same time having such an approach will also ensure success at some stage.
For fine dining restaurants, is access to getting best quality international ingredients a challenge? Is it still hard to find some real good ingredients with even the best importers/ vendors?
Yes, ingredients’ availability and cost of procuring the ingredients is a challenge for sure. But it will change with time as it’s a factor of demand and supply. The demand and consumption in India is increasing, so supply will find its way. But as of now, the scenario is definitely a challenge. One has to have enough passion for sourcing finest international quality ingredients. Fine dine restaurants always need to go the extra mile to source such ingredients.
Why is it that home-grown restaurants have not really been able to break into the big league like many foreign restaurant chains the world over?
Primarily, there exists an extremely robust and growing market in India, and so most ventures tend to focus on catering to the domestic consumption. However, I feel the time has come where Indian chains will trend toward catering to a huge Indian origin population across the globe. Also, the global market and taste buds are now more welcoming of Indian food. Dining in chain restaurants is growing fast and it will be the chains that will expand faster.
Are the lines blurring between fine dining and newer formats such as Smart Casual and Casual- Fine Dining?
Fine Dine has a great potential in India. Location is the primary factor that will ensure the success of this format. There is plenty of talent and skill set available for this format to flourish. To maintain the distinctive edge of this format, it is important to ensure exotic and unique recipes that one can’t find easily. Presentation of food and an overall experience, including ambience and service, are the other important characteristics of a fine dine restaurant.
What suggestions/advice would you give to young entrepreneurs in the Foodservice business?
Be extremely cautious in going about creating a success story. Define your location, have a targeted customer base and slowly build your brand with consistent food quality. Passion is an important part of any venture and more so with food. Passion, quality and consistency along with the focus on things like hygiene are an integral part of Foodservice.
How would you describe your culinary journey so far and what are your goals for the future?
The journey so far has been very interesting and challenging at the same time. It has been full of learning, experience and travel. Looking ahead, restaurants, books, travel and TV shows all are part of my future plans.