In a tête-à-tête with FoodService India, celebrity chef Vicky Ratnani opens up on his cooking preferences, culinary expeditions, and the many innovations and skills with which he has painted his culinary canvas. During the course of the chat, Ratnani also talks of the emerging trends and challenges that any modern day chefpreneur should be au courant with.
What do you consider the most distinguishing features of a successful chef? What are your best achievements?
A chef must be creative, dedicated, honest, open-minded and crazy. By far one of my biggest achievements was working as the first Indian Executive Chef of the largest ocean liner in the world for a British company.
Which culinary styles have influenced your career?
Contemporary and progressive culinary styles have certainly influenced my way of cooking. Apart from that, I also love the flavours of the countries in the Mediterranean, Middle East and South America.
Who have been your career mentors and which chefs do you admire the most?
While I was in college, chef Vernon Coelho motivated and pushed me hard and inspired me to be a go getter.
I am a great admirer of chef Thomas Keller for creating one of the best restaurants in the world ‘The French Laundry’. Then there is chef Tetsuya Wakuda, who gave Australia a whole new Aussie inspired Japanese cuisine with Nobu, the world’s most recognized Japanese restaurant, known for its innovative ‘New Style’ Japanese cuisine, which was launched its Australia in 2007.
Another chef that I widely admire is chef Virgilio Martinez from Central, in Lima, Peru, which is the fourth-best restaurant in the world for using native produce from the Andes and the Amazon in a magnificent way.
How would you describe your approach to cooking and the foodservice business?
I think my approach to cooking can be described as being progressive, purist and real.
Which are your signature recipes and cuisines?
Some of my signature recipes are Masala Chai Poached Chicken Breast, Calamari Frites and Double Expresso BBQ Braised Pork Belly Skewers.
What is foodservice innovation in your opinion?
Foodservice innovation is all about knowing the product and the produce well. An easy accessibility to products and having a good team that is passionate and willing to make a difference to the food operations is a vital ingredient to ensuring a successful foodservice operation.
What is your opinion about the future of Internet first restaurants and virtual kitchens that sprang up at a fast and furious pace until recently but now find themselves in an existential crisis?
I think virtual restaurants have a great scope and future provided that the product is really good and well put together. The food has to be bang on in all aspects. This was the missing link in those virtual restaurants that closed down. Besides the brand and logo, these restaurants had no previous credentials or reputation to speak of that could help attract customers. There was no tangibility and no past record to inspire consumer confidence.
Which are the important areas and functions of social and digital media that F&B operators should focus on?
F&B establishments should identify and reach out to the correct target group on the right social media platform. The marketing and packaging should be appealing to the target group. Maintaining a good regularity – when it comes to time, place and content – is also very important.
Which aspects of social media work best for F&B operators and which social media platforms are perfect for reaching out to target customers?
Nowadays most foodservice operators have a sizeable budget for social media. There are also some operators that don’t do much on this front as the product speaks for itself. In my opinion, social media platforms like Instagram, Facebook, Zomato, TripAdvisor, Wow Tables, Eazy Diner are very handy tools for promoting and marketing your brand and products to your target audience.
What does the process of menu development entail and what is your recommended approach to doing it?
I won’t call it a process. I would prefer calling it ‘menu engineering’. It involves keeping a close watch on a few factors – like looking at the type of guests at the outlet, the quality of raw materials and other considerations like seasonality of the dishes, cost factor and the skills set of your team. Menu engineering is also about striking the right balance of taste, colour, flavour, price points, etc, all of which makes menu development less complicated and a simple task.
Please offer us some examples of innovative F&B ideas that you have implemented?
Guests are looking for a lot of innovation and choice towards vegetarian and vegan diets. My menus have more vegetarian options than non-vegetarian and I enjoy giving special treatment to vegetables and letting them take centre stage. Another F&B innovation that I am inclined to talk of is the use of ancient grains like millet, amaranth, barley and broken wheat, which are seen in trendy menus today. Cooking techniques such as cooking on charcoal, sous vide, smoking, brining, pickling are the other big features on my menus.
What is your opinion about the evolving demands of the foodservice industry and how is it leading to food manufacturers to tweak and customise their offerings for HoReCa sector?
Manufactures, importers and traders are now working closely with chefs and foodservice professionals. The synergy is increasing and at the same time chefs are going out of the way to procure new, rare and exotic ingredients. Not only are they looking for a different produce but also for unique crockery, cutlery and flatware.
Tell us about the ingredients that have seen a dramatic rise in popularity or are witnessing a growing demand in the HoReCa sector?
Vegan recipes – gluten-free desserts, quinoa, buckwheat, millets, organic food, microgreens and sprouts, craft beer, artisanal coffee and modern mixology – are witnessing a growing surge in demand and popularity.
How would you describe the part that technology has come to play in the foodservice business?
In food preparation and service, specialised equipment and gadgets create a wow effect. Food apps and restaurant booking apps do contribute to the sales and profitability of the restaurant. Similarly, videography and photography help in quick brand positioning.
What are your observations about the evolution and developments in fine dining, smart/casual dining in India? Which are the new concepts that will upend the existing conventions?
The white table clothes and white glove service has disappeared. Price points have become flexible. Concept has overtaken food. Concepts like ‘Farm to table produce’ and ‘Root to leaf cooking’ have gained interest and demand.
Any opinion as to why, despite Indian food being popular in many countries, no Indian QSR has been able to go beyond twenty or so restaurants whereas foreign QSRs spawn thousands of outlets all over the world?
I feel the popularity of Indian food is limited to some big cities in Asia and the US. Indian food in a lot of places is percieved to be spicy and generalised as a curry. Apart from that, the skill sets available abroad for making Indian cuisines are not easily available and are very different from the actual requirements.
What are some of the biggest challenges that chefs face today in making their outlets stand out as an independent star attraction?
Inconsistent supply of good quality produce, escalating labour costs, import laws for ingredients, pressure from investors and owners and high rental costs are some of the challenges that a modern day chef has to cope with in the quest of raising the profile of his establishment.