FoodService India spoke to Director, Turban Tadka Hospitality, Chef Harpal Singh Sokhi about the changing trends in the food service industry today and the shape of the things to come in the future.
Tell us about the cuisines that you love most and what do you find fascinating about them?
Indian cuisine and all the regional cuisines excite me the most. There is so much in our own food that it is difficult to learn the entire spectrum of Indian cuisine in one lifetime. Over the last few years, I have been learning more of regional cuisines and also more about Ayurvedic food.
I have seen regional cuisines rise to the top of menus at most restaurants. Unique street foods from across the nation are being featured in the menus. It gives me immense pleasure to see such new trends evolving. The basic food of a state is being converted to a full scale QSR. One such restaurant I came across in Bangalore was serving various forms of litti, which was once cooked in homes only and then went on to become the street food of Bihar. Now it is part of a concept restaurant and is also considered as a great healthy food.
Since a lot of local migration is happening due to job placements, cross-cultural cuisines will emerge in various states. Hence, we see lots of new format restaurants in Bangalore, Pune, Gurugram, Panchkula and various other urban centers where IT has a strong foothold. Today, people love to go to restaurants for food that they are used to eating at home. They also like to have the food from where they belong from. They order such food in restaurants so that they can experience a different level of taste and at the same time get to see the emphasis on presentation and plating, all of which sparks off the brilliance in the dish. People are also not afraid of experimenting now and then.
I love to focus on a style of my own, which is to pick up on various cuisines within India and the world in general. I then incorporate them into my style of cooking, which is easy to make so that people can replicate it at home.
How do you see the potential of Indian regional cuisines and which ones do you think have a great future?
I think that overall a lot of regional dishes are emerging more than the regional cuisines. At a national level, Punjabi has emerged as one generic cuisine. However, at state levels you can find Gujarati Thalis in Gujarat and parts of India. In Maharashtrian cuisine, while the missal pav has become popular in many parts of the world, within India it is yet to become popular as a national dish. Then there are Bengali restaurants popular in many different parts of India. Parsi restaurant concepts are emerging and a leading restaurant chain has been running this concept successfully. Down south you will definitely find Andhra food very popular in Bangalore, Chennai and other places as they all love spicy food.
However one thing very noticeable is the emergence of street foods of various states. They are becoming very popular – like the rolls of Kolkata, pav bhaji, batata vada from Maharashtra, litti chokha from Bihar, puri bhaji and so on.
I think more full service restaurants with street food concepts acquired from various states would open across the country. Personally, I would love to see more dishes from various states become popular so that people learn about and relish more of the regional flavours.
Can you offer us examples of some innovative F&B ideas and concepts that you have implemented at your restaurants?
My restaurants are known for their great quality food experiences. The Twist of Tadka and Bbjaan, a super specialty fine dining restaurant serving Royal Cuisines of India, are well established in their segments.
We are now looking at creating two QSR concepts to serve Canadian Poutine and Desi Chinese dishes. These two concepts would be named Dhadoom and Chika Chika. We are also creating 4-5 five concepts to cater to the various markets.
Looking at today’s market, children and women are major drivers of food. I have recently developed some great dishes for the Genuine Broaster Chicken restaurant chain in India of which I am the brand ambassador. As the face of the restaurant chain, and looking at the emerging food trends where the youth is indulging international format cuisines with Indian taste, I have done something that is very Indian and yet has an international approach in order to cater to the tastes of the youth today.
I have deconstructed the regular Indian dishes and created modern-day appealing dishes for the youth. I have created some great burgers like the Red Mutton Rogan Josh Burger, Palak Paneer Burger and Jonglee Noodle Burger for which I picked the idea from the streets of Jalandhar. I understand that people like to round off their meals with a paan, so I created a Gulukand Muffin, which one can relish as a dessert or a teatime accompaniment.
What is your take on the way that food will be promoted in the future?
As competition increases and profit margins become thinner, people will look to using the mediums that are highly effective and work within a catchment area they operate. Personalization and reaching out to the customer through high effective mediums will be used and I strongly believe that digital will be the medium of choice and will be used more sharply and with greater impact. Managing data and effectively using them will help restaurants to pull the clientele. With everything available on a hand phone, restaurants can be part of a technology-based medium to share their profile and food with their TG on a continuous basis.
Having said that, don’t forget that at the end of the day the experience at the outlet matters, which calls for a human touch, and its importance cannot be overstated.
How would you articulate the role of a modern day professional chef?
A chef has a great responsibility and various roles to play, especially when he becomes a public figure. People expect all kinds of solutions from him when it comes to food. With his soul being still in the kitchen, his heart has moved out to see how people relish the food and the experience it has created. He is no longer restricted to the kitchen and he is responsible for creating an experience for dinner. He is the hero of a restaurant/ hotel. His name adds to the restaurant’s profile. Today, chefs play a multi-functional role in generating sales, driving customer traffic, and marketing of a restaurant/ hotel. He has gone beyond managing the day-to-day activity of a restaurant kitchen.
Celebrity chefs have a bigger role to play toward the society. They are responsible for the health of society too. People look forward to all sorts of food solutions for their families. Any chef who has the quality to adapt to the ever changing fast world of today and is approachable, ready to listen to the demands of people, has a foodie attitude and is humble enough, is fit to play the role of a modern day professional chef.
What do you think are your key strengths and weaknesses as a chef?
Each one of has his own strengths and qualities. I love to experiment, learn and give whatever I have learnt as a chef. Over the years in my role as a chef, I have loved working on new projects, new formats, and creating new concepts. I have great staff management ability and anybody who works once with me would love to work with me again.
My weakness is that after successfully launching a concept, I like to move ahead and work on the next one. I think that as you mature you start to minimize your weaknesses.
What would you like to highlight regarding your professional line of work?
My work revolves around the kitchen: be it food products, appliances, digital food recipes and, of course, restaurants. I have to keep myself updated at every level – with the latest trends, food habits, food products, kitchen ware and appliances – as my work and business revolves around these verticals. I have also to keep myself updated with social trends on food.
For a chef, the demand and need is different at various levels and so he should be good at adapting and responding to these different needs. For instance, a housewife needs a simple and quick solution in the kitchen and also wants to update her kitchen with appliances that help her achieve her quick goals of cooking. So quick recipes, great appliances, a trendy kitchen linen and a handy recipe on mobile, all these should be available to her at the click of a button. I keep myself updating on all these trends. In a restaurant, of course, one has to be creative and the approach to food is a little different with food taste being paramount. Also, a very important thing for a chef is to take out the time to travel, visit places, food stores, and update himself with the technology and media.
Does India have enough good quality, trained and qualified chefs to meet the new emerging demands in foodservice industry?
India definitely is facing the challenge of shortage of qualified chefs. Also, with the ever emerging demands and the changing trends in food, it is becoming difficult to keep updating at the institute levels as well. It is important to also train the teachers at the institutes so that students get the benefit of learning about the latest trends and practices and start employing them at an early stage of their career. Of course, as they say, all learning begins only when you start swimming in the water and the plunge happens when you start your professional journey. So, if you have fire in the belly, then nothing can stop you.
What have been your major learnings in this profession, which you would like to pass down to aspiring chefs of the future?
Stay focused, have patience, work hard and be smart.
What can one expect from the food scene in the country going ahead?
With more than 35 per cent of the country’s population living in major metros, and life becoming more and more difficult, people are looking for more quick food solutions. As both spouses are working these days, they have less time to spend in the kitchen. At the same time, dining on weekends will continue to increase. People are looking for food solutions at home too. So going ahead, I believe we will see the dynamics of food habits changing. While all this will happen, I am sure that Indian men and women will still love to spend some time in the kitchen and cook themselves.