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IN CONVERSATION WITH CHEF VAIBHAV BHARGAVA

Jasmeen Dugal  (click here to know more about this blogger)

Vaibhav Bhargava, Corporate Chef, Yuvi Hospitality Group — an advocate for innovative dishes crafted with local produce — began his career at IHM and has the fortune of working with ITC Sheraton, Hyatt and Olive Bar And Kitchen following which he trained at two-Michelin star restaurant NOMA in Denmark where he had the fortune of working with the most prolific chef, Rene Redzepi. Today, he is a part of Young Chef Association For Sustainable India and has represented the nation twice at Slow Food India Chefs Alliance, Italy. As consultant chef, he has worked on diverse projects that include curating menus. So is it a wonder he has to his credit Pan Asian Chef Of The Year 2018 By Elite Magazine Dubai; Innovative Chef Of The Year 2018 by Magicka; Best Pan Asian Restaurant 2014 at Times Food And Nightlife Awards; Master Chef International Cuisine Award 2009? In conversation with him.

 

Chef, what is it about this profession that drives you?

 

As a chef it makes me happy when I make guests smile by cooking their favorite dishes or new innovative dishes. People love eating out so whether you're helping make a special event happier or a delicious luncheon, it's good to know your work is being appreciated. You need a lot of patience, the right attitude and creativity to face new challenges every day at work, which motivates you to do better. For many, work is something you do to earn money; for Chefs, work is our passion. It is a dream to work with people from different parts of the world and enhance our knowledge and skills about different culture and cuisines. Being a chef can mean long working days but we also experience the satisfaction of cooking for a living and the buzz of a fast-paced environment. If not a chef, however, maybe I would have been a professional Badminton player as I have played at the state level in my early days.

 

You have rich experience of working with the best properties right from the beginning of your career. Is there anything you observed or learnt overseas perhaps when working with Chef Rene Redzepi at NOMA, which you feel is missing and should be applied in Indian hospitality?

 

Yes, I'm blessed I started out and continued to work with the best brands throughout the eighteen- nineteen year tenure of my professional life. There is a great learning curve when one travels overseas.  When I went as a stagier to NOMA, I developed the passion to create something unique using the best possible technology and local sustainable ingredients and I have adapted the skills I learnt there to the way I cook today. Yes, there are certain things I observed there that i wish we could imbibe in indian hospitality. There, the chefs' focus is solely on food and they don't interfere in others' job profile. In other words, they don't have any other responsibilities unlike in India where chefs have to do marketing, interact with guests, device expansion plans and much more. Their focus is to procure the best food products and there is a separate team of chefs who work on research and development of new dishes. Indian hospitality has a long way to go because here we want one person to do everything and expect him to be a master of all trades but the end result is really annoying when you expect so many roles from one person.We must focus on specialisation and skills development… which is lacking in Indian hospitality.

 

Vaibhav, you are one of the most acclaimed consultant chefs today; what kind of research do you put in before crafting a menu for a new restaurant? Take us through some of your experiences.

 

Thanks for the compliment! Research and development plays a very important role not only in creating a menu but in understating viability and visibility of the business. It's important to understand the product we are working on because each concept is different. If a brand is opening a high end standalone cuisine concept then sometimes you need to travel to that country to understand its cuisine and culture and then incorporate a few dishes in the menu that are in sync with our market's taste. Market understanding is very important and menus need to be new and different each time. It's also very important to know the target audience. For example, if you open a restaurant where the market capacity to spend a dish is INR 100 and you have priced your dishes at INR 170 there is less chance of success. Crafting a menu depends on many factors as mentioned above.  Recently, I did consultancy for a project — Japanese restaurant, Takashi, in Gurugram. It is perfect for casual Japanese dining and as per directions of the owners I created the menu. Their target audience was one that frequent malls so each project is different and every menu is differently created.

 

How has the lockdown experience been for you? Did you find cooking therapeutic during lockdown or was it difficult to get inspired?

 

The lockdown experience is great for me because I have developed a whole new perspective of life. The things which were important to me are meaningless today and quality time with family and friends is the only thing that matters. trust me, they are only people who will help you during these circumstances. That said, cooking is happiness. Whenever I cook I feel good and cooking for my family during lockdown is a great experience as I have hardly had the opportunity to cook for my family, particularly my son Amolik. Now I make his favorite dishes and teach him about the importance of making food using local ingredients and its benefits. These days I am not doing too many inspired dishes as this is a time for survival. It's also a time to recreate dishes with seasonal local ingredients like mangoes, bottle guard, tinda, karela, beetroot, amla, lal saag etc. I keep cooking simple as we have limited kitchen equipments at home but I do innovate with ingredients to retain its nutrients.

 

You have been instrumental in transforming FnB of leading restaurants. What roadblocks do you foresee when restaurants open and how would you advise them to strategies?

 

Restaurants have been shut for a long time and when they reopen they will face these challenges to streamline operations — 1. deep cleaning the restaurant. 2. checking all equipments and services to see if they are in working condition. 3. supply chain with vendors. 4. implementation of hygiene guideline directed by government.  5. gaining the confidence of your guest that you are following all safety protocols 5. retaining customers. New strategies have been developed by each restaurant on how to promote the brand in a new way because it's like launching a new restaurant even if you're a famous chain — to bring back consumer confidence will be a huge challenge. I would advise all hygiene protocols to be implemented. Take time if needed before opening because until hygiene protocol is implemented there is no question of regaining consumer confidence.

 

How do you feel the pandemic will impact the industry, long-term? Judging by posts on Instagram, by the time things return to normal, would people have built a love for cooking and eating in? What happens now that desire to dine at their favorite restaurant is mixed with dread?

 

Yes, the pandemic will have a long term impact on the industry because everything is in on hold. Travel and tourism go hand in hand with hospitality. As International travelling is not opening anytime soon, business is not going to expand, and it will affect hospitality. When import and exports are closed, a lot of businesses will be impacted, and once everything comes to normal, it will take at least a year to get back to the pre- covid era.  At home, cooking works as a therapy. moreover, people want to have something new at home so they are experimenting with cooking. But once they are back at work they will not have time to cook. I think it's a temporary phase and people will go back to dining out. Yes, people are scared to eat out right now but they will overcome it soon because we Indians have a tendency to forget things quickly and will start moving out and will choose their nearest restaurants which are following protocols.

 

How would you advise restaurateurs and chefs to maintain the dining experience while adapting to"new normal"? 

 

Consistency is key in the dining business. Chefs have to cut down the menu because kitchens have less staffing and restaurants are maintaining social distancing protocols and other hygiene standards — a limited menu that changes from time to time is key. Restaurateurs have to continually innovate to retain customers and create new platforms of entertainment without neglecting safety protocols. It also goes without saying that they have to maintain the highest standard of food and service. From guest management and floor control to safe distancing, medical check-up of staff, deep cleaning each week, fumigation and sanitisation, drills will come into play .

 

How would you advise restaurants to sustain revenues now that they can only produce a fraction of their profits? Should they plan takeaway, home deliveries, food trucks and pop-ups now that social distancing demands fewer tables?  

 

I believe dining will become a little expensive as compared to the pre- covid era but not in all dining formats; where it's low cost investment, restaurateurs can play on volumes. Fine dine restaurants have to look at deliveries or takeaway to increase sales while spacious restaurants have a better chances of survival because even after maintaining social distancing they will have the capacity of seventy- odd covers. Restaurants only have to ensure they are fully packed even if they have fewer tables with social distancing.

 

As restaurants go into perilous hibernation and new ones don't open, it's no time to stick to the tried-and-true. What are you planning? Would you be open to cook- and- deliver, launching a cookbook, retailing Michelin-caliber meal kits or hosting workshops? What comes to mind?

 

Yes, many restaurants that were planning to expand in the current year have taken a backseat and shall wait for a better time but on the other hand it's a great opportunity for investors because things are relatively cheaper and will remain this way for the next six months. Currently I'm planning to reopen my current projects because it needs planning and strategies. The focus is on reviving restaurants which need help during covid 19 because many don't have expertise to reopen with the same quality of food. Alongside, there are several opportunities for catering at home by professional chefs. There are many thoughts on which I am working and one of them is DIY kits where everything is measured and packed and all the guest has to do is follow a recipe. Yes, I am doing several online workshops these days where people can learn different aspects of cooking at home.

 

Lastly how do you feel the government should motivate and support restaurateurs and chefs?

 

I think NRAI has already approached the government for help in taxation and rebates regarding rents and bills. The government has to acknowledge that the food and beverage industry is huge and millions of people have been impacted due to this pandemic. Liquidity is the main problem and a rebate or waiver in statutory dues and compliances could be one of the things the government can look into. Also, salary support, license fees, VAT, GST, interest on tax and electricity bills could all be looked into, to improve liquidity.
 

Chef Vaibhav Bhargava
Chef Vaibhav Bhargava
 
13-JUNE-2020
 
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