Friday, 28 February 2014

As The Trident Gurgaon Turns 10, It Eyes Bigger Share of MICE Pie and Prepares to Go Organic

By Sourish Bhattacharyya

I STILL remember the evening, ten years ago, when I walked into what was then The Trident Hilton Gurgaon, getting that wow feeling as I beheld the aquamarine water body (I am told it holds 800,000 litres of constantly recycled water) reflecting the frisky flames of the mashaals (fire-lit torches) lighting up the entrance courtyard of the hotel, which stood out as a showpiece in a sleepy town that was just becoming known as the back-end capital of the world.
Nitesh Gandhi, who was the F&B
manager of The Trident Gurgaon
ten years ago and is now general
manager, explains why the hotel is
No. 1 in Gurgaon on TripAdvisor
As I was ushered in through the ornamental doors that towered over me like Aladdin's genie, I was received by Kapil Chopra, whom I had known from his stint at The Taj Mahal Hotel, New Delhi, where he led the prestigious presidential suite project; David Mathews, who had moved in from the salubrious setting of the Wildflower Hall in Shimla to take over as Executive Assistant Manager (F&B); and Nitesh Gandhi, the F&B Manager. That was ten years ago, when the only competition The Trident had was the older and definitely dowdy The Bristol, which didn't look like a hotel of any consequence in the best of times. I wondered why P.R.S. Oberoi, a hospitality mogul in a class of his own, had chosen to open such a magnificent hotel with suitably appointed rooms -- a Vilas and not just another Trident -- in the middle of a wilderness.
Ten years on, I don't have to ask this question. The Trident Gurgaon, which celebrates its tenth birthday this evening, has been the biggest gainer of Gurgaon's stunning growth. I am sure the staff must have lost count of the number of Fortune 500 company board meetings they have hosted, or the international corporate top guns who have walked the hotel's gleaming corridors. Just in the recent past, the hotel has hosted the global boards of Microsoft, American Express, McKinsey and Harley Davidson. It was also the first hotel in Gurgaon to host an international conference -- that of the foreign ministers of 51 Indian Ocean rim nations -- organised by the Ministry of External Affairs. To provide security to the visiting dignitaries, Delhi Police, in an unprecedented move, had to get its jurisdiction extended to Gurgaon!
The Trident Gurgaon has set the gold standards for a market that has grown from 350 rooms (including 136 of its own) to more than 5,000, and is waiting for another 3,500 to open up at the New Delhi Aerocity through this year and the next. At a time when hotels are engaged in a pricing bloodbath, it has held on to an 80 per cent occupancy; the hotel's February 2014 revenue per available room (RevPAR) -- Rs 9,935 -- is 12.5 per cent higher than the previous year's figure and it is all set to close this financial year with 10 per cent higher gross operating profit. With The Oberoi Gurgaon coming up next door, and with the two hotels working on a "one complex, one sales team" strategy, they are now eyeing with confidence the competitive market cutting across segments. What I thought would be a real estate disaster has turned out to be an industry success story.
"Our Chairman has a sharp eye for locations. See how The Oberoi New Delhi is located right next to the city's oldest golf course. It has ensured, besides offering a great view to guests, the hotel has no competition in its neighbourhood," says Gandhi, as nattily turned out as ever, as we settle down for a chat in one corner of the pool, completely insulated from the noise and confusion on one of the NCR's busiest (and till recently, clogged) arterial roads, just a couple of hundred metres away. The Trident Gurgaon doesn't exaggerate when it claims to be a business hotel that "makes you forget you're on business".
The hotel's main corridor oozes the warmth and
grandeur responsible for making it the 'business
hotel where you forget you are on business'
Ten years seems like a lifetime. Gandhi is now the general manager of the hotel. And he's not the only one who has risen in the corporate food chain. Kapil Chopra, whose ease with words matches his mastery over numbers, is the President of The Oberoi Group. David Mathews, who handed over charge to Gandhi, is the general manager of The Oberoi Gurgaon next door. Rathijit Dasgupta, who started as a steward at Cilantro (Gandhi remembers training him how to balance service trays), The Trident Gurgaon's multiple-award-winning all-day restaurant, is the food and beverage manager of The Oberoi Gurgaon. Gaurav, the then duty manager, is the rooms division manager. Aafreen, the then front office assistant, is the production manager. And Jasbir, also a front office assistant, is now the front office manager. If The Trident is Gurgaon's No. 1 hotel on TripAdvisor with a 96 per cent approval rating, it is because of these people who have hitched their fortunes to it, a rare feature in an industry prone to a high attrition rate.
Gandhi attributes The Trident's success to three features of The Oberoi's work culture that flows down from the man presiding over the empire. "We have been taught to develop an astute sense of detailing, never to make comprises, and to hire the right people," says Gandhi. The right people, with the right empowerment, can create "magical stories for our guests". He mentions the instance of a top executive of a leading management consultancy who was a regular at a neighbouring hotel. Gandhi managed to influence him to transfer his account to The Trident Gurgaon. Today, the guest doesn't go anywhere else because he swears by Fazil, the gym instructor. "When service is at this level, then business comes automatically," says Gandhi. "The standards have to be high when you work for a legend," he adds.
As Gandhi gears up for what he perceives as a "tough fight" in the next three years, he has set three goals for the hotel:
* Go for the upper end of the MICE (Meetings Incentives Conventions Exhibitions) business more aggressively, pitching for heads of state visits, Fortune 500 company board meetings and product launches. At the moment, MICE provides 18 per cent of the hotel's business, compared with 75 per cent from corporate clients and 7 per cent from the leisure segment. "Now that the Gurgaon toll is out, we will go for the Delhi business," Gandhi says. "And we are already tapping the Mumbai market."
* Reduce waste for healthier bottomline. "Our Chairman keeps emphasising that economising is not about cutting costs, but about eliminating waste," Gandhi says. He points outs that the hotel's boilers and gas burners (in the mashaals and the kitchens) are moving on to piped natural gas (PNG).
It has become necessary, he says, because of the erratic electricity supply in the summer months and the cost of diesel (used to run generators) shooting up from Rs 44 to Rs 57 in one year. The average per day requirement of diesel, which is 1,022 litres, shoots up to 2,200 litres during the summer months, which see six to eight months of power failure per day.
* Turn organic. This is the mission Gandhi has set for the kitchens of the hotel. "Give us three months and you'll start seeing the difference," he says, adding: "In a competitive market, if you don't differentiate, you die." That seems like a faraway prospect for a hotel grounded in the finest values of the industry.

Thursday, 27 February 2014

FORTUNE COOKIE: How Delhi Got Over Its Fear of Raw Fish

This column first appeared in the February 27, 2014, edition of Mail Today. Here's the link to the original:
Copyright: Mail Today Newspapers

By Sourish Bhattacharyya
I STILL remember when Delhi/NCR's first real Japanese restaurant, Sakura, opened in the year 2000 at what was then called The Metropolitan Hotel Nikko, even seasoned diners would shudder at the thought of having raw fish. They regarded sushi and sashimi with trepidation because the closest contact the city, outside the Bengali community, had with fish till then was the batter-quilted, deep-fried Amritsari variety. Raw fish wasn't our idea of good food. And Japanese meant Fujiya's chicken gyoza (fried dumplings) or what passed off as Japanese at The Ashok's Tokyo restaurant.
The popularity of the sushi platter
of Wasabi by Morimoto, which
has just turned five, mirrors the
evolution of the city's taste buds.
Sakura, predictably, became a hangout of Japanese expats, who found heaven in the o-toro (tuna belly supreme), hotate (scallop) and hamachi (yellowtail), blast frozen and flown in three times a day by Japan Airlines, that Master Chef Nariyoshi Nakamura would slice for them with his platinum knives, which he kept with reverential care at one corner of his kitchen. For family outings, they would head to Tamura, which was run by one of them in that quiet corner where Vasant Vihar's Paschimi Marg meets Poorvi Marg, the only place in the world where East  meets West.
The local clientele preferred the comfort of tempura and yakitori, the Japanese pakodas and kebabs, or go to TK's at the Hyatt Regency and assume that its Benihana-type teppanyaki offerings were Japanese. That may explain why the Taj did not open a Wasabi in Delhi for five years after launching the restaurant with the much-acclaimed Japanese American 'Iron Chef', Masaharu Morimoto, in Mumbai a decade ago. And even when threesixtydegrees at The Oberoi decided to make its sushi boat the talk of the town, it consigned its Japanese counter to one corner of the popular restaurant presided over by a Filipino expat named Augusta imported from Dubai. Augusta, with his charming ways, made sushi accessible to the ladies who lunch by getting them addicted to his sushi-rolling classes. It coincided with the discovery of Nobu by the chatterati, who made a pilgrimage to Nobuyuki Matsuhisa's London restaurant their annual holiday pilgrimage, and they got addicted to its miso-marinated black cod.
When Wasabi by Morimoto opened at the Taj Mahal Hotel in New Delhi, the market had already grown used to Japanese food, but Sakura had ceased to matter and the city still feared raw fish. Unsurprisingly, like elsewhere in the world, California rolls started getting popular (and home delivered), because you ate the rice first and the minuscule presence of raw fish got masked by mayonnaise, avocado and what not. Some people even tried to introduce tandoori sushi, but, thankfully, the trend did not catch on even in this Republic of Butter Chicken. Nonetheless, California rolls, in a number of avatars, are on offer at restaurants as different from each other as Set'Z at DLF Emporio, Kylin Premier at the Ambience Mall, Vasant Kunj, and the new and funkier TC behind DLF Place, Saket.
Wasabi by Morimoto now has competition from Megu, the Indian outlet of the trendy New York restaurant at The Leela Palace New Delhi, and the most recent addition to this growing family of Japanese restaurants, Akira Back at the New Delhi Aerocity's JW Marriott, whose tuna pizzas have acquired a cult following. Outside five-star hotels, Guppy by Ai at the Lodhi Colony Market and En at the New Ambavatta Complex in Mehrauli are jostling for attention, but the price points and location of the former are clearly working to its advantage. The menus of these restaurants have convinced us that Japanese cuisine doesn't equal raw fish, though, given any opportunity, I'd personally have raw tuna belly or scallops or salmon at any time on any day -- like a tom cat on steroids. Wasabi by Morimoto has turned five by unveiling a new menu with inventive vegetarian options. The Capital's roller-coaster romance with Japanese cuisine is now a decade old, but it has shown with its adaptive agility that ten years is a long time for a city's palate.

FIVE-STAR restaurant menus can be predictable to the point of being boring, but there's always the occasional creative spark that makes you want to set out on a mission to find out more. It is such a long journey from South Delhi to the Vivanta by Taj, which opened not too long ago at Sector-44, Gurgaon, that your immediate response is to give up the idea of visiting the hotel. But when the story waiting at the other end of the interminable drive is the Yellow Line Menu, curiosity drags you to it.
The Yellow Line Menu takes you on a culinary voyage across the Metro line that stretches from Jehangirpuri, via Chandni Chowk, to the HUDA City Centre in Gurgaon, which is next door to the hotel -- in fact, from Latitude, the all-day restaurant where the menu is on offer, you can see the trains zipping up and down. Executive Chef Neeraj Chaudhry, who avoids the spotlight as hard as possible, has turned the Yellow Line Menu into an engaging creative statement.
Chaudhry's gravy train takes off with Sita Ram Bazaar's Dahi Bhalle Papri Chaat served in a cute three-tiered utensil -- the presentation is an ode to Chandni Chowk's timeless class. Connaught Place is celebrated with bread rolls stuffed with mozzarella, a delicious twist to a snack that will take you back to your childhood, and Shankar Market's lassi; INA's dhabas have inspired the silky chicken malai tikke and the tangdi and seekh kebabs; Sarojini Nagar's bustling market, famous for its hardy perennial halwai shops, is represented by gobhi and palak patta pakore; Hauz Khas by steamed momos served with hot garlic sauce, an obvious reference to the bustling 'momo economy'; and Chhattarpur, which we associate with opulent temples and manicured farmhouses, makes an appearance with mutton korma and tawa parantha.
For an expat, or a newcomer, can there be a better introduction to the city's food cornucopia? It makes me want to discover the Violet Line Menu at other Vivanta at Surajkund. The Metro line connects Central Secretariat with Badarpur, via Khan Market, Jangpura, Okhla and Sarita Vihar. I wonder how this food story will shape up.

WHEN Enzo Renda, a Sicilian entrepreneur from Montreal, tied up with Jaypee Hotels a decade ago to launch his Eggspectation chain of restaurants, which is famous for its many versions of  Eggs Benedict, he couldn't have imagined that his menu would have Chholey Samosa Burger.
When I first chanced upon the burger at the outlet at Jaypee Vasant, where I have been going for years to quell my post-drinks hunger pangs with the fully stacked Eggspectation Omelette, I was stuck by the originality of the idea. There's not one of us who hasn't had a samosa sandwich; all it needed was a bright spark to turn the snack into a burger on a brioche bun. It was a similar stroke of genius that turned the McAloo Tikki Burger, a McDonald's India creation, into an international phenomenon, selling from Dubai to Indonesia.
Eggspectation's new menu should turn the restaurant into a destination for diners perennially on the lookout for wholesome ideas. Between the Bad Boy Tenderloin Burger with crispy bacon and Cheddar cheese and the Mushroom Melt Burger with tofu and melted Provolone cheese, there's a world of new tastes waiting to be discovered out there.

PRESIDENT Xi Jinping's crackdown against China's culture of ostentatious gifting, which was the accepted way of bribing in the past, has had an unusual victim -- the luxury cognac brand, Louis XIII, a bottle of which sells for Rs 1.9 lakh (duty-free!) in Delhi. China accounted for 40 per cent of Louis XIII's worldwide sales. It was also the biggest market for the cognac's rare cask version, each of whose 738 decanters, is priced at 50,000 pounds sterling duty-free. The sales today are down to zero. India therefore is back to being the darling of the luxury business. And yes, there are unusual takers, such as rural Delhi's landed gentry, for such extravagant indulgences.

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Gaggan's is Asia's No. 3 & Continent's Best Indian Restaurant; Indian Accent Rises 12 Notches, But At No. 29, Behind Bukhara's No. 27

By Sourish Bhattacharyya

WHEN I last met Gaggan Anand, the high priest of Progressing Indian Dining, at his namesake restaurant in Bangkok last year, he said it was his dream to reach the top of the World's 50 Best Restaurants -- in the footsteps of his icon Ferran Adria, at whose laboratory he had mastered the techniques that make his kitchen special. He was then at No. 66 on the hallowed world list -- the only Indian restaurant to make it to that pantheon of greats -- and I thought he had a long way to go.
The winners pose for the photo-op on the Asia's 50 Best
Restaurants awards night at Capella Hotel in Sentosa,
Singapore, on Monday, February 23.
Not anymore. Gaggan, a Kolkata-born Taj alumnus who made Bangkok his home in 2007, is today at No. 3 of the Asian's Best 50 List, which was unveiled at a glittering awards ceremony at the Capella Hotel in Sentosa, Singapore, on the night of Monday, February 23. He's up by seven notches from his 2013 ranking, next only to the list leader, Australian expat David Thompson's Nahm (also in Bangkok), and the No. 2, Yoshihiro Narisawa's eponymous Tokyo restaurant. That makes Gaggan's, without doubt, Asia's Best Indian restaurant.
That's also where the good news ends. For, India's Best, Bukhara at the ITC Maurya, figures 24 notches below Gaggan's, at No. 27. And Indian Accent, which is the closest to Gaggan's in style and deserving of a far better ranking, is at No. 29, thankfully up by 12 notches from its No. 41 in 2013. I still cannot fathom how you can have Bukhara, the last outpost of predictable dining that hasn't changed as long as Mount Everest has been around, Gaggan's, Indian Accent, Nahm and Narisawa on the same list.
I also wonder why Zorawar Kalra's Masala Library (Mumbai), which is Indian Accent's most serious challenger, Abhijit Saha's Caperberry (Bangalore), Rahul Akerkar's Indigo (Mumbai), the magician Vikramjit Roy's gastronomical laboratory, Pan Asian at the ITC Grand Chola, Chennai, or the brilliant Mickey Bhoite's creative playground, Le Cirque at The Leela Palace, New Delhi, not on the list. The Indian jury seems to be terribly out of sync with the country's changing reality, or it's too five-star-centric, that too stuck between ITC and Taj.
India is represented by six mostly uninspiring restaurants -- Dum Pukht at ITC Maurya, New Delhi (No. 30), which has lost its creative sparkle; Varq at The Taj Mahal Hotel, New Delhi (No. 32), which has quietly given up any claims to leadership on the Progressive Indian front; Wasabi by Morimoto at Taj Mumbai (No. 36), which is without doubt one of India's finest restaurants; and the has-been Karavalli at the Gateway Hotel on Residency Road, Bangalore  (No. 40).
India, like a patchy middle-order batsman, has been fumbling in the lower end of the list. Bangkok also has six names on the list, but the rankings of its restaurants, starting with Nahm and Gaggan, are far more impressive. Singapore leads the list with eight restaurants, followed by Japan with seven and Hong Kong with six.
Hong Kong's Fook Lam Moon, the unpretentious traditional Chinese restaurant that opened in Wamchai in 1948, has been the most spectacular climber, going up by 29 notches on a list where most restaurants have slipped. Barring Indian Accent, which has seen its ranking climb, the other Indian restaurants on the list have fallen behind -- Bukhara by one, Dumpukht by 13, Varq by two, Wasabi by Morimoto by 16 and Karavalli by five. The Best Indian Restaurant is now at No. 26, compared with No. 17 (Dumpukht) last year. But Indians at least have the consolation of savouring Gaggan's spectacular rise.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

As Wasabi By Morimoto Turns 5 in New Delhi, Grand Master Hemant Oberoi Shares His Inspirations

By Sourish Bhattacharyya

A MEETING with Grand Master Chef Hemant Oberoi can only mean an explosion of new ideas. As we waited for journalists and bloggers to trickle in for the media lunch organised to celebrate the fifth anniversary of Wasabi by Morimoto at The Taj Mahal Hotel, New Delhi, he had me riveted by recalling how he, on his flight back from Davos, where he had catered for the World Economic Forum, had conjured up an idea to transform a party that was being hosted at the Taj Mumbai.
"I think best when I am on a flight," Oberoi said. It was a last-minute change of plans and, naturally, it sent his team into a state of tizzy, but imagine going to a party with 50 live counters, each with an LCD screen running a film on the ingredient being cooked at the counter! Or going to a counter and seeing the meats or vegetables of your choice being grilled under the coal-fired contraption that's been used for ages to iron clothes!
(From left) Wasabi by Morimoto Manager
Malvika Sahay, Executive Chef Amit Chowdhury,
Grand Master Chef Hemant Oberoi, and
General Manager, The Taj Mahal Hotel,
New Delhi, Satyajeet Krishnan, pose with the
new menu of the restaurant that has turned five
Oberoi got these coal-fired irons from Dhobighat and they served his purpose well by perfectly grilling the meats or vegetables, which were packed in parchment paper, at 80 degrees  Celsius. Needless to say, Taj Mumbai made a lot of money out of this party, only going to show that there are people who are ready to pay for a special experience.
On Wasabi by Morimoto turning five in New Delhi, Oberoi said how he has celebrated fifth to 40th anniversaries of iconic Taj restaurants. One of the Shamiana, at Taj Mumbai, turned 40 last year and the chef, who started his career at the restaurant when another famous Taj executive, Subir Bhowmick, was its manager, decided to put some of the old favourites back on the menu, all priced at an unbelievable Rs 40 each for a day. The response to this offer was phenomenal. The queue of people craving for a meal at Shamiana stretched up to Prince of Wales Museum -- that day, 800 people at the restaurant and more than 100 kilos of spaghetti got cooked, and the kitchen worked non-stop for 14 hours, but the goodwill and publicity that the move generated was worth several crores of business.
The Crispy Onion Cup in Morel Soup is a
testament to Wasabi by Morimoto's
commitment to adding quality
vegetarian items on the menu
The same magic was evident in the lunch menu laid out for the media at Wasabi by Morimoto, New Delhi. Oberoi, who said he hoped the restaurant too would complete 40 years, emphasised that the Wasabi by Morimoto team is working very hard to develop a vegetarian menu that could stand up to the competition from the non-vegetarian best-sellers. "Seven out of India's ten richest families are vegetarian," Oberoi pointed out to reveal the business brain beneath his chef's hat!
The Avocado Tartare, the Bell Pepper and Crispy Asparagus Sushi Rolls, the Crispy Onion Cup in Morel Soup, and the Eggplant Aka Miso (aka miso, incidentally, is the longer fermented red miso) proved Oberoi's point. Wasabi by Morimoto now has vegetarian dishes in its new menu that have progressed much beyond the restaurant's signature edamame.
Among the non-vegetarian items, my personal discoveries were the as-soft-as-butter lamb chop in black shichimi (seven-flavour chilli powder) and morel sauce and the Ghost Tenderloin Sukiyaki, which arrived on a bed of potato mash and garlic soy. The tenderloin slices had white candy floss on top, which melted away when the jus was poured on it. That is the 'ghost' that figures in the name of the dish. And of course, there was the top-selling Black Cod Miso, but with a difference. It is less sweet, and therefore tastes even better, because the fish is now cured in the traditional Japanese way -- first in a bed of salt and then for three days under a muslin cloth dripping with miso. With such innovative tweaks, Wasabi by Morimoto can never go out of fashion -- and it will certainly go on to celebrate its 40th anniversary.

Monday, 17 February 2014

Kunal Kapoor to Star in Kolkata Charity Dinner Powered by Ketto at Charming Boutique Hotel

Actor Kunal Kapoor, who also helms, will be the main attraction
at a charity dinner being hosted at
The Corner Courtyard, Kolkata,
on Feb. 18 night for SOS
Children's Village
By Sourish Bhattacharyya

KOLKATA is all set to see another side of actor Kunal 'Rang De Basanti' Kapoor, who was called India's Matthew McConaughey by the New York Times for his recent performance in Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana.
Kapoor, along with Mumbai-based entrepreneurs Varun Sheth and Zaheer Adenwala, helms the not-for-profit online crowd fund-raising portal called and it is in this avatar that he will be in Kolkata on February 18 night to support the SOS Children's Village.
The actor will be the main attraction at a five-course charity dinner at The Corner Courtyard, a 110-year-old house that has been transformed into a pretty new boutique hotel on Sarat Bose Road, and garnering positive reviews for its chic world cuisine restaurant, The Rouge. Chef Rohan D'Souza has created a special menu for the occasion to get Kolkata fishing for its wallet for a good cause. The Indian Restaurant Spy is proud to be the fundraiser's blogging partner.
Founded on August 15, 2012, and a recipient of the Google Grants Award, is a one-of-its-kind online platform that allows individuals and NGOs working for social causes to promote their projects and raise grants either through individual donations or via fundraisers. It's a unique space that brings people closer to the causes they would like to support, and connects like-minded individuals and organisations working towards positive change.
The Corner Courtyard, a brainchild of Megha Aggarwal, about whom you'll read more later, has seven very different, picture-perfect rooms themed around colours such as vermilion (reminiscent of the sindoor that every Bengali married woman flaunts on her forehead) and cadmium (the colour of Kolkata's taxi tops), with period furniture and nostalgia-laden black-and-white pictures evoking images of old Kolkata. I am really looking forward to staying at this charming little hotel in a corner of one of the arterial roads of the eastern metropolis.
Kunal Kapoor, an old world hotel, world cuisine and a good cause -- the combination couldn't get any better.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

BIZ BUZZ: Beer Cafe Dispenses 1.5m Pints of the Brew; Aims for 33 Outlets by 2014-End

Founder-CEO Rahul Singh, a former textile engineer and avid single malt collector, says his dream is to make his brand the "Starbucks of beer"

By Sourish Bhattacharyya

CAFE Coffee Day and Starbucks are two names you'll hear quite often in the course of a conversation with Rahul Singh, Founder-CEO, Beer Cafe. "Do you know how many CCDs are there in Connaught Place?" he asks, and answers his own question: "19." And when he's asked what his vision for his chain of beer cafes is, he says, "I want to be the Starbucks of beer." Clearly, he's thinking big for a vertical he has created -- and grown successfully in just two years.
A section of the 150-seater Beer Cafe Biggie,
which opened at D-Block, Connaught Place,
on Saturday, February 16. The outlet has
16 double-deck chillers that can cool 3,200
bottles of the 54 beers on its menu at one time.
It was the inaugural night of Beer Cafe Biggie and we were having a conversation on the terrace of the restaurant at D-Block, Connaught Place, a couple of shops away from the iconic Embassy restaurant. The steady breeze had a sharp nip and Connaught Place, brightly lit like a bride on her wedding night, was teeming with young people. It was as if the entire city had descended upon the Grande Dame of New Delhi. Singh, a textile engineer by training with bright eyes, bald pate and ready smile, looked at the scene below with a evident sense of satisfaction. He had chosen his location well -- and though it is the second in Connaught Place, after the one at Atmaram House, formerly known as Scindia House, he's confident that its 150 seats will draw a steady stream of diners.
By the end of this year, Singh says, he hopes to have 33 Beer Cafe outlets (he already has 17) across the country -- 15 in Delhi/Gurgaon, five in Punjab, 10 in Mumbai/Goa, and three in Pune. These will include three Biggie outlets, all at iconic addresses -- Fort in Mumbai (Singh doesn't fail to mention how Starbucks opened its Indian account at Fort) and Bangalore's Indiranagar 100 Feet Road, where he has located a heritage bungalow for the third Biggie.
At his present level of outlets, he serves on average 2,000-3,000 guests per month, or about half-a-million in a year, each of whom drinks three pints, which means Beer Cafe dispenses 1.5 million pints in a year. Unsurprisingly, Singh is the man whom every international beer brand first approaches before setting up shop in India--the opening of Biggie, in fact, also marked the launch of the Irish beer Carling, a lager brewed with Canadian two-row barley, and Magners, a vat-matured cider made with juices of 17 varieties of apple.
That's a big leap forward for a man who was a textile engineer for different companies for 15 years before he decided to pursue his passion for food and beverage (he's an avid single malt collector with 188 labels, and counting, in his bar) and turn entrepreneur. Singh's first venture was Golfworx, the country's first golf lounge with a six-hole indoor mini course, pro shop, cigar lounge, bar and restaurant in Gurgaon.
Funding this rapid expansion, which has left his former business partner and beer industry veteran Pradeep Gidwani's The Pint Room way behind, is the investment fund, Mayfield India Advisors, led by serial entrepreneur Navin Chadda. Mayfield's current investments include more than 20 companies, including BharatMatrimony and the fashion house Genesis Colors. Beer Cafe is the fund's first foray into food and beverage.
About the Connaught Place location of the first Biggie, Singh said it was an unoccupied apartment (CP was designed to have shops at the ground level and flats on the first floor) belonging to a Kolkata-based company that had gone bust a long time ago. The family of the late building contractor and philanthropist Atma Ram Chadha, which owns the entire block and is embroiled in deathless rent litigation with its old tenants, got back the place after fighting a long-drawn-out case that went up to the Supreme Court. The place, as a result, was unoccupied for 30 years and nearly collapsed on itself when construction work started for Biggie. It is now supported by 32 tonnes of steel!
The exposed bricks of Biggie, Singh says with evident pride, are 92 years old, because the building had been completed in 1932. The ceilings are 20 feet high, so when you climb up the stairs to reach Biggie, you actually cover four storeys of a more recent building. And it has a real fireplace, which I didn't notice at the start because of the two long-legged hostesses, who were dispensing Jagermeister shots with remarkable alacrity, sitting in front of it.
Biggie's 16 double-deck chillers, which reach up to the ceiling level, can chill at any given time up to 3,200 bottles of the 54 beer brands in its stock. To justify its name, Biggie offers 500ml pours and platters big enough to be shared with friends. It has no bouncers and it accepts no reservations. And then it has a Pour Your Own Beer (PYOB) system developed by the US-based DraftServe Technologies. The self-service system at present dispenses eight beers; within a month the number will go up to 10.
Guests buy RFID cards and get to taste the beers on offer and pour the one they like best (and as no service is involved, they pay no service charge!). The man behind this innovative system, Jose Hervis, was present at the opening party and he talked about how he developed the idea at his own restaurants in 2007 before he found takers across the United States and the rest of the world, when he launched DraftServe in 2011.
Singh is not too happy about the food being served at Beer Cafe outlets. "We have to make it better," he says, adding that he plan to have a "less is more" menu with 20 items his kitchen is best at making. It is his vision to "fill up the big gap between coffee places and nightlcubs", to scale up and become "a large, fast profitable alcobev group -- the Starbucks of beer." At the rate at which he's growing, he'll be there faster than we think.

The Jams of Nostradamus and Other Sugar Secrets in Mauritius

This article appeared in Mail Today on February 17, 2014.
To check out the original, click on
Copyright: Mail Today Newspapers.

Link to my previous Mauritius story:

By Sourish Bhattacharyya
HAD Michel de Nostradame, who attained eternal fame as the seer Nostradamus, not written down his prophecies, generations would have remembered him as a pioneering confectioner. For, it was he who explained to the world, in his lesser-known work, Traite des Confitures (Treaty of Jams), how sugar can be used to preserve fruits, thus giving birth in 1555 to the business of making jams, jellies and marmalades. Nostradamus was an apothecary (or pharmacist) and in those days, candy used to be made by people who dispensed medicines.
New Grove is a delicious rum, best drunk with
just ice, produced at the first sugar factory of
Mauritius. At l'Aventure du Sucre, you could
pick up bottles of the cognac-like rum made
from first-crush sugarcane juice, known
locally as fangourin. 
For a lifelong collector of useless information, this was my a-ha moment at L'Aventure du Sucre -- the famed sugar museum, and high point of my visit to Mauritius. The Indian Ocean nation, which exists in our imagination as a green ideal with sun-kissed white beaches and aquamarine seas, has beauties tucked away everywhere. And these may not always be of the kind gifted by a bounteous nature. L'Aventure du Sucre is one among them.
At first sight, it may appear like any other reconstituted sugar factory -- Mauritius had 259 of them in 1858, but today, just five produce more sugar than all of them combined -- till you notice the 35m chimney towering over it like some phallic ode. Look around, and treat your eyes to a vast expanse of dense greenery and sugarcane plantations, swaying in the gentle breeze, overseen by a wind-sculpted hill in the distant horizon that stands wrapped in a quilt of flitting grey clouds like a forlorn sentinel on a sleepless vigil since the Jurassic Age.
You're in Pamplemousses, one of the oldest and greenest districts of the island, not very far from the Port Louis, the national capital, and named after the tree that bears a fruit that looks and tastes uncannily like grapefruit. I owed this bit of general knowledge to the glass of pamplemousses juice that I had at breakfast. I had loved the symphony of fruit and acid, sweet and sour -- it was a like a concert by nature to liven up jaded palates.
Pamplemousses is famous the world over for the Sir Seewoosagar Ramgoolam Botanical Garden, the oldest in the Southern Hemisphere, and best known for its humongous Queen Victoria water lilies. Not being botanically inclined, I did not visit the 37-hectare park -- just as well, because there was so much to learn about Mauritius and the sugar economy at the sugar museum.
The museum's marketing manager is a young Mauritian of Indian origin, who, like his other compatriots, spoke in Creole and English, listened only to Bollywood music, and had a foggy idea of India, created in his mind by the playlist of the FM station he heard on his way to and back from work, and yet he nurtured the dream of visiting the country of his forefathers. "Aap Bharat ko mera salaam dena," he said with a natural-born exuberance and not because of what he had learnt from the correspondence classes in marketing management that he took from an Australian university. Back home, the line may have sounded corny, but when you hear it in rain-washed Pamplemousses, you feel your eyes turning moist and you hear the rustle of the Tricolour flying in full mast.
The Dutch introduced sugarcane in Mauritius, the French and the Brits exploited its commercial possibilities, and Indian indentured labourers slaved away in the plantations on five-year contracts. The men were paid five rupees a month and the women, four, and of this paltry sum, one rupee would be held back, ostensibly to pay for their return journey. They were lured by the promise of finding gold in the isle, but instead of digging for gold, they worked as coolies in sugar plantations.
The first Indians officially arrived on November 2, 1834, at the Immigration Depot, or Aapravasi Ghat, a UNESCO World Heritage Site tucked away in one corner of the chic Caudan Waterfront in Port Louis. Eventually, 450,000 of them arrived till 1923, the year when indentured labour was abolished, and once the five years of their contracts got over, they and their descendents chose to stay on to build a multi-ethnic society where four distinct communities -- Indian, Chinese, African and French -- stay in complete harmony with each other. Sugar today contributes to a third of the export earnings of the country and is grown on 80 per cent of the arable land. I looked at the man taking me around with renewed respect. His ancestors, and those of other young people like him I had got to meet during my stay, had built a thriving sugarcane economy literally in the middle of nowhere.
One sugarcane, the marketing manager said, has a life span of eight years, and each time it is cut, it produces 20 litres of juice, which in turn converts into two kilos of sugar. The bagasse left behind in the crushing process provide green fuel for gas-based turbines producing electricity, the waste is turned into fertiliser, the molasses are processed to make industrial rum and methanol, and the leaves are dried to produce the ubiquitous decorative roofing material that you'll find across the island.
The first-crush sugarcane juice, fangourin, also goes into the making of Mauritian agricultural rum (rhum agricole) -- and the museum's shop has one of the finest, New Grove, a heady liquor bursting with floral aromas and tropical fruit notes, all jasmine, lychee and honey, made at the island's first sugar mill and rum factory. It also has a selection of 12 kinds of sugar, so I had to find out the difference between the demerara and the muscovado, which were among the six at my hotel's breakfast buffet. I learnt that both are brown sugar, or raw sugar crystals, with different levels of molasses content and different production processes -- in the case of demerara (best for coffee), the raw molasses crystals are dried in a centrifuge, but the muscovado (perfect for baking) is dried in natural heat, sometimes in the sun.
Did someone say Mauritius is only about the sun, sea and sand? Add a fourth 's' -- sugarcane -- and you'll see another side of the emerald isle.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Big O Gastronomy: Masumi Sake and Jason Oh's Six-Course Dinner at Akira Back

A shorter version of this article appeared this morning in Fortune Cookie, my fortnightly column for Mail Today. Click on and go to Page 17 to read the original.

By Sourish Bhattacharyya
Masumi's Keith Norum (third from left) with
Ankur Chawla, author and beverage director of
JW Marriott, New Delhi Aerocity, and the
Akira Back chefs, Kurt Nyren and Jason Oh
KEITH NORUM has the looks of a liberal arts professor and a CV that says he read English Literature at UCLA and then relocated to an Alpine village named Suwa in the Nagano prefecture of Japan. That was 20 years ago, when he was hired as a cross-cultural management trainer by the world's largest maker of computer printers, Seiko Epson Corporation. Why, then, was the Californian at Akira Back, the New Delhi Aerocity JW Marriott's trending Japanese restaurant, holding forth on the virtues of Masumi?
Masumi is one of Japan's top sake brands -- two gold medals separate it from the No. 1, Urakasumi, in the annals of Japan's century-old annual sake awards -- and it has been brewed at the same kura by Suwa's Miyasaka family since 1662. Masumi means 'truth' and there's a story behind the name. The Miyasakas have been traditionally supplying sake to Suwa's historic Shinto shrine, which has the 1,200-year-old bronze 'Mirror of Truth', the source of the brew's name. The Shinto regard sake and salt as the two purifying elements in this imperfect world. Well, as they say with apologies to the Latin masters, 'in sake veritas' ('in sake there is the truth')!
Norum's relationship with Masumi started when the company's president, Naotaka Miyasaka, who represents his family's 23rd generation, returned home after completing his higher studies in America. He needed to keep in touch with English, and Suwa is a small place, so it was easy for him to find Norum. The two became good friends and eventually Miyasaka hired Norum to head his overseas operations.
Life may present unexpected twists, but little has changed in the art of making sake. It is brewed only in the three months between December and February, because the temperature in these months is just right for sake production, and each stage is carefully calibrated. Water and rice, Norum explained, are the two critical elements -- sake is 80 per cent water and 16 per cent alcohol extracted from milled rice.
The water, drawn from mountain springs, must have a low calcium content, because it slows down the metabolism of yeast, giving it longer life and the ability to extend the fermentation period. Extended fermentation (six weeks in the case of Masumi) produces alcohol with a complex structure and superior aroma profile.
Norum was sharing his wealth of knowledge with me over a most spectacular dinner prepared by Jason Oh. Like his boss Akira Back, Jason is a Korean-American, but he grew up in New York, not Denver, and has taken to Delhi like a fish to water. We started with yellowtail jalapeno with yuzu (citrus) soy -- hot and tart in equal measure -- which Norum paired with the fresh and elegant Sanka ('mountain flower'), which, surprisingly, has a seductive floral bouquet and tropical fruit aromas. The JW Marriot's F&B Director, Tarun Bhatia, said it tasted like green ber, which made me crave for some of this elusive fruit. This is ber season, isn't it?
Next on the menu was an Akria Back classic, hot oil-seared salmon with mixed peppers, lotus chips (I could have these forever!) and yuzu sauce, which paired very well with the more austere and dry Karakuchi Kippon. "It is as dry as we go," Norum said about the sake, adding that it is made at Fujimi kura, which was built in the 1980s atop a mountain overlooking Suwa. Fujimi's water source, interestingly, remains a mystery.
Rice used to produce Masumi's sake is sourced only from two places -- Nagano and Hyogo, which is also famous for the marbled beef of Kobe. Sourcing is important because sake rice is expensive and sake rice is special because its high protein content is uniformly concentrated in the outer layers.
It is the extent to which the rice is milled (to remove the proteins) that determines a sake's place in the caste system -- 60-70 per cent is good enough for the standard or futushu sake; 50-60 per cent for the premium or ginjo range; and 40-50 per cent for the super premium or daiginjo variant. Brewing sake is perfect science and the fate of the brew hangs in balance every day it is in production. Once milled, sake rice is soaked exactly for 8:30 to 9:45 minutes -- it can't be a second more or less, which is why the sake master times every operation with a stop watch!
As I understood the intricacies of the production process, Jason produced a delectable melange of sous vide tenderloin with wasabi soy sauce, mushrooms, potato puree and blanched asparagus, dressed in the Korean sweet and spicy cho jang sauce. To go with it, Norum produced the much-acclaimed Tokusen, which he said was a honjozo, that is, a sake with a little bit of neutral alcohol added before the rice mash is filtered. Well, that's another sub-category of sake. Whether it's ginjo or futushu, your sake has to be either a honjozo or a junmai (no alcohol added during production). Tokusen can also be served warm, which made me ask about the protocol to be followed with warm sake. Norum said drinking warm sake was like washing a plate with an oil stain with hot water. Reserve the pleasure for oily preparations such as tempura.
I digested all this information with the sake-steamed flounder (thank God for another fish being added to Delhi's limited repertoire!) served with baby bok choy, nori seaweed and black bean yuzu sauce. The Kippuku Kinju ('Golden Happiness'), a junmai ginjo, served with it was deliciously fruity and full-bodied with a clean finish that made me sit back for a moment and savour the sensation. I had more of it as we went through the chef's selection of sushi and rolls, and the dessert selection -- the chef's take on the Snickers bar and coconut sorbet .
Masumi produces two million bottles of sake in a year, down from 2.5 million six or seven years ago, because the consumption of table sake has been dropping steadily as people trade up to the premium and super-premium categories. But it is table sake that gets brewed first because sake rice is expensive and only best is kept for the upper-end brews. Unsurprisingly, Masumi consumes substantial quantities of rice. A kilo of the finest, after all, goes into the making of each bottle of its sake.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Sulafest Has Shown the Way for Others to Follow and Harvest the Gains

This article first appeared on Indian Wine Academy's website ( on Feb. 11. Reprinted with permission. Click on to see it in the original format.

By Sourish Bhattacharyya

Susheela Raman was one of the major world
music stars who performed at Sulafest 2014.
India's premier gourmet music event is a model
for others to follow to give the wine culture
a big thrust forward.
THERE was a time when sponsoring wine dinners was the only option available to wine producers and importers to make inroads into a society wedded to brown spirits. Thanks to the pioneering efforts of people like the late Ghulam Naqshband and our own Subhash Arora, whose Delhi Wine Club events have become launch pads for wines and restaurants that believe in the wine culture, and some five-star hotels as well as passionate restaurateurs such as AD Singh, Rahul Akerkar, Ritu Dalmia, Abhijit Saha and Tarsillo Natalone, wine dinners became an essential part of the social calendar of our big cities.
As they evolve, wine dinners have started attracting the same crowd and most of the regulars are on the wrong side of the age curve -- it's a market with not more than 10 to 20 years of longevity left. Organising a wine dinner is like preaching to the converted. If the wine market has to grow, the country's vast young population -- 70 per cent of India is below the age of 35 -- must be introduced to the heady joys of the wonderful world of wine. But this important market segment seems to regard formal wine occasions to be too stuffy, too 'grey', to merit any place in its crowded life. How does the industry win this vodka-and-white-rum-toting generation over to its side of the circle of pleasure?
Seven years ago, Rajeev Samant of Sula Vineyards, who's always one step ahead of the competition, hit upon a brilliant idea. It was called Sulafest -- a weekend in February dedicated to the pleasures of wine, food and music; "a gourmet wine festival". There couldn't be a headier mix, and soon, all roads were leading to Nashik, the headquarters of the country's top wine producer. And the pilgrims on this road less travelled were precisely from the generation that considered wine to be oh-so yesterday.
The idea wasn't entirely an original Samant brainwave. The inspiration came from the grape-stomping dramas that Chateau Indage would organise every year, with Mumbai's who's who in attendance, till the company went bust. But what Samant has done is give it a spin -- and every year, Sulafest has been growing, not only in the number and quality of music acts it hosts, but also in the turnout and fashion statements that the visitor flaunt. It is India's Woodstock with shades of Ascot.
I bumped into Samant at the VIP Lounge and, after admiring his orange shorts and exchanging notes on the political temperature in Delhi, asked him about the turnout at Sulafest 2014. "I have stopped counting," he said with a broad grin. I could see the sense of triumph in his looks. He deserved his moment in the sun.
For the past two years, Sulafest has tied up with the country's leading purveyor of world music, blueFROG, which is why homegrown artistes such as Susheela Raman, Vasuda Sharma and Avial performed to capacity audiences along with the British psychedelic music group Shpongle, the toast of this year's fest; the ska/reggae band from Croydon, The Dualers; rumba-meets-raga group Gypsy All Stars; dub music and big beat band Dub Pistols; and the Italian from London, Gaudi, who's one of the busiest solo performers in the electronica world. And then there were pleasant surprises such as singer-songwriter-guitarist Gowri, who held her own and kept her audience asking for more, despite the deafening boom-boom-boom emanating from the 'Electro Zone'.
The 'Electro Zone' was rocked by some of the trendiest names in EDM -- the Brazilian export DJ Anna; the multi-cultural exponent of psychedelic trance, Ma Faiza; the Russian DJs who have a cult following in Goa, Mescaluto (Victoria) and Sashanti (Alexander Sukhochev); and the desi boy Ankytrixx (Ankit Kocher). It was an eclectic mix of music, which was being canned by VH1 for future broadcasts, and with Vero Moda, the trendy international women's fashion brand, being the lead sponsor, floral colours and youthful style were in evidence everywhere. The food was just the kind that the young love -- from momos to shawarma, from rajma-chawal to egg/kebab rolls, washed down with Mount Gay mojitos, or Asahi beer, or the sparkling fruit drinks from Pune-based Good Juicery, the baby of former Cape Town resident Michelle Bauer and her food technologist friend Julia Madlener.
There was food and drink everywhere, but no one got drunk or misbehaved, and the hundreds of young women could do exactly what they wanted to do, without any man paying more-than-usual attention to even the shortest skirt. It was clean, unalloyed fun, and people minded their own business. I wonder how many people signed up for camping at the vineyards organised by, which was surely a first for an Indian "gourmet music" event.
Seeing the scores of young people who had signed up for the winery tour and tastings, asking questions, sipping wines and excitedly shooting selfies, Ajoy Shaw, Chief Winemaker and Vice President, Sula Vineyards, said, "This is the market we must reach out to if we have to grow." We were at Sula's Tasting Room, drinking Rasa 2007, a delicately balanced Shiraz with still some years of life left.
Shaw, a Bengali who is proud to call himself a Maharashtrian (his parents brought him to the state when he was five months old), said at least 600 people, mostly in their late 20s and early 30s, show up every weekend at Sula for guided tours, wine tastings and gorging on the food served at two vineyard restaurants (Soma and Little Italy). They go back with bottles of wine and a sense of excitement about the wine culture. They become the ambassadors of wine.
We need more clones of Sulafest -- in Akluj, in Baramati, in Charosa, in Hampi, in the Nandi Hills -- if we wish to create new gourmet tourist destinations and get more people hooked on to the joys of wine. What is the point of producing increasingly better wines if the market moves at what used to be once called the "Hindu rate of growth"?

Kunal Kapur Launches His Must-Have Cookbook For 'A Chef in Every Home' At Diya

By Sourish Bhattacharyya

WHEN Kunal Kapur was a kitchen trainee under the redoubtable Chef Arvind Saraswat at the Taj Palace, New Delhi, he had the most unnerving experience on the day each member of his batch was to present a three-course meal for evaluation by their guru. An eager-beaver, who made a mark on his first day at IHM-Chandigarh by being the only student to be able to identify the spices that are common to every kitchen, Kunal was the first to present his three-course meal, starting with a dahi ka shorba, to Chef Saraswat. He was expecting to earn brownie points for being the first, but he, for reasons that he could not fathom, only managed to send the master chef into paroxysms of anger.
The MasterChef India co-host and Executive Sous
Chef of The Leela Gurgaon, Kunal Kapur, with his
identically dressed son, Ranbir, at the launch of
his book, A Cook in Every Home (Random
House India). Image by Marryam Reshii
Chef Saraswat cried out in rage and flung the bowl of soup at Kunal. "It barely missed my head," Kunal recalled with his characteristic shy smile, and then he revealed why he had incurred the chef's wrath. He had served soup without a spoon! With the industry's expectations from chefs changing over the years, and with chefs no longer expected to be faceless masters of the back-end, it was important for one who aspired for a place in the kitchens of Taj hotels to get his basics right. Chef Saraswat was conveying this message to Kunal -- albeit in a way that unnerved the rookie to the point of making him want to cry.
Now famous as the co-host of MasterChef India and executive sous chef of The Leela Gurgaon, Kunal shared this blast from his past, even as he cooked the most aromatic prawn moilee, at the launch of his truly family cookbook, A Chef in Every Home (Random House India), at Diya, the Progressive Indian restaurant at his hotel. The choice of venue was appropriate, for Kunal earned his spurs at Diya, as the famous restaurant critic and Editor of the Times Food Guide, Marryam Reshii, reminded us. Kunal joined the restaurant after a stint at Made in India, Radisson Blu Hotel Noida, where he met his other mentor -- Arun Tyagi, who was then executive chef. Tyagi brought out the best in Kunal -- unlike Saraswat, he focused on his acolyte's strengths, not his weaknesses.
"He has a way with the imagination," Marryam said in her introductory remarks. She was right on target. Kunal's debut cookbook, which took him more than a year to complete (and which I have reviewed earlier), makes it abundantly clear that he not only has imagination, but also the ability to feel his audience's pulse. Unlike Chef Saraswat, who propagated lighter but difficult fruit-based sauces in The Gourmet Indian Cookbook, without paying the least attention to the lifestyles and needs of his audience, Kunal shares recipes that can easily be replicated by the home cook, especially a working mother, and her weekend 'chef'-husband.
At the launch, Kunal made bruschetta, prawn moilee and baked yoghurt, even as we talked about the state of hospitality education in the country, and Kunal's son Ranbir (his wife's called Ekta, which makes them quite a Bollywood Kapur khandaan!), sitting on an inverted pot like his father on the cover of the cookbook, kept ordering him to not stop stirring the moilee. Kunal's boss, The Leela Gurgaon's General Manager Michel Koopman, said he had been to a dozen hotel management colleges across the country and was shocked to find that their textbooks were at least 20 years behind the times. Reshii, at this point, remarked how the hotel management students were still being taught how to make cona coffee.
Koopman said F&B was becoming a key distinguishing factor in hotels, so culinary education should be in sync with the changing times. "A room is a room, is a room, is a room -- and is a room," he said to emphasise his point. Well, Koopman should know -- The Leela Gurgaon's earnings from F&B have touched Rs 88 crore, with Rs 46 crore coming from banquets. With the hotel notching up a revenue of Rs 220 crore, F&B accounts for a healthy 40 per cent of the pie. Of course, Koopman couldn't help saying how wherever he goes, people ask him whether he's from Kunal Kapur's hotel! Being as F&B proud as he is, Koopman just loves it.
A journalist asked Kunal whether the stardom that chefs seem to enjoy today has made any real difference to the attitude of people towards the hospitality industry. Not much has changed, Kunal admitted, and he was supported by the other panelist, the scriptwriter of the Vidya Balan-starrer Kahaani, novelist and OCLD graduate, Advaita Kala. Kunal recalled how the doctor parents of a young man, who were fans of MasterChef India, came to him with the request to dissuade their son from joining a hotel management institute. He refused to accede to their wish. "I couldn't be expected to dissuade someone from joining my own profession," Kunal said proudly, but he admitted that popular attitudes are still stacked up against the profession. Star chefs, by becoming role model for the young and ambitious, should be able to change all that. I hope and pray they succeed!

Monday, 10 February 2014

Groupon India CEO Bets Big on F&B and Sees Internet on Mobile as the Top Story of 2014

Ankur Warikoo shares the spectacular success story of Group India, which in three years has extended to 12 cities, signed up 6,500-plus unique merchants (including 56 per cent repeats), and almost every major hotel and restaurant in the country

By Sourish Bhattacharyya

WHEN Groupon India teamed up with Delhi Gourmet Club last year to launch Delhicious Week, the challenge to Citibank's three-city Restaurant Week India, which is entering its fourth year this March, few gave it much of a chance. It was a one-city affair and five restaurants signed up for it. By the end of Delhicious Week, the turnout, as well as the exposure they got on the Delhi Gourmet Club's Facebook community page, took the participating restaurants by surprise. Instantly, the word spread in the industry that Delhicious Week was here to stay -- and grow into serious competition for Restaurant Week India.
Sure enough, Delhicious Week returned this year with a bigger footprint. Eleven restaurants, an equal mix of five-star and stand-alone addresses, signed up. Between February 1 and February 6, the Delhicious Week days, more than twice the number of diners, compared with the turnout for the inaugural round of the event last year, showed up at the participating restaurants. The restaurants had been hand-picked by the Delhi Gourmet Club because of their reputation, and each offered a three-course special menu plus signature soft beverage at prices starting from Rs 999, depending on the meal time and day of the week.
For Ankur Warikoo, the Asia-Pacific Head of Groupon, the deal-of-the-day Chicago-based website that has grown into a $1.84 billion business globally in six years, ideas such as Delhicious Week keep powering his e-commerce company's growing business presence in the Indian market. They create excitement for his customers, who are looking for deals that are more than just discounts.
Ankur Warikoo has established
Groupon India as a significant
player in the country's growing
e-commerce economy. Here
he explains why the website
is continually gaining traction.
In the case of the Delhicious Week, the difference was the menu that each restaurant especially offered to the guests who arrived with Groupon coupons. One of the participating restaurants, K3 at the JW Marriott, New Delhi Aerocity, even went to the extent of offering its entire buffet at the steeply discounted price of a Delhicious Week coupon. Of course, Groupon India's biggest gamble was to sell a kilo of onions for Rs 9, which was a tenth of the market price, at the peak of the controversy over the skyrocketing price of the tuber. Within 44 minutes, 3,000 kilos were sold, and the by the time the deal was closed, more than 8,000 kilos had flown off Groupon's virtual shelves. Ideas such as these drive Groupon's business.
Warikoo, who's also the CEO (or "chief customer care executive") of Groupon India,  calls the website's model "the last mile of advertising". Groupon not only allows a business to showcase itself, but also goes a step further by converting the intent to buy created by the advert into an actual purchase. In doing so, Groupon has created a new e-commerce category of buying local services online. And as its name suggests (it is a portmanteau of the words "group coupon"), the website leverages the concept of "group buying" to drive new customers to businesses at a fraction of the cost of conventional advertising, even as it gives its online users a platform for securing discounts on items as varied as restaurant meals and spa outings.
"We only run limited-period promotions so as not to make any brand appear cheap," says Warikoo, who's an alumnus of Hindu College, Michigan State University (East Lansing) and the Indian School of Business (Hyderabad). What Groupon does, explains Warikoo, is get each participating business a minimum number of customers and the discount it offers is actually "the cost of acquiring new customers". There are no charges upfront, so the business pays "only when the money is in".
Unsurprisingly, Groupon India, which has expanded to 12 cities, has signed up 6,500-plus "unique merchants" across the country and 56 per cent of them are repeats. "All premium five-star hotels, barring those of the ITC, have worked with us or continue to do so," Warikoo adds triumphantly. The demographic behind Groupon India's success is the 25-38 age group, which, Warikoo says, is more likely to eat out or hang out at malls with friends. That may explain why 48 per cent of Groupon India's revenues come from food and beverage, and another 30 per cent from the wellness segment.
Groupon customers, says Warikoo, who's the only Kashmiri Pandit I know who's a vegetarian, scout for the most valuable experiences from the best brands. So, when the site offered the Nirula's classic, Hot Chocolate Fudge, for Rs 79, instead of its regular price of Rs 120, as many as 6,000 got sold in a week. And when the chholey-bhature of Kanha Sweets of Jaipur was made available for Rs 19, instead of Rs 49, the clicks on the 'Buy' button wouldn't stop -- 500 portions got sold in just two hours. So, how is Groupon India different from, say, a Snapdeal? Snapdeal, Warikoo says, pointing to a critical differentiator, is about products; Groupon is about services.
2014, according to Warikoo, will see internet on mobile becoming the game changer by enabling a website like Groupon to serve customers real-time. Sixteen per cent of all Groupon India transactions, in fact, are already taking place on this route. Warikoo expects this business segment to grow. "With 80 million units, India is the world's third largest smartphone market," he points out. "And by adding 8 million units each month, India looks set to overtake the US market, which has 140 million smartphones."
Groupon's India story started with the acquisition of a Kolkata-based deals website called in April 2011. The name didn't convey the right value proposition, so the site was re-launched as in October 2011, before legal issues led to it being re-christened Groupon India. It's been less than three years and the numbers look good for Warikoo and his team. And he's not exaggerating when he says, "The Groupon India story looks very positive."

* Before taking charge of scripting Groupon's India story in 2011, Warikoo joined two other Indian School of Business graduates to launch a website incubation company called Accentium ("the word means nothing!" he says). They were running six websites, including the phenomenally successful and, the car purchase and sale site, which the company sold to Ibibo.
* Warikoo and his team work out of an three-storied, open-plan office in Saket, and when they go to Goa for their annual get-together, even the janitors and parking attendants aren't left behind. Who each of them gets to share a room with is decided by a draw of lots. Last year, Warikoo had the parking attendant as his roommate. Here's a real aam aadmi CEO, who lives by the principles he espouses.

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Meditating Over A Bottle of Santo From Fratelli's Kapil Sekhri

By Sourish Bhattacharyya

I WAS pleasantly surprised to receive a wooden box from Fratelli Wines with a personal note from Kapil Sekhri, one of the six brothers behind the Akluj (Solapur)-based company, whom I had met most recently at the Panjim restaurant, Mum's Kitchen.
I am sure many others in the city must have got this gift. Still, I felt a strange sense of entitlement when I held Bottle No. 83 (out of a limited edition of 1,000) of Santo, Fratelli's dessert wine developed by Piero Masi, the acclaimed Tuscan winemaker. Masi is famous in his home country for ensuring, as winemaker, the celebrated Chianti Classico Casa Sola's rock-solid reputation. His own Fattoria dell’Agenda (100 per cent Cabernet Sauvignon) made history twice -- in 2004 and 2006 -- for selling out even before it was bottled.
Fratelli has produced just 1,000 numbered bottles
of Santo. Four kilos of Chenin Blanc grapes have
gone into each bottle of the flavourful dessert wine.
The creation of such an accomplished winemaker deserved my time and attention. I decided to taste it at once and write about it.
Santo pays homage to Vin Santo, the famous Tuscan dessert wine (the 'meditation wine') made in Chianti with the local white grapes, Trebbiano and Malvasia. It is Fratelli's first release in a 500-ml bottle, which is not very common in the wine world. It's a late harvest Chenin Blanc (like its forerunners from Sula, Reveilo and Big Banyan), which means the grapes that go into making it -- four kilos are said to have gone into my bottle -- are left on the vines for two months after the harvest season so that they shrivel and become almost like sugar-laden sultanas bursting with flavour.
These grapes are selected from plots that are not much exposed to the sun and have high humidity levels, which allow a slow yet intense process of concentration of flavours in the grapes, apart from much-needed acidity to balance the natural sweetness of Chenin Blanc. And as the wine ages for 24 months in French oak barrels, it develops the nutty and honey notes that I savoured as took my first sip. Santo acid levels effectively balances its sweetness, making it just perfect to be drunk by itself, or with cheese, or with western desserts (panna cotta is the first dessert that comes to my mind). The intense sweetness of Indian desserts rules them out for sweet wines of any kind.
Dessert wines, we are told by wine business insiders, don't have much of a market in India. With yet another addition to dessert wines from India, they may not gain volumes dramatically, but secure enough new ground to establish their niche in the wine universe.

Wholesome Dinner But Frugal Breakfast for High-Protein, Low-Carb Tiger Woods

By Sourish Bhattacharyya

A dapper Anil Chadha, General
Manager, ITC Maurya (in striped
suit), leads Tiger Woods into
ITC Maurya, where the world
champion checked in for his
first-ever visit to India   
DELHI has a new caste system. And the social divide this time round is between the select few who have partied with Tiger Woods, mostly friends of the Munjals of Hero MotoCorp (who reportedly paid a seven-figure dollar sum for the world champion's first-ever visit to India), and the rest who haven't.
I belong to the deprived majority, but I can share with you what I have learnt from the ITC Maurya about the golfer's meals at the five-star hotel where he checked in at the Grand Presidential Floor for his brief stay.
Tiger Woods, whose pleasant disposition and easy accessibility won him many admirers among the hotel staff, follows a high protein, low carb diet. For breakfast, he had oatmeal with hot milk and egg white scramble with whole wheat toast. Here's a man who clearly doesn't believe in having breakfast like a king.
The night before, Woods was more indulgent. His dinner consisted of silken chicken veloute (one of the five mother sauces of French cuisine, veloute, derived from the French word for 'velvet', is made with chicken stock thickened with butter and flour), slow-roasted duck tossed with organic rucola (salad rocket) and Nagpur orange segments, napped in green apple dressing, classic tenderloin burger, and dark chocolate hazelnut savarin (a rich yeast cake baked in a ring mould and soaked in rum or kirsch syrup) paired with almond praline ice-cream. Now, that's what I call a meal fit for a world champ!
When Woods arrived, he was welcomed with an organic sugar-free chocolate cake with roasted hazelnuts. On it were inscribed William Blake's 'Tiger, tiger, burning bright...' lines, which, I am sure, Woods must be knowing well enough to recite backwards! So much for poetic originality, but ITC Maurya will have something to dine out on for months to come.