Of new restaurants and restaurant critics

Vikram Doctor points me to an interesting couple of blogs posts, one from a restaurant chef, and the other from a restaurant reviewer.

The first post is by Alex Sanchez, a young chef from the US who’s now cooking at this new restaurant in Colaba. He complains about how restauarant reviewers in India don’t give the place a chance to settle down before reviewing. Mangal Dalal responds in Mumbai Boss making the point that restaurant culture is different here and you better get ready to hit the ground running.

Having been a restaurateur, I agree with points on both sides.

Sanchez is right; no matter how well-trained the staff, how organised the kitchen, handling a full house of customers in a new restaurant is stressful, and it is impossible to get into the flow of things for at least a month. This is why I generally don’t visit new restaurants until a month has passed since opening.

Let me share a personal experience: when I moved Shiok to a new location, my original plan was to open with not only a new look, but also a new menu. As delays hit the setup process, I also figured that things would be slow enough with a new restaurant, and there was no need to aggravate it by changing the menu as well. Despite this, things took the usual 2-3 weeks to run smoothly, and this is for a restaurant with largely the same service staff and entirely the same kitchen staff.

That said, as a paying customer, I firmly agree that if a restaurant is taking a customer’s money, they are entitled to a proper dining experience, especially in a high-end place. When Gautam and I visited Edo, the expensive Japanese restaurant in ITC Gardenia in B’lore, we had an excellent experience, despite the restaurant having been formally open only for a week or so.

My recommended way around this for restauranteurs is to not start with a big bang on day one. Restrict news about the opening to only a few connected people, and let a couple of weeks go by with low-traffic before embarking on a publicity blitz. It gives the staff time to get used to the workflow and settle down. This may not sit well with investors, but it’s the best way.

As for the other question of restaurant reviewers, I agree whole-heartedly that most don’t know their mouths from their asses. If it’s college kids writing most reviews (as Mumbai Boss points out), then they possibly don’t know enough about either restaurant reviewing or food. Every restaurant, even the best of them, can have a bad day, and it’s not fair to assess a restaurant till you’ve dined there a few times. You say you don’t have the resources to do that? Well, don’t do restaurant reviews then. You say there are too many new restaurants? Well, don’t review every last one of them. And if a critic is knowledgeable enough, he/she can surely make a judgement call on whether a screw-up is due to general incompetence of the staff or just them having a bad day. The incompetent ones need not be visited again.

Let’s face it, the whole “restaurant review” business in this country is fucked up. The “reviews” for most major newspapers are arranged by PR people, and the critic will happily turn up after informing you in advance. You will make small talk with them, make sure your best waiter is at their service, and the head chef himself handles the food for their table. If you’re a Page 3 person who has been added to the restaurant management for your celebrity value, you will schmooze with them too – so, essentially, nothing like a typical guest’s experience. They will then partake of your free food and booze, and hopefully give you a stunning review. They may even write wonderful things about food they never tasted (a newspaper critic wrote about my fragrant Beef Rendang despite not trying it, and only reading its description in my menu.)

Restaurant “awards” from major publications too are usually a matter of who has more publicity clout or is a major advertiser, and I have often gone, “you can’t be fucking serious!” after seeing a particular restaurant win a category award.

Unfortunately, the average Joe is heavily swayed by such reviews and believes them to be authoritative. And that is the real tragedy of it.

(A post about the uselessness of “user/community reviews” web sites will have to wait for another day. That much vitriol in one blog post may be too much to handle.)

Book Tag

Yazad tagged
me
with this book meme that’s actually hopped from LiveJournal to the
"other" blog world. Sorry, my response has been late. But getting the
flu has at least one upside, and that is that you find some time to write stuff
like this. You can’t work even if you want to because your taste buds are shot,
and without being able to taste food properly, a chef is pretty useless.

Here we go then…

Total Number of Books I Own: Like Yazad, I never counted. I estimate
several hundred (at least 700 or so). I got them insured for Rs. 50000 which is
much lower than what they’re worth. The collection also grows faster than I can read
them, so I have about 20 books still to be read. 

Last Book I Bought: I spent many hours at bookshops in Singapore
during my last trip a couple of months back (when I
wasn’t eating
, that is), and the last book I bought was a double
volume of Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen
Confidential
and A
Cook’s Tour
.

Last Book I Read: Why
Men Don’t Listen and Women Can’t Read Maps: How We’re Different and What to Do
About It
.
I borrowed this from a friend because the title got me
curious. (I’m always curious about books on human behaviour.) It turned out to
be mostly crap and I read only 3/4 of it. Does that count? If not, the last book
I read completely was Frederick Forsyth’s Avenger.
It was entertaining but set off my "bullshit meter" far too often.

Five Books That Mean a Lot to Me: I can’t possibly restrict it to
five, but those are the rules, so let’s give it a shot.

On
Writing Well
by William Zinsser: This book is invaluable to people who
want to be better writers. When you read it, you will realise how much more you
could be. I owe much of my penchant for simplicity and clarity to this man. It’s
affordable, so you should buy a copy too.

The
Design of Everyday Things
: If you think I bitch too much, you can partly
blame this book. It opened my eyes to the world of design, and showed how poor
design is responsible for product screw-ups. If you’ve wondered why people push
a door when it’s clearly marked "Pull", this book will tell you. (And
it’s a design problem, not a user problem.)

Peopleware:
Productive Projects and Teams
: Every person who manages a team of
professionals in the IT business should have a copy of this book, and even if
you’re not in IT, a large part of the management advice in this book
will still be useful to you. Stuff like how overtime doesn’t help in the long
run, or how motivational posters actually have the opposite effect… here, read
the sample chapter online

Influence:
The Psychology of Persuasion
: Robert Cialdini has written a wonderful
book on how we are manipulated by other people all the time. He describes these
"weapons of influence", why they work, and how to protect yourself
from them.

It
Rains Fishes: Legends, Traditions and the Joys of Thai Cooking
: Believe
it or not, this book has only 30 recipes, but its value lies in the detailed way
the author explains the principles of cooking and combining flavours. I’m a
strong believer in teaching people how to cook rather than teaching them
just recipes, and I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Read her pieces on balancing
flavours
, making curry
pastes
, and cooking to
taste
rather than blindly following recipes. This book closely competed with
the far more formidable tome on Chinese cooking, The
Modern Art of Chinese Cooking
by Barbara Tropp. So why did It Rains
Fishes
win? Because Tropp’s book is not in the least for the casual cook. It
can be intimidating reading it if you’re a novice, but a great learning
experience if you’re not (and I wasn’t.)

 

Tag five people and have them do this on their blogs

Is there anyone out there who hasn’t been tagged yet? People like Yazad have
tossed their nets out to catch everyone. After much cross-checking, here are my
picks:

The Raving Atheist

Shanti Mangala

Sandeep

Jace

Anita Bora

Bharteeya Blog Mela – 21 April

Greetings, amigos. Please set some time aside for an eclectic selection of posts
from the Indian blogosphere. This week we have 22 posts for you to sample, and
as usual, I’ve taken some time to go beyond the nominated posts and find other
noteworthy pieces of prose. I’ve even broken them into topics. So for instance,
if you couldn’t care less about cricket (like me), you can skip the sports
section completely. Apologies for the minor delay in posting. There was a power
problem at home. You’d think a UPS mated to a spike-buster would do the trick,
but noooo…

On with the show, shall we? 

Society, politics, and culture

Satya argues for liberalisation
of tertiary education
(yet oddly enough not primary and secondary education)
and thinks the government should stop trying to regulate everything. In
another post
, he points out that the Punjab government is opting for a
school voucher system after seeing a big drop in education standards. A model
for the rest of the country to follow? This is an interesting blog that the
Cartel
will watch closely. 

Patrix, in a post that rules him out as a libertarian, opines that individual
rights can and should be subverted
in a time of national crisis.
Shocking! Somebody tell him about Indira Gandhi and her Emergency. ;)

In another post, Patrix ruminates
about making safe career choices
or leaving it all to do something one
loves. 

Harini talks about how Indians will marry anything and everything in as much
style as possible. That
includes marrying trees too
.

Nitin Pai ridicules a foreign
policy expert’s suggestion
to negotiate with terrorists in Kashmir. (Get proper
permalinks, Nitin. :)

On Sepia Mutiny, Anna is miffed that a list of the best 50 restaurants in the
world doesn’t
have anything Asian in it
. (I want to make that list one day with my
restaurant, but given how poorly Indians receive gourmet multi-course meals,
it may not happen if it’s in this country.) 

Saket Vaidya, in a long post, details
his concern for the poor
and how he has fed many a poor person on the
street.

Suhail Kazi has a meandering post on his journey and the trials and
tribulations on his way to getting
a Social Security Number
in USA.

Anand
reminisces
about witnessing large rallies in Kerala, God’s own country (how
I hate that term!) 

Fellow atheist Sybil, who lives in Melbourne, finds that most of her
colleagues have tried
some drug or the other
.

Akshay
goes on a train ride
in Mumbai and tries to explain some of the local
history.

Economics

Naveen, on the CCS blog, has suggestions for books that explain how markets
work around the world
.

Marketing and Management

Neelakantan takes
pleasure in trying food
from different vendors, grateful that he doesn’t
have to endure the standardised mediocrity served at McDonald’s. He also thinks
that ready-to-eat
packaged food
has more potential in India than ready-to-cook food.

Sports

Swaroop forgets to use the spell-check while writing that Saurav
Ganguly’s six-match suspension
will help him get the break that he needs. To
ignite a flame war, he even mentions the support for Saurav from some
cricket-loving Cartel members. Could he possibly be talking about posts
like this
?

And Nandan thinks Sehwag is more like
Don Bradman
than even the legendary Sachin.

Science and Technology

Selva
is upset at Microsoft
being granted a patent on a method to access emergency
data.

Rajesh Jain believes that affordable
bandwidth will lead the way
in encouraging development of ASP-modelled
software solutions for SMEs (Small and Medium Enterprises)

Humour

Gaurav
has an excellent plan
for eliminating all crime from Mumbai. It involves a
strategic identification of all the hotspots of criminal activity, and then
shutting them down one by one. Bravo!

Lastly, please don’t miss this
hilarious post on The Examined Life
where a couple of Cartel members take on
the mysterious Sudhakar Nair who appears unable to detect sarcasm, sardonicism,
and irony. Well, maybe he’s not so mysterious after all. His writing style and
IP address bear more than a passing resemblance to a certain left-leaning socialist writer whom we all know and love. (Seriously, "Sudhakar",
you’re dealing with a bunch of very smart people who are even smarter when
working together. Did you think we wouldn’t find out? You need to do a better
job of concealing your Clark Kent identity.)

Thank you for visiting folks, and I hope I’ve given you a decent selection to
read. Posts with just a couple of lines and a hyperlink were left out, just for
the record.

The next mela will be hosted at Selective
Amnesia
.

Blog Mela Announcement

Yes, folks, yet another Blog Mela is being hosted at MadMan’s Web. This one will be on 21 April. If you missed the last one, catch it at AnarCapLib.
I’m sure you know how it all works, but here you go again:
The Rules

  • Posts must either be made by Indians or must focus on India or Indians.
  • Please send permalinks to the blog entries only, not just the blog URL. If the permalink is not working, send me the title and date of the blog entry. Whole blogs are not accepted as nominations.
  • You can nominate your own posts or someone else’s.
  • You can submit any type of posts except personal journal entries. By “personal journal entries”, we mean the navel-gazing posts of the kind that would be of interest only to your friends and family.
  • The entries have to be dated between April 14 and 20.
  • Not all entries nominated may be accepted. Editorial discretion
    will be used.
  • New rule: If your site has those annoying pop-up, pop-under, or floating ads, forget about it!

Please post your nominations as comments to this post. Don’t post too many links at once or you’ll trigger my spam-buster.