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.)

Posted in Food & Cooking, Society & culture, Writing & media criticism | 11 Comments

How not to design a flyover

The problems with Bangalore’s infrastructure are well-known. Everybody knows
we have pathetic pot-holed roads, more traffic than the roads can handle, and an
administration that talks through the wrong orifice about fixing things. Heck,
we can boast that we are possibly the only city in the country, and perhaps the
world, that has a traffic light on a flyover, thanks to the wonderful
administration’s short-sightedness.

But apart from the "oh my gawd, we didn’t foresee the hordes of people
moving in" excuse, there are certain problems with the way infrastructure,
is  designed, that makes you wonder if we might indeed have better luck
entrusting the planning work to a large group of chimpanzees, banging away at
AutoCAD. For instance, at some places, you will find bus stops right after a
traffic light. At others, you will find them around corners. This doesn’t need
some genius-level IQ to figure out, for cryin’ out loud. Who in their right
minds can’t see that erecting a bus stop right after a damn traffic light
is a sure way to cause a traffic block? Couldn’t they move it, say, 200 metres
ahead?

Another thing that the planners don’t seem to understand is the concept of a
"bottleneck". You simply have to look at Old Madras Road, where the 4
lane road is being widened to 8 lanes. Oh, that’s a good thing, you think.
Except that it’s being widened only up to the point of a busy intersection, so
all that happens is that the bottleneck shifts to another point instead.

Let me illustrate this in some detail with the example of the Airport Road-Koramangala
flyover
that’s being constructed. This fine piece of work (I almost choked while
writing that) was started in
February 2003 and was supposed to be finished the same year, but of course, all
kinds of bureaucratic problems (methinks somebody didn’t get a big enough share
of the "incidental expenses" pie) led to numerous delays and the first
phase is apparently ready for opening in a fortnight – 3 years later.

The purpose of the flyover is to alleviate the congestion on Airport Road
because the intersection of Koramangala Ring Road, Indiranagar 100 ft Road, and
Airport Road is where three major streams of traffic meet. And anything that can
ease traffic jams is good, right? Flyovers are supposed to help the smooth flow
of vehicles without the problems of having a traffic light, aren’t they? (Unless
you’re using the aforementioned Richmond Road flyover, of course.)

Continue reading

Posted in Society & culture | 21 Comments

New outsourcing opportunity for India

(Special to MadMan’s Web)

Move over call centres and data processing BPOs. The future of outsourcing
belongs to another industry, if Indian Minister for Commerce, Kamal Nath, is to be
believed. According to Nath, the next new wave of growth in the Indian economy
will come from – believe it or not – the protest industry, now being referred to
as SPO – Strong Protest Outsourcing.

Speaking at a news conference in New Delhi, Kamal Nath briefed reporters that
he sees major business opportunities in getting Western countries to outsource
their protests to India. Nath said, "the outsourcing business is about
saving costs and increasing efficiency. Why should people in countries like USA
and UK waste their time protesting over various issues? The per-capita income is
too high to waste time on being offended. Instead, they can simply outsource
this activity to Indian companies." Asked whether Indian companies were
globally competitive in this market, Nath confidently added, "Can you think
of any country better suited for this business? India is a diverse country with
people of many faiths and beliefs. We have a rich history of being offended at
every little thing, from western expressions of love like Valentine’s Day to
what someone names their dogs. I am certain that we can be the dominant player
in this market in the next five years."

After the press conference, Kamal Nath granted MadMan’s Web an exclusive
freewheeling interview in which he talked at length about this new business
opportunity, India’s competence in this area, and the government’s special
initiatives to foster growth in the industry.

MadMan’s Web: Mr. Nath, thank you for giving us this chance to
interview you.

Kamal Nath: My pleasure. This is the Internet age, and blogs are fast
becoming a powerful medium of disseminating information.

MW: Mr. Nath, could you please tell us a little more about this new
opportunity for India?

KN: The world is far from a peaceful place. Every day, there are
protests in Europe and North America over several issues. Part of being
democratic countries is allowing people the right to protest against what they
think is wrong. But protests also waste productivity. When  people are
protesting, they are not contributing to the economy of their nations. So
instead of protesting themselves, they can simply outsource their outrage to
Indian companies that will specialise in this area. They can then go about their
daily lives, confident that their protests are in safe hands.

MW: Why are you so convinced that Indians are the best suited for this
activity?

KN: Of course we are the best! First of all, Indians have been
offended at pretty much everything over the years. If you’ve written a book
that’s even slightly controversial, there are sections that want it banned. If
you make a movie that tackles bold themes, you can expect howls of protest about
how it’s corrupting impressionable young minds. If you wear a female tennis
outfit just like everyone else in the tennis world, somebody will be quick to
point out how you are no longer a good member of your community. So let me
assure you, no matter what the subject of the protest is, we Indians are capable
of delivering a strong protest. Our service standards are world-class and
globally competitive. When it comes to protesting, we are the epitome of "unity in
diversity"! With our wide range of religions, beliefs, and
castes, we are champions at being offended and having our sentiments hurt.

Continue reading

Posted in Humour | 32 Comments

Tips on making a radical career shift

Today’s issue of Economic Times has a cover story on people who made drastic career shifts in their “High Flier” supplement. I’m one of the people featured in the story (how I wish I could actually find the darn article on their web site) because I moved from technology and started a far-eastern restaurant. The writer of the story had sent me a long list of questions a few weeks back, and I had written a mini-essay in response. Much of what I wrote didn’t make it to the piece (ah, the size constraints of print media) but when I read it back, I thought that it would be good to post the whole thing here to help others who might be considering a career change like mine. So here goes…

1) What are the main reasons that provoked you to make a career transition
from being a software engineer to a hotelier?

I have been passionate about cooking since I was 13. I chose to go with IT as a
career, but by my mid-twenties, I had decided that in another 10 years, I would
have my own restaurant. So it was more about moving the plans forward by a few
years. I chose to do this because I was 27, single, and thought I could take
more risks now than if I were, say 35. Also, the IT industry was going through
its bust phase a few years ago, and companies were doing crazy things, including
laying off lots of people. I decided that it was the right time to move.

2) What emotions did you go through while making a major career leap?
Weren?t you a little skeptical of abandoning the career you did for so many
years for something very new?

It definitely wasn’t an easy decision to make, and I’m not the impulsive type at
all. But several of my friends said I should give it a shot. Once I started
considering it seriously, I thought about it for a whole month to make sure it
wasn’t just a passing fad. After I made a firm decision, I experienced anxiety
and apprehension about a whole new future, but there was also some exhilaration
about doing something I was so passionate about.

Continue reading

Posted in Career advice | 28 Comments

Bad infrastructure saves lives: Karnataka Chief Minister

(Special to MadMan’s Web)

Karnataka Chief Minister Dharam Singh today lashed out at the media for
harping incessantly about the poor infrastructure in Bangalore. Singh said that
the media should paint a more balanced picture and not stress only the negative
aspects
of the city.

"If you believe only what you read in the papers, you will think that
people are only getting stuck in traffic jams every day. Why does nobody talk
about the reasoning behind the our potholed roads?", asked the furious
Chief Minister at a press conference today. When asked to explain, Singh said
that thanks to the potholed roads and impoverished infrastructure of the capital
city, many human lives had been saved. Referring to the recently
released statistics
that death from road accidents had gone down by 12% from 903 to
791, Singh gave credit to the poor roads and constant traffic jams in city. "You media people should put more value on human lives.
Earlier, people used to get hit by speeding vehicles. Thanks to our roads, we
have eliminated the possibility of reckless driving. Tell me, how can you hit an
innocent pedestrian or another vehicle when you’re driving on potholed roads at
20 Km/hour or if you’re caught in a traffic jam on Airport Road?", said the
CM.

Dharam Singh added that apart from the fewer accidents, inferior roads were
also an important part of stimulating the state economy because they generated
valuable jobs for the poor. He earnestly requested the middle class and
upper-middle class citizens to spare a thought for the numerous labourers and
construction workers who made their living from jobs generated by the road
repair and maintenance contracts that are being issued every year. "It is
easy for the people driving their expensive cars to complain about the state of
the roads. I ask these people to put themselves in the shoes of the poor person
who works on tarring roads. These people live a hand-to-mouth existence. If
there are no roads to repair, how will they feed their families?", asked
Singh.

The CM said he would recommend the Bangalore infrastructure model to other
states as well. He said that like Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, he too believed
in infrastructure reforms "with a human face". "Like it or not,
bad infrastructure saves lives", he concluded.

Posted in Humour | 29 Comments