Long before the chef became the King of the restaurant, the manager was the real emperor. These days, we write about chefs, print their pictures on our pages and treat them as celebrities. But there was an era when chefs were kept locked up in the kitchen and the manager prowled the restaurant like some conquering tiger.
I was one of those who complained about the tendency of restaurant managers to act as if they ran everything when, in fact, it was the chef who was responsible for the single-most important aspect of the experience: the food. So I can hardly complain that these days chefs hog all the credit and that managers are neglected.
But I can’t help feeling that the balance has now tilted too far towards the chefs. Restaurant managers are hardly noticed, are rarely valued and nobody cares when they come and go. But, though the food is always the key, the manager is often the man who can make or break a restaurant.
Long before chefs started creating restaurants around their own reputations, it was the managers who went on to become great restaurateurs. America’s most famous restaurateur, Danny Meyer, built his empire without functioning from inside a kitchen. In England, Chris Corbin and Jeremy King re-invented the modern restaurant. Alan Yau taught the English that Chinese could be trendy with his Hakkasan and Yauatcha. In France, Jean-Claude Vrinat (Tailevent) and Claude Terrail (La Tour D’Argent) were non-chefs who ran massively influential restaurants. To some extent, that was true of Sirio Maccione of New York’s Le Cirque.
In India, too, we’ve had non-chefs who started out as managers and went on to build great restaurant empires. The most notable of them is Jayaram Banan, who started out working in a canteen as a dishwasher and now runs an empire of over 80 restaurants. But there’s also Nelson Wang, who was never a chef but nevertheless transformed Bombay’s attitude to Chinese food with his enormously successful China Garden in the 1980s.
When you go to a restaurant that is run by a great chef, the chef himself may or may not be there. (In the case of Gordon Ramsay or Alain Ducasse or Joel Roubuchon they never are.) But when you go to a restaurant that was started by a manager, you will find traces of the manager’s style everywhere. Sirio Maccione used to take orders at Le Cirque as did Jean-Claude Vrinat at Tailevent. Alan Yau was at Hakkasan most nights – till he sold the chain. Corbin and King are regular fixtures at their restaurants. Few of these great restaurateurs ever threw the tantrums associated with great chefs. Most have always been willing to clear a table or to pour the wine.
It is the same in India. One of the reasons that the Defence Colony Sagar is such a phenomenon is because Banan goes there himself every single day. You can feel his touch in the way his managers behave. When such regulars as myself ring Swagat with a takeaway order, the man at the other end of the phone remembers our preferences and makes us feel like part of the family. When Nelson Wang is at one of his China Gardens, his staff tip-toe around him and Nelson himself will happily carve a duck at the table or take a dinner order himself.
Unfortunately, professional managers are beginning to lose the vision that made the original restaurateur-managers great. At most five-star hotels, I find that the standards of restaurant managers is uniformly mediocre. Few of them contribute to a memorable experience and even regulars hardly notice when one manager is replaced by another.
What is it that a manager should do to ensure that guests remember him? I asked my friend, Ritu Dalmia, a chef-restaurateur, why she values Niju Verghese, her manager at Diva, so highly. Though Ritu is a terrific chef, the truth is that I don’t actually miss her when she is not at Diva. But if Niju is off, the experience is never the same. Why, I asked Ritu, does somebody like Niju have this ability to command the loyalty of so many of her regulars?
Ritu’s answer was that the most important quality for a restaurant manager was that guests had to like him. Too much is made of the technical skills required of a manager, she said. In fact, running a restaurant is not rocket science. But the difference between a competently-run restaurant and a good one is the warmth that the manager adds to the experience. Niju’s great skill, Ritu said, is that people like him because he, so clearly, likes people himself.
I thought about what Ritu had said and decided that she was probably right. One of the problems with so many five-star hotel restaurants is that the managers rarely display any warmth. Many function like automatons. Some are downright snobbish. And very few bother to treat ordinary guests well while simultaneously managing to suck up to celebrities and high rollers.
But a great restaurant is not one that treats celebrities well. It is one where every guest feels like a celebrity. For many years, the classic example of great service in England was Le Gavroche, whose manager Silvano Giraldin, took every order personally. What was most impressive was that while Silvano was willing to discuss the menu in detail with guests, he never took a single note. And yet, Le Gavroche never got an order wrong.
It was, I was later to discover, a classic magic trick. When Silvano took your order, he was pretending. A waiter was positioned ten feet away but within earshot of the conversation. It was his job to note down the order and to deliver it to the kitchen. But because Silvano was such a master magician, few guests ever worked this out.
We don’t have many Silvanos in India but we do have managers who win you over with the genuine warmth with which they run their restaurants. When Tejinder Singh was F&B manager of Delhi’s Maurya he heard that some regulars were coming to the restaurant’s coffee shop for a Baisakhi festival. He knew that the sarson ka saag on the buffet that day was competent but not authentic enough to please hard-core Punjabis. He called his mother, asked her to cook some saag herself, and sent a hotel car to get it from his house. The regulars loved the saag, praised its authenticity and asked Tejinder how he had found a chef who could make saag of that quality. Only then did Tejinder reveal the truth. (I know because I was there when it happened.)
In my experience, it is the restaurants that depend on regulars that tend to have the best managers. (Or perhaps, it is the other way around: guests become regulars because the managers are so good.) For instance, when you join the crowds at Bombay’s Trishna, you will discover that the restaurant is like one of its famous crabs: big and not terribly authentic. The managers will be competent but rarely memorable. If, on the other hand, you go to Gajalee at Vile Parle – which has as many regular guests as Trishna has foreign tourists – the experience will be defined not just by the quality of the food (the best crab in the world) but by the shy warmth of the service. These are not fancy managers trying to offer an experience that approximates five-star quality. These are decent people serving real families who care about the cuisine.
I always think that the difference between a really successful stand-alone restaurant and one that is merely acceptable is the quality of the service. One reason why Set’z has been such a spectacular success is because Prasenjit Singh takes care to hire and nurture fabulous managers. Some of his stars have been poached.
For instance, Pawan Nair, the manager of the new Set’z operation soon to open at Delhi’s Aman, mastered his craft at Iggy’s in Singapore, one of Asia’s best restaurants. On the other hand, Pankaj Joshi, who is the manager at Cha-Shi, the Asian cafe on the ground floor of Delhi’s Emporio, is a Set’z graduate, having joined as a waiter and then working his way up to his current position.
Finally, I guess, it is what Ritu said. In this day and age, it is not that difficult to run a restaurant. What’s difficult is to run it with a caring approach that makes guests feel special. If it’s just another job for the manager or if he regards himself as being superior to the majority of his guests, then the restaurant has no chance of becoming truly memorable.
Food may well be the key. But food served without passion and warmth is worth nothing.
From HT Brunch, December 11
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