It is always a humbling experience for those of us who write about food or hotels to come face to face with professionals in the field. One of the many reasons why I accept so many invitations to chefs’ conferences or hotel conventions is because I learn so much from talking to professionals.
Recently I went to Madras to speak at the Dakshin Conclave held at a hotel I had never had much respect for (I always think of Madras being a Taj town) but which turned out to be warm, welcoming and superbly run: the Sheraton Park in Adyar. Dakshin is ITC’s brand for South Indian food and periodically, chefs and managers involved with all the Dakshin restaurants all over India take off to another city for two days to discuss the future of the brand. This year they went to Madras – home of the very first Dakshin – and I was the entertainment, that is to say, the outside speaker invited to address the conference.
If you live in South India (and I discovered on this trip that lucky readers of Mint in Madras are bribed with free copies of Brunch hidden inside their Saturday paper), then you will have some familiarity with the problem of South Indian food and upmarket restaurants.
Till the mid to late 1980s, most hotel chains regarded South Indian food as being restricted to dosas and idlis. Till the Taj opened its new wing in Bombay in 1972 and revamped the menus, even dosas were a no-no for most hotels. But the Taj put dosas on the Shamiana (a coffee shop) menu and served them for breakfast in room service. At the time, this seemed like a gamble but nobody realised that actually, it was a breakthrough.
Not only do nearly all Indian hotels now offer South Indian breakfasts but research by ITC demonstrates that busy executives tend to judge the F&B performance of a hotel by the quality of its dosas and idlis. In Nakul Anand’s perceptive and now famous formulation: guests tend to eat lunch out of the hotel and may entertain (or be entertained) at dinner. But breakfast is the one meal they eat in the hotel. And given that most guests order South Indian breakfasts, they judge the hotel’s F&B on the basis of the dosas and the idlis. (Given Nakul’s obsessive perfectionism, it is not surprising that ITC takes the most trouble over its dosas, even inventing the terrific multi-grain dosas at its Agra property).
But ITC got into South Indian food slightly late. That distinction goes to the Taj and principally to Camellia Panjabi. In the early 1980s, she changed the menu of Southern Comfort, the coffee shop at the new Taj Residency in Bangalore to include, for the first time on a five star hotel menu, appams and such Andhra specialities as mutton fry and perhaps Chicken 65 (depending on whether you believe that Chicken 65 is Andhra in origin…).
Camellia followed this up with two other hugely influential restaurants. The Rain Tree, built around an actual tree, in Madras’s Connemara Hotel, popularised Chettinad food. Karavalli at Bangalore’s Gateway, did coastal food and remains one of India’s most important restaurants ever.
Even as the Taj had cornered the market in South Indian food, ITC finally entered the fray. The first Dakshin in Madras emerged out of the enthusiasm of Gautam Anand (who was then posted at the Sheraton Park) and chef Praveen Anand (not a Punjabi but a South Indian despite his name) who wanted to create a South Indian haute cuisine restaurant, serving authentic food from the homes of South Indian families. It divided the menu according to the Southern states (Andhra, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu etc.) and cooked dishes, many of which had never been served outside of private homes.
Though chef Praveen got his usual quota of agitated South Indians claiming that the sambhar was not cooked the way their mothers made it, (humble to the end, he listened and sometimes tweaked the recipes), the restaurant quickly earned the respect of the people of Madras. It also received the greatest compliment: the Taj copied the idea.
Southern Spice at the Taj Coromandel in Madras was not Camellia Panjabi’s brainchild. I suspect that it was Ajit Kerkar’s idea though the passion came from Shankar Menon (in charge of the South for the Taj in those days) and the excellence of the food was due to the genius of chef Natarajan (Nat) who ran the Coromandel kitchens in that era.
I was a great fan of Southern Spice when it opened (I haven’t been recently, but Praveen – who runs a rival restaurant – tells me that the food is still very good) and think the Taj should have stuck to its original plan to roll out Southern Spice all over the country. Nevertheless, the Taj continued to break new ground, opening the Konkan Café in Bombay (still my favourite of Ananda Solomon’s many outstanding restaurants and the one Taj outlet where you are likely to see Taj supremo, RK Krishna Kumar, taking a break – chairman Ratan Tata goes to another of Solomon’s restaurants – the Thai Pavilion).
In the event, it was ITC that rolled out the Dakshin concept nationwide, opening successful restaurants in Delhi, Bombay, Bangalore etc. Today, Dakshin is one of ITC’s two haute cuisine brands (the other is Dum Pukht – Bukhara and West View are grill rooms of different kinds) and stands as a symbol of the group’s commitment to South Indian cuisine.
At the Conclave, we talked about the future of Dakshin. Unlike other chains, which chop and change their restaurant concepts, ITC focuses on building iconic restaurant brands. Bukhara has been around since 1978. Dum Pukht was created in the late 1980s and ITC is still opening new outposts. Dakshin is the same vintage as Dum Pukht but nobody sees it as an old brand. Pan Asian is among ITC’s younger brands (a mere decade or so) but it still thrives. Kebabs and Kurries will – if they handle it right – be the brand of the next decade. West View is still a mess though I gather that the Bangalore operation is a success.
So, any tweaking of restaurant concepts is a big deal in the world of ITC, with many consultations and Conclaves (as it is in such US chains as Hyatt where restaurant concepts are only launched after years of planning, research and consultation). Given this background, how should Dakshin face the future?
I told the Conclave that I had no answers. Nor, I believed, did market research. When it comes to high-end restaurants, market research is nearly always wrong. No market researcher predicted that Indians would take to sushi or to any kind of raw fish. Predictions about the popularity of Thai food have fallen short of target. Market research can tell you if people like an existing restaurant. But it cannot tell you what they will like if it does not already exist. Which is why creating restaurants is an art, not a science. It is about flair, creativity and gut-feel.
But some things seem clear. Indians will eat more adventurously – at least at the top end. They will eat more informally – the era of formal dining is drawing to a close. They want things kept simple. (My Humble House does not work, despite the high quality of much of the food, because nobody understands the menu which is full of such nonsense as “The lazy monk jumped over the sleeping kittens” (okay, I made that up) to describe a dish of fried rice (well, not exactly but that’s the general tone of the menu.)
Also, demographic changes will be crucial. We all know that India has a very young population. We know what these young people like to eat now. What we don’t know is what they will like to eat when they are in their 30s. All restaurant planning rests on guesses we make about the new generation’s evolving preferences.
Moreover, competition is the key. For decades, the hotels had a monopoly on innovation. If you wanted something out of the ordinary, you had to go to a hotel. That is rapidly changing. Standalones now offer innovation and variety. Right after my talk at the Dakshin Conclave, chef Praveen and the Sheraton Park general manager Virender Razdan took us to lunch at a stand-alone restaurant called Ente Keralam. The food was terrific and the service more than competent. The restaurant is one of many run by Regi Mathew who I knew as a brilliant young chef at the West End in Bangalore a decade ago. When chefs like Regi who have worked for the big chains and understand their style open their own places, the hotels face formidable competition.
For all of these reasons, I told the Dakshin Conclave, the restaurant scene in 2020 will be significantly different from today’s scene. Hotel dining will be less important, formal restaurants will be rarer and authentic South Indian food will be easier to find. All of this is guesswork – nobody can be sure about the future. But there’s one thing I know for certain: we’ll still be eating at Bukhara, Dum Pukht, Kebabs and Kurries and yes, Dakshin.
Great restaurant concepts never die. They just adapt.