Chef Altamsh Patel is Sous Chef (Japanese & Western Cuisine), serving at TajSATS Air Catering, Mumbai. Transcript of an interaction with Altamsh.
Please take us through your culinary journey so far, the major milestones accomplished along the way and how they have shaped and influenced your career?
Altamsh: Subsequent to Hotel management studies at Rizvi College of Hotel management in Mumbai – Have had a dream start to my career with Taj SATS Air catering, Mumbai.
During this period I have worked under the guidance of legendary Chef Satish Arora, Chef Hubert Pereira , Chef Rajeev Bansal , Chef Sanjay Kumar and a host of expatriate Chefs who visit from time to time and this wonderful exposure has shaped my career and culinary outlook immensely.
During this period of six years have received various awards and accolades which have only strengthened my resolution to learn and grow, sharing these learning with other colleagues of my team gives me great satisfaction. Presently I work as Sous Chef responsible for Japanese and Continental Cuisine.
How would you articulate the role of a modern-day chef? In your opinion, which are the hallmarks of a top-drawer professional chef?
Altamsh: Modern day chef ‘s definition has changed tremendously over years- In today’s times they are expected to be immaculate in classical cuisine, creative and uniquely innovative. It is a 360 degree approach that is required from cost containment, product development and team management point of view. A modern Chef is futuristic, trendsetter and having great knowledge of global ingredients, nutrition and food styling.
It is only passion and consistent hard work coupled with out of the box thinking that a Chef can survive on the top. Chef Satish Arora, Chef Gaggan Anand, Chef Cyrus Todiwala, Chef Vineet Bhatia, Chef Sanjeev Kapoor, Chef Vikas Khanna are a few amongst many such stars to have garnered those kind of accolades by these same attributes and this has gone a long way in changing thinking of all the Chefs in India.
What is the one thing that is going to change the way food will be promoted in future?
Altamsh: Futuristic Food trends are shaping largely in tandem with changing face of our daily lives. Technology has come in big time with an unending array of tools and equipment supporting myriad interesting ways of cooking and pre-setting food on the platter. Healthy food has become mainstay of any cuisine and Chefs’ efforts are to conjure an eclectic meal experience using global ingredients.
Home cooking too has come out of shadows and has embraced modern techniques and the spectral range of tools and ingredients which is now easily available to all.
In essence future lies in holding on to our timeless culinary traditions & techniques and embracing global diversity to keep churning out newer culinary experiences.
Does India have enough good quality, trained and qualified chefs to meet the new emerging demands in food service industry?
Altamsh: There is ample amount of talent which if given proper direction would give us excellent Chefs in coming times. However must confess we still do not share enough with others which if done would result in growth of all chefs, teams and cuisine at large. To me success of a chef lies in the skills and success of each and every team member.
With the advent of internet there has been a significant growth however a long way to go before Indian Chefs and cuisine top the culinary charts like Japanese Chefs and cuisine are doing right now. It is only in the recent years that we have had Indian celebrity Chefs getting recognised with Michelin stars, establishing their prowess in all regions of the World and it can only get better.
Which are the cuisines you focus on and how have you seen it evolve over the years?
Altamsh: Japanese & Indian cuisines are the two cuisines that I hold close to my heart and have largely shaped my culinary philosophy. Why else would you find Wasabi by Morimoto’s in Taj hotels at Delhi and Mumbai?
Japanese cuisine has taught the importance of discipline for recipes, ingredients, tools- equipment and various cooking techniques to the World and we have started seeing the impact of this on Indian Chefs too in a big way. Modern Indian Chefs too have started designing culinary models that sustain and eventually enhance consistency, creativity and culinary excellence.
We have also seen a recent spurt in Peruvian and Nordic cuisine but that has been largely in the west. It is noteworthy the way Indians have started travelling all over the globe and embracing global cuisines- However no cuisine can take away the popularity of new found Indian cuisine that embraces Classical regional Indian cuisine and modern Indian fusion food.
How do you see the potential of Indian regional cuisines and which ones do you think have a great future?
Altamsh: Regional Cuisines of India are vast and the true magnitude of these culinary delights is yet to be truly presented at global culinary scenario. A very interesting aspect of regional cuisines is that it is further enhanced by our rich family culture wherein recipes get passed on from generation to generation through home kitchens.
The scalability and richness of this culinary heritage is everlasting.
With advent of internet and more and more travel regional cuisines have found greater reach and Modern Chefs have realised this and have started interpreting this into culinary models in domestic and international market alike.
Leave apart the fore runners like Gujarati, South Indian, Marwari, Punjabi, Maharashtrian and Dilli ka Khana, even cuisine of Hills from various parts of India has started making a mark with unique and vintage recipes.
Can you offer us examples of some innovative F&B ideas that you have implemented in the past year and/or have plans to implement in 2017?
Altamsh: While training, growth and development of the full team is of essence at all times- At product level we organised various workshops that bettered our Oriental, Korean and Indian offerings.
The most interesting workshop of last year was the plating and food presentation workshop which we did to bring in novelty and uniqueness to our plated food and this continues to give us great results for times to come.
In 2017 we would continue organising various culinary workshops that would add to our culinary skill levels and food quality.
Also this is a year of market competitiveness for us in which we need to evolve menus with higher culinary yields and guest satisfaction with lower costs.
How do you think this year will pan out for the foodservice business? What can one expect from the food scene in the country going ahead?
Altamsh: Due to frequent travel and exposure to the world, guests are very demanding these days. Value for money has emerged as the single most distinguishing criteria for guests in selecting their dining destination. With stronger emphasis through FSSAI guidelines, consumers are getting benefitted in terms of food safety and traceability like never before.
Growth year over year in the food service business has been at a very high pace. Restaurant hubs are mushrooming everywhere. But only the fittest will survive. Guest will only come back if you offer wholesome experience with best food, service and ambience. One needs to standout and think out of the box.
We see a maze of food concepts today – Wide variety of packed cut vegetables, choice of exotic fruits and vegetables, frozen foods, retort foods, quick service restaurants serving an array of delicacies, regional cuisine food kiosks, malls with live food counters, home delivery foods, diverse fine dining, international brands at all levels to name a few. Airline menus have become adventurous and varied yet the food courts, lounges and food counters at airport terminals have grown phenomenally. What we are witnessing is a boom in food service industry.
How do you envisage the evolving role of chefs in a changing food scenario?
Altamsh: Chefs now stand tall and shining in the epicentre of the Food &Beverage Operations- More and more restaurants in India are cashing on their Chef’s popularity. Chefs interacting with guests and churning out top cuisine has become a regular feature in print and television media and they have undoubtedly established themselves as iconic brand ambassadors.
Traditionally Chef’s role was confined to kitchen and cooking but now the modern Chefs are well versed with all aspects of project management, planning, execution and day to day operations. They design the complete project, execute and run it as business operator and it is no surprise that most of the consultants that you see around these days are Chefs.
Changing face of industry is seeing Chefs making inroads into all aspects and various segments of food service industry and they are there to stay.
What are your observations about the evolution and developments in fine dining, smart/casual dining and QSRs in India?
Altamsh: Overall there has been a strong quantitative and qualitative growth in all segments.
We have some sustaining, some players fizzling out while new ones have come in, some with international joint ventures too. With economics of running culinary operations zooming up, survivors would only be the ones with constant control and innovations on quality & taste, portions, visibility and consistency.
We have seen usage of wide variety of global ingredients in fine dining thus resulting in very adventurous menus which has challenged five star hotel kitchens and that is the reason we see top cuisine all around. Plating of food has also seen a boom and Chefs have become designers and food stylist rolled into one.
Street food, kebabs, short eats, Biryanis, bakery and pastry products have emerged as a strong offering and segment in QSRs coupled with success of malls and food courts. Those who look for classier food and service with quality time, they will continue to go to fine dining. Since India is all about outing with families casual dining too has a great potential where the families join, wine and dine and have a good time.
QSRs will grow at a very fast pace as it is a symbol of change in our society where the youth wants to grab something quickly and they do not require much service due to time constraints. These are also pocket friendly options for them.
By and large what we are witnessing is a boom in all segments of food service industry and the success is driven by quality and cost- Both in the hands of the Chef.
What new developments and trends would you like to highlight regarding your professional line of business?
Altamsh: While culinary skills are the mainstay but Chefs today are expected to be tech savvy as there is a constant development in food trends and industry at large. He should have good knowledge of all IT gadgets and Social Media to remain updated. Before people used to buy expensive cookbooks to know more about the industry, now all the info is available at fingertips. Knowledge of financial management, food safety guidelines and legality too has emerged as areas of core competence for Chefs.
Back home in India- there has been a revolution as five star cuisine is available in events, malls, standalone restaurants, bars, lounges, hospitals, various institutions to name a few. What is important is that Indian Chefs and food lovers have realised the way ahead is top quality food presented beautifully at reasonable cost in an excellent ambience whether it is something as simple as a masala dosa or dal and rice.
What are the challenges of working as a top chef and how do you keep ahead of the curve? What are the challenges you foresee for chefs in times to come?
Altamsh: Primary challenge that Chefs face is of a burn out as they pitch their passion and talent against realities of business. It is only a few who make it and it takes a lot of support from team and business operator to translate this zeal into culinary and business excellence. I have seen best of Chefs burn out as they could not plan their culinary vision in accordance with organisation requirements. It is imperative to interact and operate effectively and keep growing the team 360 degrees with changing times.
Chefs are now playing with the flavours, textures, tastes and presentations like never before. They are also good salesmen, they know the market trends and they are very competitive, which is healthy. It gives them food for thought to innovate. I am lucky to work under the guidance of legendary Star Chef Satish Arora at Taj and learn from him. I make it a point to visit different specialised cuisine restaurants to see their kitchen planning, ingredients, cooking techniques and plate presentations. The training stint at Wasabi by Morimoto and Zodiac grill at Taj Mahal Palace gave me great satisfaction and learning.
The challenges that I foresee for Chefs are adaptability to changing trends and guest needs, cost containment with consistently high quality of food, high level of food safety awareness and execution, constant innovations to keep ahead and training team mates in wake of scarcity of trained manpower.
How do you ensure up gradation of skills, training and technology?
Altamsh: Upgradation of skills, training and technology is a constant and consistent requirement in Chefs’ career but what is paramount is to arrive at training needs of an individual and team at large keeping in mind the culinary vision.
While there are regular training and audit programs to validate and strengthen culinary basics at one end, there are specialised programs focussing on various aspects of food and cuisine from time to time.
Some of the recently conducted advanced training programs were on Singapore style of Chinese food, Korean Cuisine, Ancient recipes of India, Culinary delights of Maharashtra, Advanced plating and presentation techniques to name a few. Food safety is a very important aspect of our work and we have regular training and audit programs to keep food safety skill levels high.
As a Chef most of my time goes in training on and off job because this is what ensures actual realisation of what is required from me and my team.
What has been your major learning in this profession, which you would like to pass down to aspiring chefs of the future?
Altamsh: My major learning has been to establish strong fundamentals and consistently build there upon. Striving for excellence in all parameters of food namely taste, texture, visuals, flavour and aroma is something that pushes the boundaries of my skills as a Chef.
I believe working without passion for an aspiring chef would mean like a lemon with no zing… If you see food and flavours in everything around you and truly love to cook and serve others in a way only you can- Welcome to the passionate world of culinary art !!!