Lust for Live
By Mini Ribeiro
It is almost always show time at five star hotels these days, as chefs take centre stage at attractive live cooking stations. The pulling of noodles, tossing of pasta and the carving of a Peking duck are some of the instances of culinary magic that chefs conjure right before their hungry guests. Flamboyance and style at live cooking stations is fast-becoming an area of expertise and of endless innovation.
Beyond the Eye
Regaling and entertaining guests, however, is not the only reason why hotels are increasingly opting for these live outposts?
Chef Ravitej Nath, executive chef at The Oberoi, Gurgaon, agrees to the fact that live cooking enhances the dining experience, as discerning guests want their culinary experiences to go beyond just the food served onto their plates. They want a more wholesome and sensory experience; exploring cuisines, where the ingredients come from, how they are mixed, what techniques are used and how they are presented. “All these contribute towards a unique gastronomic experience for guests. They are also willing to pay a premium for this experience,” he states.
Again, visual delight is not the only factor for guests preferring live cooking. There is more to it than meets the eye. Live displays of the preparation of fresh food allow the diner to experience the full range of sensory delights, be they ate breakfast, lunch or dinner. A display of varieties of raw ingredients and food ensures that guests can see how their choice of ingredients and dishes is being put together, whether according to their preference or not.
Gone are the days when the chef was someone who stayed behind in the kitchen whipping up a great meal. Today, chefs belt out dishes à la minute, with direct communication between them and the guests. They are present to take into account guest preferences, guide them and allow diners their choices. And it is because of this interaction that diners come to prefer some restaurants even more.
Undoubtedly, chefs at live stations need to be great communicators as well as being talented chefs. Substantiating this, Ashish Bakshi, director of F&B at The Zuri Whitefield, Bengaluru, believes that live counters are interactive experiences that thrive as a result of communication and conversation. “By and large, it is the confidence and personality of the chef that adds the flair to the meal. The ease with which he connects with the guest and offers options is what makes the experience memorable. Other than that, the chef here does what he does in the kitchen.”
Profit by Design
Chef Sahil Desai, executive chef at the Vivanta by Taj, Panjim, vouches for the fact that such interaction results in greater guest satisfaction and consequently repeats guests, which is eventually profitable for the hotel.
Profitability is definitely one of the reasons why hotels have gladly adopted this food preparation and service trend.
A key advantage of live cooking stations is that they allow the hotel to judge the dining crowd and cook only what the guest wants, as opposed to a larger buffet spread. So it clearly helps to reduce wastage in the kitchens. Says Desai: “It turns out that profitable: production can be controlled as the chefs can replenish the food as and when they see the guests coming in. Also, the quality of food is retained at par, as food is picked up in small quantities, as and when needed.”
Further, Sanjeev Mondal, director of events at the Hyderabad Marriott Hotel & Convention Centre, believes that live cooking has now become essential to all hotels. In terms of productivity, it’s easy to set up, is a quick start-up, has extensive cooking versatility, saves on food costs, reduces operating costs and ensures less manpower.
Live cooking supports the culinary versatility of a chef. Jean Christophe Fieschi, executive chef, at the Grand Hyatt Mumbai, elaborates: “Live cooking is suitable for all kinds of cuisines — both local and international; be they Indian, French, Thai, Lebanese or Italian. A perfect example of this would be our multi-cuisine restaurant, Fifty Five East, where you can relish epicurean delicacies such as Thai, Sushi, Lebanese mezze, Indian and Western as you embrace the idea of ‘eating out of the pan, off the grill and out of the wok’.”
Nath points out a challenge: whether one can cook or serve more detailed dishes that have noise, sizzle, large movements or strong aromas. “A master chef is someone who masters how to balance all these factors and yet enhance the guests’ experience,” he says. He cites examples like teppanyaki, sushi carving, noodle pulling, frying perfect appams and tableside flamed desserts, where the chef experiments with many ingredients and techniques to make it possible and safe for the flambé to be done at the table, in front of the guests.
The Hygiene Factor
Rishiraj Singh, F&B manager at ITC Maurya, Delhi, believes that apart from guests wanting to see chefs ‘onstage’, “they also want to see how chefs maintain the highest hygiene standards.
The freshest ingredients, healthiest oils and other cooking mediums allow guests to experience vividness in their meals, choosing the quantity and proportions for themselves, with an assurance that what they are consuming is of the best available quality. Customising food as per the guests’ needs, adds to the health quotient. This helps tremendously as individuals are health-conscious today, more so than ever before. So, can one say that health-conscious guests contributing to the popularity of live cooking stations? Nath agrees. He adds that with the health factor, the “transparency and honesty that live cooking ensures, makes it sought-after. Guests get what they see.”
The Grand Hyatt Mumbai ensures that high levels of food hygiene are maintained at all times. “Since the concept of live counters is to prepare food right in front of your eyes, ingredients used at our live stations are preserved and refrigerated and utilised only once the process of cooking has been initiated, thereby ensuring high standards of hygiene,” says Fieschi.
Indeed, hotels must invariably conform to the highest standards in hygiene and food handling. Nath reveals: “We use specialised refrigerators for storage of meats. In fact, all our ingredients go through thorough checking, cleaning and washing processes and audits. So anything that comes into the kitchen, from 20 kg of tuna to a sprig of cilantro, has been audited and inspected by our teams who are dedicated to this. Every chef has his own cleaning and checking process right before cooking, whether in the kitchen or live in the restaurant. These ensure that everything cooked, served or stored is hygienic.”
Talk of technique
Apart from storage and hygiene, the techniques used for live cooking vary and largely depend upon the cuisine and the dish being prepared.
Senior executive chef Manisha Bhasin of the ITC Maurya says: “Techniques for live cooking are high-heat searing and serving, blow-torching a dessert, at times molecular gastronomy for creating a garnish à la minute or nitrogen freezing, which makes product freeze in micro seconds.”
Techniques apart, Nath lays a great deal of emphasis on pre-preparation for live cooking. This implies the right marinades, the right sauces or the textures of all ingredients as the final taste and presentation will depend upon this. The techniques are the same as used in behind-the-scene kitchens, but this is done in a more visually-appealing manner, he states. He also points out that since the techniques, recipes and methods to cook the dish remain pretty much the same in live or kitchen cooking, the equipment used is also the same. The only difference being that for live cooking, the equipment is smaller, and since it is visible, has to be sleek, portable and presentable. So whether it is an appam counter, a hot griddle, a tandoor or even a dimsum trolley, these will be smaller and should have a very nice finish. They are mostly run on electricity and have to be largely emission-free.
According to Bakshi: “From simple induction pans to barbecues, ovens, grills and griddles, a host of equipment creates a successful live counter experience. These are readily available under various proprietary brands, such as Webber and so on. Sometimes, depending on the passion and meticulous nature of a chef, it is custom-made as well. I know of chefs who have stood under the sun and got their wood-fired pizza ovens ready brick by brick, from design to materials.”
“International brands like Robot Coupe, Schindler, Rondo Doge, with an assortment of local procurements forms a lively well-equipped live kitchen,” says Desai.
Chefs like Nath mostly use international brands, as the “finish is better” and the material used for fabrication is “much sturdier”. Domestic or international brands using the right equipment is important for any hotel due to the high operating efficiency of the units, the expanded food production capability, and the reduced labour costs associated with utilising them.
Last, vibrant colours, fresh flavours and attractive equipment are not all that greet the eye at a live cooking station. A chef’s passion is most evident. For the chef, it’s a thrill and also a challenge. And every move, every step is watched by his audience.
Add to this the hotel’s desire to engage diners and increase the value of their experiences and reduce customer service issues. Live cooking is clearly a steaming win-win situation for both, hotels and guests.