Curated events, often by invite-only, are helping top-flight hotels increase their revenue, even as they attract the discerning gourmands

As top-flight hotels grow rapidly in number, each with their signature and chef-driven restaurants, the effort to stand out is becoming even more paramount

Gary Mehigan. For Indians gourmet fans, there is hardly a bigger name. It was no surprise then that at a recent event, the array of attendees at an invite-only affair with the affable Aussie chef ranged from celebrities to stockbrokers, corporate executives to bureaucrats, with a generous mix of artists, architects and other ‘creative types’, and their other halves. The well-heeledness of the gathering was communicated via the apparel and the accessories. What they wanted — and had lacked as a group — is access to the chef!

Chef Gary Mihigan, the famous Aussie chef, continues to draw guests in India. 

As top-flight hotels grow rapidly in number, each with their signature and chef-driven restaurants, the effort to stand out is becoming even more paramount. The solution — exclusive curated culinary events, which is now a global phenomenon. Marina Bay Sands hotel, Singapore, created an exclusive experience for two for an 18-course meal. Involving helicopter and Rolls Royce rides and spanning eight hours, the price tag was a mere 2 million US dollars.

While such price tags are rare, Indian hotels are beginning to appreciate the how special 'meal event' experiences entice the well-heeled guests. They have begun pushing the culinary envelope with exotic named events such as ‘Dining with the stars’ to ‘Dining under the stars’ (very different stars in either case!). ‘Farm to Table’, ‘Wine Pairings’ and ‘Sundowners by the Lake/Beach’, ‘Barbeque in the Forest’, ‘Mood Dining’, ‘Picnic in the Park (used to be free in our childhood!), to even Chef’s Tables and Tasting Menus. Hotels are going all out by inviting global chefs, concocting special menus, and strewing about terms such as ‘tailor-made’, ‘hand-crafted’, ‘customised’ to entice. While the attention to the quality of food and service remains important, the magic ingredient — experience — is now seeking to the differentiator in these special events as hotels seek to raise revenues from their F&B offerings.  

Personal, inventive, experiential

Culinary showcases are known for the way chefs deconstruct classic dishes to serve an informed and appreciative audience.

While there is little documented data on this, it might be safe to say that the beeline of global chefs headed Indiawards is unprecedented. Besides Mehigan, The Roseate recently had Nigella Lawson, Renae Smith, Gaggan Anand and George Calombaris fly down for experiential dinners. The reason? “Today dining is not just about the cuisine on offer but an entire experience,” says Satbir Bakshi, Executive Chef, The Oberoi, Mumbai. “These exclusive showcase events a great opportunity to present our guests with the finest culinary offering from around the globe at the hotel, thus enabling the restaurants and the hotel to be culinary and lifestyle destinations that guests can resonate with.” Just this year, the hotel has hosted acclaimed Michelin-starred chefs such as Georges Blanc, Agostino D’Angelo from Ristorante Olivier at the acclaimed Belmond Villa Sant’Andrea and Marcel Ravin from Monaco.

Chefs Olivier Chardigny and Florent Maréchau of the 3-Michelin starred Georges Blanc restaurant hosted an exclusive experience at The Oberoi, Mumbai. 

“We specially curate culinary events for a closed group of people or our members, and the audience at these events is usually a close-knit group,” points out Vijay Wanchoo, Senior EVP & GM, The Imperial New Delhi. “The culinary sessions are created keeping in mind the preferences and the interest of our database audience. Another advantage these sessions provide is that they offer guests who come in, a chance to absorb, learn and interact with our chefs on an interpersonal level.” The hotel boasts the Imperial Culinary Club, an initiative through which they share the finer nuances of ‘The Imperial’ cuisine with their patrons. “We delve into the gastronomical world to serve up some of the most exciting and exclusive dishes from different cuisines, or food that is in keeping with global trends.” With over 40 specially curated sessions, the Club is invaluable for pushing the culinary boundaries.

Chefs use exotic ingredients, even flying them down from far away lands, for culinary events. 

A gourmet event at a hotel involves not just the guests and chefs but the entire community, which makes these events assume great significance for a hotel, points out Michael Butler, Director of Food and Beverage, Europe and India, Hyatt. “Curated culinary events allow hotels to showcase how they stand apart from other hotels and standalone restaurants, giving them the opportunity to demonstrate their creativity with food. It helps underpin the positioning of the hotel in the market.” Some hotels have created specialised chef studios, like The Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai's Chef’s Studio, which offers a 12 course meal for two — reputedly priced at around INR 1.5 lakh for two, with 25K for each additional guest.

Rahul Dhavale, Executive Chef, The Westin Mumbai Garden City.

A curated culinary event has a specific aim; it could be a marketing promotion for a particular company or a brand with two or more chefs collaborating on a menu, a celebrated food personality’s visit, or a symposium that has a story to tell, says Rahul Dhavale, Executive Chef, The Westin Mumbai Garden City. “These events are formal in nature and are aimed at a particular clientele. They showcase the hotel in a different league, as a significant culinary destination.”

Manuj Sahney, Director - F&B, JW Marriott, Kolkata.

Hosting a Chef’s Table/Degustation menu is an interactive F&B session where dining and learning happen simultaneously, says Manuj Sahney, F&B Manager, JW Marriott Kolkata. “The guest list is by invite only and is very niche, and makes for a subtle experience.” What constitutes a luxury experience is also changing. “Luxury these days is based on three principles — modernisation, timeless  ness and localisation, and brands should imbibe these values to establish an emotional connect with their guests through curated culinary events,” says Sahil Arora, Executive Chef, Shangri-La’s – Eros Hotel, New Delhi. Contrasting food festivals and curated events, he says, “Food festivals work on the principle of offering something new in terms of cuisines or themes that help in increasing footfall and revenue at a given time. Culinary events, on the other hand, are planned to offer a personalised affair for a set audience, such as cooking with the chef, going behind the kitchen or a city tour with chefs to spice market/local farms. They create an emotional recall for the guests.”

Royal Vega at ITC offers select meals that are inspired by the teachings of Ayurveda. 

Shangri-La recently hosted Mistero Cenato Esperienza (What’s life without mystery), and the Golden Circle guests were invited to experience a special evening of trick illusions, great food and interesting activities to enhance their love for Italian cuisine paired with fine wine. Conrad Pune has taken the pop-up route to set up special experiences, reveals Rahul Bhagat, Director, F&B. The hotel recently flew in chefs from Rampur for a special event revolving around this  lost cuisine. Other curated events at the hotel include wine dinners and an annual dim sum pop-up! As part of the brand’s 1/3/5 initiative, the hotel also organises curated walks that take guests to local produce markets.

Ashis Rout, Executive Chef, Swissotel Kolkata

Every quarter, Swissotel, Kolkata hosts an event called ‘Gallivant Around the World’, says Ashis Rout, Executive Chef, Swissotel Kolkata. “For these, we pick up an ingredient from a particular country, for instance sourcing scallops from Hokkaido and cooking it using French techniques. It is served in a very contemporary style. The food is paired with French or Japanese wines. Just 16 to 17 people are invited to such events, which are akin to live theatre shows. There’s the ambience, too — from turning the hotel lounge into a marketplace, to sending out maps for menus and boarding passes for entry, to even sudden reveals at the six-course meal.

Even in business hubs such as Bengaluru, such curated events help raise the profile of the hotels. “It helps our hotel gain marketing mileage and strengthens our brand positioning in our target markets,” says Sudip Sinha, Food and Beverage Manager, Bengaluru Marriott Hotel Whitefield. Curated culinary events are a niche segment. Neelabh Sahay, Executive Chef, Novotel Kolkata Hotel & Residences, a hotel that is far more luxurious than what the brand name would suggest, says, “We have curated a unique experience venue — Le Jardin, where special evenings are curated. We create different food stories, exceeding customer expectations each time.

Who’s invited?
Seven out of the 10 guests who attend curated culinary events are millennials, besides CEOs, gourmands and food bloggers, says Pawar. “They are adventurous, keen to explore, and knowledgeable about the food served to them. Moreover, they respect the effort put in by chefs for hosting the events and provide real feedback to improvise further.” Rout reveals that at his special events, “we get the crème de la crème of the city — well-travelled people who know their food”.

Guests particularly enjoy the playful deconstruction of dishes and the classical fine dining approach to fresh ingredients, says Bakshi. Dhavale adds that besides the usual attendees which includes artists, HNIs, prominent business owners, film fraternity and fashion industry personalities, the clientele of lifestyle and credit card companies/banks usually make up the patrons of culinary events. For Metrani, the culinary events at the hotel are also an opportunity to provide in-house experiences to guests. “We attract a lot of expat guests, well-travelled people as well as food bloggers from different parts of the world.”

Of tables and trails: Some innovative dining experiences curated at India's best hotels

Fairmont Jaipur recently hosted a chef’s table for, well, chefs!. A veritable who’s who from the culinary world were invited, says Prasad Metrani, Executive Chef, Fairmont Hotels & Resorts. They were served several lost recipes of India. “We presented these dishes by not replacing the flavours; instead, we presented them in a modern style.”

Of course, tasting menus are a great way to introduce any fine dining restaurant and many hotels now offer them at their signature or chef-driven restaurants. “But the idea of by-invite chef’s table or culinary events is to create exclusive experiences for guests and opinion makers,” says Wanchoo.
Ziya at The Oberoi, Mumbai offers a variety of wine-paired, seven-course ‘Journeys’, offering dishes that you are unlikely to encounter anywhere else. Chef Vineet Bhatia says, “Indian food possesses a natural balance of flavours and textures, which has been captured in the menu. At Ziya, we present a progressive menu that explores palates and pairings using authentic Indian flavours. The 'progressive' angle focusses on plating, the way the dish is constructed on the plate in terms of flavours, textures and temperatures. The combination creates an element of surprise by bringing together different elements that pair beautifully on a plate.”

Then there are restaurants which are in themselves culinary destinations just by the virtue of their menu. Royal Vega at ITC offers select meals that are inspired by the teachings of Ayurveda. The carte du jour changes every two months, based on the vegetables harvested in that season, or the ones that are best suited for the weather. It is headed by Chef Varun Mohan, whose task includes unearthing lost traditional vegetarian cuisines. “At Royal Vega, we showcase India’s wealth of unique, undiscovered, royal and forgotten cuisines,” he says.
A prime example is the restaurant’s second outpost at the recently opened ITC Royal Bengal, Kolkata, where, among the four-set menus on offer, is the rare cuisine of the Sheherwali Jains from Murshidabad. The cuisine is a unique blend of local culinary influences of Bengal and Marwar (from where the Oswal Jains migrated).

The neighbouring JW Marriott Kolkata has introduced a brunch concept, a farm-to-fork effort, for which organic food is amalgamated with neutral medicinal spirits such as gin and vodka. Butler offers examples of special events such as a scent-infused dinner, “a curated brunch experience where we served food from different geographies at Grand Hyatt Mumbai. At Hyatt Regency Lucknow, we invited people to experience the heritage of the city by cooking with the local chefs”.

For many, going to a market is now a rarity and hotels have been cashing in on this. The Oberoi, Mumbai has created a one-of-a-kind ‘Spice Trail’, where Bakshi takes guests to key markets. The experience includes a detailed guide on the spices available, their unique culinary and medicinal properties, details about where these spices can be procured from, and their use in handpicked traditional Indian recipes.

Putting in the efforts and money to earn higher ROI

Culinary events require both investment and efforts from the hotel chefs. “Hosting them is a challenge — it’s like creating a designer dress,” says Sahay. You can’t repeat events, he adds. “We start planning from the boardroom, trying to arrive at what would excite the guest,” claims Bhagat. “The sourcing of the ingredients is very important; you cannot curate something and use makeshift ingredients.” For a chef, such events are a great platform to showcase their culinary talent. They can reach out to an informed and appreciative audience. The events help them to create a rock solid reputation, points out Dhavale. “Chefs are delighted because such events have higher budgetary allocations and allows them to source more top-quality ingredients and showcase their presentation skills. They also lend to a bit of story-telling through food,” according to Sahney, adding that chefs use these opportunities to even gain some learnings and redefine their offerings.

While such culinary events catapult a hotel in a separate league, they are quite a challenge, both logistically as well as on the marketing front. “The events may not always make money straight away, but from the mileage they generate, you create a ground for hosting multiple future events. We spend up to 3.5lakh rupees on just the ingredients, and that too for just 16 people. We cannot charge INR 30,000, which is what we need to do to recover the costs. However, it does help us set high standards and when guests want the best experience, they come back to us.”

Chefs use special gourmet experiences to showcase unbridled creativity. 

According to says Anand Panwar, Executive Pastry Chef, The Roseate,  “Curated events also a hotel create new standards in personalised services. Besides, they tempt diners to stay on at the same hotel, to experience other facilities with family and friends. "This increases the footfalls and revenue of the hotel in the long run. At Chini, Kheer and Kiyan we provide cutting-edge sit-down dinners to Delhi’s most discerning diners,” he adds.

While for hotels revenues and earnings are paramount, most chefs agree that these marquee events are not about returns. At least not immediately. Right now, they are looking to entice the diners with innovative cooking, in the hope that they will be able to convert them into repeat guests in the long term. “RoI is a subjective term — hotels could measure success by a variety of parameters, such as the number of people who attend, the social and print media reach, revenue (if ticketed) and most importantly, if the attendees enjoyed the experience,” asserts Dhavale. “I measure the success of an event by the number of people soliciting for invites,” says Sahay. “We realise this is an event people desire to experience or be seen at.”

A Punjabi non-vegetarian thali served at the year-long thali festival at The Westin Mumbai Garden City.

While hosting culinary or gourmet events, chefs don’t primarily look for an economic return. Instead, they are excited about creating new and exciting offerings that help strengthen their long-lasting relationship with diners and patrons, points out Pawar. Wanchoo agrees, adding that the returns are not very high as primarily the focus is on establishing a brand image instead of a revenue-generating vertical. Profits aren’t bad either, and Sinha says that the returns on average are high if the culinary events are strategically planned and executed well. “These events do create revenue, but they are more about opening our doors, interacting with communities and showcasing the skills of our chefs. In return, they create a buzz about the property, restaurants and the type of food offered by us,” underlines Butler. Of course, social media has been amplifying such marquee culinary events, turning them even more into a highly desirable property. 

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