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October 2017, Issue"Kitchen is a Food Theatre to Keep People Happy"

Chef Ravinder Singh PanwarExecutive Chef Courtyard Marriott, Bhopal

Chef Ravinder Singh Panwar’s culinary journey began with an apprenticeship at the Taj Mahal Hotel, New Delhi. Later he joined The Oberoi, New Delhi and trained under highly professional chefs in all kitchen core areas including larder, coffee shop, Oriental, French fine dining, Patisserie & Indian cuisine. In 2004, he got an opportunity to go to Tokyo, Japan, as an Indian chef to commence new benchmark Indian restaurants for Oberoi hotels. He then took charge of a flagship Indian restaurant, opened three more Indian restaurants and four Delica shops. He worked under the guidance of Chef Yoshiro Murath (7 Michelin chef) at Michelin star restaurant “Kikunoi” and learned Japanese fine dining food to understand Japanese chef`s philosophy of food and the word “Umami”. In December 2009, he joined the Taj Falaknuma Palace, which belongs to last Nizam of Hyderabad Prince Mukaram Jah Bhadura as Indian chef. There he researched on Hyderabadi food from resourceful royal kitchens, hotels, old city and food connoisseur, Nawab Mehboob Alam Khan. In December 2013, he joined the Bengaluru Marriott, Whitefield where he trained for concept theme break by creating food, theme, and mood as per meeting purpose aimed at enhancing great food experience. In an interview with Better Kitchen Chef Ravinder had discussed his culinary journey. Excerpts.

Tell us a little about your background. How did you come into the hotel industry especially into kitchen?

I am more of a sporty guy from a very young age. I was inspired by my uncle who was then the Principal of a Hotel Management Institute. I had actually enrolled for a CA course and had passed my CA foundation. When I was into the first part of Intermediate CA, I felt that I just had to be in the hotel industry. However, since my parents were totally opposed to it, I joined the Taj Mahal hotel in New Delhi using my own resources. There, I had the opportunity to work as an apprentice with a Michelin chef at the French restaurant where I learnt the hors d'oeuvres, appetizers and soups. I then shifted to The Oberoi, New Delhi where I did a different kitchen course and made the right start as a chef with The Oberoi, New Delhi.

Who has supported you the most? Mom or Dad?

Definitely, Mom always supported me more. Dad is strict like a General or a Commander while mom is cool and calm.

How did you develop this passion for cooking? At what point did you decide that you wanted to be a chef?

I am a very sporty guy and I cannot be confined in a “box” as a Chartered Accountant or a Cost Accountant or a Company Secretary. No boss! I cannot lead that kind of boxed life. I need to travel a lot.

Apart from your training at The Oberoi, did you do a formal training at an Institute of Hotel Management too?

Yes, I did a Craft Course Training in an IHM but I practically moved about in the hotels because it is only here that you get the kind of practical training in terms of operations that you cannot get by reading books. When you compared what you learned in theory with the actual hands-on training in the hotels, you could see the difference that it made, and the training felt really complete.

How do you plan or visualize your kitchen right now?

Visualizing involves everything from recipes to process-setting which involves planning, organization, coordination, making strategies, tactics to execute those strategies and monitoring all of these. It's all about process-setting.

How do you see the role of the executive chef in the planning and designing of the kitchen?

It is very important. I work with reputed Indian and international companies. About 90% of the kitchen planning is very well executed but the 10% which we would change for practical purpose. Planning that is done by the professionals is done so well that more often than not, we do not need to ask for major changes.

Do you prefer to cook in the traditional way or do you like to use technology too?

For me it is very important to maintain the ethnicity.I cannot compromise on the taste and flavours. However, technology is also very important and there are a lot of areas within a kitchen where we can use the available technology. So, it is essentially a combination of both, the traditional and the modern. If you take for example, biryani which is prepared in Hyderabad or Awadh or Delhi, charcoal or wood is used as fuel. It makes a difference to the flavours as compared to the fast-fury cooking methods like using tilting pans even though the recipe used is the same for both.

How do you decide on the cooking methods or type fuels used for a one-person or 10-person or 1000-person service?

If it is going to be a 10-person menu, I can say that it will be very professional and a la carte, from pan to plate. However, for 1000 persons or beyond a certain number, it is going to be in bulk kitchens with larger utensils and appliances like steam boilers and so on. Fuel is a very important aspect for us and we cannot function without fuel. I tend to mix my methods. Some foods need the traditional type of cooking; for example, if it is a wood-fired pizza then I would have to use firewood since there is a special aroma and flavour that is imparted to the pizza. Similarly, for tandoori chicken, you can make it in a combi-oven which is very a modernized appliance, easy to use, time-saving and with safety features but the flavour and aroma obtained by using the traditional method that uses charcoal and clay ovens cannot be replicated by any other method.

Do you believe in slow cooking? What is your secret cooking method?

Yes, I do believe in slow cooking. I don't think anything is a secret nowadays. I don't believe in hiding anything.

Do you have any special ingredients for special dishes?

Yes, we do. For our international foods we have truffles, bonito flakes which we import from Tokyo and sometimes Hokkaido, then, we get the best caviar. We import all these things depending on the requirements of our guests and sometimes, we create our own dining experience here.

What is the relative weightage that you give to cooking and serving? Do you serve as well sometimes?

Yes, cooking and serving are important both at home as well as in commercial establishments. We learn about all aspects from kitchen to service; from raw ingredients to finished products, everything has to be picture perfect. Even the serving has to be done perfectly by prioritizing the tasks of taking different items to the table. It is a team work. So I would give 50 points to the food and 50 to the service.

Do you also suggest dishes to your guests at the hotels depending upon their age and other things?

We always anticipate certain situations whether guests come in with kids or with certain dietary requirements. Kids and senior citizens have the same type of stomach! So the food has to be fresh, with more nutritional value and very easy to digest—that is very important.

What is your advice to guests as to how to satisfy their hunger in a healthy way?

It is very simple. Just have some oriental chicken broth soup in which you take about 350 ml of stock or broth, add lots of vegetables, some noodles and a bit of chicken in it. This way you can go low calories and fill your stomach with food of high nutritional value.

Do you get inspiration from your guests to change your menu or your recipes?

That's been an ongoing process right from the time I joined this industry. Sometimes, we do get suggestions from guests regarding some recipes; like if someone said to me today, “Ravinder, my grandmom makes koftas in this way”, I feel, why not try it out? At times I have found that it turns out really nicely.

Do you allow your guests to visit your kitchen?

Yes, I do. We have some activities for that in our hotel. On a daily basis I moves around, talks to the guests, asks them how they liked the food and makes a personal connect with them. This feedback and personal connect is very important.

What's your opinion about live kitchens?

Live kitchens are very important as with other types of kitchens and they are quite informal. Nowadays, we see that the young generation love to talk, enjoy and watch the action. It is as if the kitchen is not just a kitchen but a food theatre of sorts. They would like to see a lot of stuff happening on the same floor. So, a live kitchen is essential these days.

How do you rate your guests and experiences in Bhopal vis-à-vis Metros?

Bhopal is as important to me as any other city like Delhi or any foreign city. I respect them all. There is much to earn from every city and every guest. This particular city is very important and I would say to you: Keep your food very very ethnic you can't play with it here, “If the chaat has to be like this, it has to be like this”. So, I have brought in all such people who have the exact know-how to make ethnic food here. I can promise you that you can get all good ethnic food in this hotel.

This is a city where you can get the best chai and pakodi & samosa in India, I can say.

What do you think of fusion foods which people are experimenting with?

To some extent, it is fine to have fusion foods but not for all foods. Fusion in terms of ethnicity is not great. If you want to improvise to raise the bar on taste and aroma in a phased manner, it is okay, but the way you are going to cut it down, no way! We must enhance the dining experience by fusion methods and not have it lacking by way of taste. The dish should not lose its originality.

What is your favourite recipe?

It is Bihari Gosht.I love the Awadhi Gosht Nihari and also the Hyderabadi one.

Tell us about the Green Practices you follow in your kitchen.

That is definitely very important because we have to save the environment and people are really taking it seriously. So, we have segregation of garbage into wet and dry; for the cartons, we have a clean box in which we cut and dry and reuse these things. We use non-toxic chemicals to clean our pots and pans in the kitchen close to the base of plants, and we have an approved vendor who knows how to dispose garbage that goes out of hotels.

Kitchen fuel we need to get an upgrade on that technology to suit our work here which is in bulk and which needs to be faster.

What kind of fuels are you using now in your kitchen?

We are using all kinds of fuels including LPG, electricity, and chafing fuel which is used to keep the food warm in the chafing dishes in the banquet area.

What about the safety?

We are quite strong in safety feature and we are given training in all these matters. So, we are completely safe here.

Do you have any disaster management plans for kitchens and mock drills?

Yes, we do have disaster management plans in place. We gather here for regular fire drills once in two weeks. We also have a Loss Prevention Department.

Do you keep a quality check on your vendor's supplies?

We do it every day. We have our specifications and if we find that things are not up the mark or not compliant with our standards, we reject them.

Any anecdote or memorable moment which you would like to share with our readers.

I was once looking after a flagship restaurant called Sitara in Tokyo, opened by Mr Huroi and a Japanese partner. The Prime Minister of Japan had visited my restaurant to have Indian food. He wanted to have a whale neck-bone dish which is like 3 kgs and he wanted a tandoori one. He said that he also wanted to have tuna fish which had to be raw inside but in tandoori style. I got an inspiration from Tuna Tataki which is fried from the outside; I did a tandoori marination, wrapped it in kadhai masala, put it into a tandoor and made it in the tataki way. From the inside, it was just like a Japanese dish but the outer layer was with typical Indian spice. It took me around 45 minutes to prepare this dish. The Japanese PM appreciated it a lot and also appreciated our efforts at creating this real fusion dish.

What is your idea about your own dream kitchen?

My dream kitchen is one which is complete in terms of equipment, tools, layout and resources. I need a whole cooking range on one side, an oven under the cooking hub, a microwave oven on my right side so that I can work in a flow with perfect coordination rather than have the layout disturbing me. You should not have to run around the kitchen as in a football ground.

Message for students of hotel management courses and aspiring chefs.

Be passionate, a very very important aspect. Be passionate and enjoy cooking because if you enjoy the cooking process, you don't even need to ask for anything else.

What is your message to our readers about the kitchen?

Kitchen is a place where you can create unique culinary experiences and keep people happy. Starting from your mother's kitchen to anywhere in this world, food is one thing that can make you happy. "Goodness Together".