The catering industry was once wedding-centric. Now it's learning to do things in style, to match the evolving tastes of a young, corporate India.
Blue Label scotch but also custom-made rose-petal jam, flaming cocktails and chocolate cigars, hand-tossed pizzas, hand-rolled sushi, white truffles and artichokes, Norwegian salmon, New Zealand lamb chops but also halibut, live grills, live paturi counters, live pasta stations....
What? Did you think that everyone had simply curled up, much like a comma, in this blistering heat or drifted away to faraway seas, or simply discovered the tranquillity of the mountains instead of staying put in their farmhouses? But the business of living must go on and that would imply entertaining too.
The prime minister may have advised industry captains to practice austerity -- or at least put up displays to the effect. But just as earnings show no signs of coming down, consumption too can't be faulted with waning.
If anything, high-level corporate parties have become more exclusive, exotic and elaborate, and Rs 5,000-plus-per person tabs for food (minus the alcohol) are increasingly making it to the non-shaadi domain. So is it time to raise a (capitalist) toast? You bet, only make it with a 15-year-old single malt!
Like for the rest of the F&B sector in India, no reliable data is available to the size of the catering industry. Experts guesstimate it at Rs 20,000-22,000 crore (Rs 200 to RS 220 billion) "including all the cities, towns and villages" with their own bands of traditional cooks and halwais -- though in metros like Delhi this is a tribe severely threatened (as we'll see later).
Another figure that is floating around is an estimated 5,000 caterers in Mumbai alone, generating an annual revenue of Rs 750 crore (Rs 7.5 billion) -- you get the drift. But one thing is sure, if there is a business where the margins are huge and investment negligible, this is it.
Traditionally, and unlike the West where corporate entertaining has been big, in India much of the market has been confined to the huge wedding business. In fact, if you go by what old-timers like Marut Sikka, Delhi-based food impresario and one of the country's biggest restaurant consultants/caterers, dishes out, 80 per cent of the business is shaadi-centric and, therefore, seasonal.
But Sikka's is a contention that is rapidly getting outdated. As young, corporate India (and not just the Mumbai set of flamboyant industrialists) learns to do things in style, this is a business that is growing and how. So much so that when Olive, one of Delhi's highest-grossing restaurants (with sister outlets in Mumbai and Bangalore), was forced to shut shop recently thanks to a court ruling, owner
A D Singh decided to cut his losses by starting a catering division.
"Our USP has always been high-end, exclusive dining. We already had support from our faithful guests and had a well-trained team of chefs and service staff, so we decided to take the concept forward," says Singh.
The brand Olive then has been extended to The Moving Kitchen, its off-site catering division for Delhi and "nearby areas", and already there has been much success vis-a-vis farmhouse dos where the entire "Olive ambience" is recreated -- skewered canapes, large, visually-stunning sushi platters to ensure the "wow" factor, portable pizza ovens to roll out fresh crusts, and sit-down settings with trademark candles because "buffets are so pedestrian".
In Chandigarh, at the launch of the city's first BMW showroom recently, for instance, Chef Saby, heading the Olive team, ensured a state banquet setting -- on a single long table -- for all the guests, who were then plied with the finest champagne-and-Beluga routine in keeping with the brand's image.
Back in Mumbai, before Saby's present stint, he remembers catering at the Dhirubhai Ambani Knowledge City. One meal in particular, stands out: a Rs 4,000-per-head high tea. "What is a Rs 4,000-per-head tea?" I ask naively. The chef laughs. "Of course, you can't put diamonds in their plates."
What you can do -- and was done -- is to focus on innovation and a lot of customised stuff. So right from a special jam made of rose petals to tiny vada-pao bites in a spoon ("the Ambanis are known for their Indian street food angle") and tiny pao-bhaji sandwiches, Saby served them all. On other occasions, there were the likes of martinis made from tomatoes "marinated" in ice for 20 hours before the resulting liquid was strained and used! Now, such creative edges are evident elsewhere too.
Mumbai-based Farrokh Khambata of Catering & Allied, best-known for Vijay Mallya's bashes but with a number of less flashy, equally-discerning clients, is famous for his innovative menus: sake and ginger-beer batter tempura prawns or grilled quail in black currant sauce are as much of the mouthfuls as they sound. Then, there are alcohol-filled desserts.
Sapna Bajaj, who operates Pat-a-cake from her home in Cuffe Parade, says, "It's funny how everybody is suddenly okay with alcohol in their desserts. Brandy and rum are old hat. Cointreau, Amaretto and champagne are the new favourites." Bajaj's strawberry champagne cake, at Rs 1,200 a kilo, is a big favourite.
Sea food is clearly the flavour of the season all around, along with Japanese cuisine. While even quintessential shaadi caterers have started including lobsters and crabs on their menus, others catering to less-mass, (hopefully) more sophisticated palates leave no stones unturned in finding the priciest fish around.
From Kumaonese trout (Himalayan is not easy to come by these days) to Alaskan crabs, everything becomes a snob statement. In Mumbai, Khambata says, "We're getting a lot of requests for cold water fish like the Atlantic salmon and halibut. Certain corporates will always be very conscious of the image of foods they serve. The most recent request for is a caviar counter with Beluga and three other varieties."
The cost: A standard menu could just be between Rs 800-1,000 per head, a fancier one (with imported meats and seafood; Chilean sea bass, scallops, sea urchins et al) could cost up to 8,000-10,000 per head. Sushi, on the other hand, has become democratised and you no longer have to go to "authentic", five-star restaurants to find a decent platter. Instead, even smaller caterers do takeaways.
In Delhi, home-delivered (in refrigerated boxes) sushi is the latest novelty. While in Mumbai, 27-year-old Ravina Bhojwani declares that the tribe of sushi-lovers is clearly growing and her customers know the difference between maki and nigiri.
"There's so much more exposure to Japanese food these days so even though there are more Japanese restaurants to choose from, my business has gone up," she says. At Rs 600 per plate of a dozen pieces of salmon and cream cheese maki roll, homemade sushi is now a fixture even at the more modest of dos.
But more than anything else, one of the biggest catering trends of the season has to do with grills and live counters. Right from Indian-style ones to Japanese yakitori, a classy party will have either or all. Then there are stir-fry counters where a guest can choose his/her pick of exotic meats, veggies and noodles (Japanese udon noodles, for instance).
Apart from the fact that these find appeal with the well-heeled who now place greater emphasis on the quality and freshness of ingredients (rather than having everything dunked in curry), these counters add an element of showmanship to the proceedings. Freelance teppanyaki chefs are now for hire for as little as Rs 1,000-2,000 and caterers can often organise them on request.
Sushanta Sengupta, a partner at Savourites, Kolkata, which has serviced parties for the American consulate and corporates like CTZ, TCS and Castrol, says, "We've been doing teppanyaki counters for some time; now we've added yakitori and tempura counters. The Thai bamboo counter is another hit in which delicate meat is stuffed into bamboo shoots with some curry paste and grilled in a spit before the guest." And the latest is also a paturi counter where, besides illish, bhetki, parse and other fish, vegetables like banana-flowers are used.
Mumbai has always had its flamboyance, Bangalore, the young, smart executives, but it is Delhi with its Lutyens' zone and sprawling bungalows, spacious embassies and farmhouses on the outskirts of the capital, where the best of catering in the most influential of homes happens.
Olive and Sikka apart, Kitchen Art's Puneet Sikand is the most visible presence along with Events Etc by Old World Hospitality, the company that runs the India Habitat Centre. (The wedding market has different kings -- Munna Maharaj, the famous Kolkata-based Mittal-wedding cook has recently spread his operations to Delhi, and Rabi Ghosh, notoriously low-profile -- he only accepts your event if you have been recommended to him -- is known to pull off 3,000-plus sit-downs with a silver service and all your ducks and salmons.)
But a host of relatively smaller players are fighting for this very competitive market too. Partygoer Devi Cherian, for instance, talks of two sisters, Nalini and Jayanti, popular in the circle for their excellent Thai spread, whose cooking is, in fact, often passed off as home cooking!
Then there are successful restaurateurs like Sudha Kukreja of Ploof and Payal Jauhar of Thai Wok who are now earning their butter via catering. There is Sevilla, Delhi's new Olive, which serves Spanish cuisine in a romantic evening ambience. The restaurant's tapas menu is in big demand even for off-site catering.
Here, apart from the quality food and service offered, what seems to work to the advantage of restaurants-in-the-catering biz is their brand recall. As Kukreja points out, "After the closing down of the banquet halls, smaller caterers could not sustain themselves and had to simply shut their establishments. Now the market is dominated only by a couple of big players."
This is where individual branding comes into play. Tabula Rasa, a smart new restaurant, barely four months old but already the toast of the town, has decided to leverage its brand name by opening a takeaway service soon rather strange for its concept which involves tasting menu-type portions in small plates.
Neil Sarkar, owner, justifies, "We already had corporates coming to us at top rates. These groups wouldn't mind paying Rs 2,500 per person... Black Label, salmon, avocado hand rolls, no expenses were spared and some would, in fact, tell us to go ahead and order for them because they didn't want that bother."
But it is not just restaurants that have brand recall. In fact, the snobbiest of the dos now like to flaunt celebrity chefs as well. Bill Marchetti used to be a familiar presence at ITC Maurya's West View. Now, he finds it more profitable to freelance.
For a fee of Rs 20,000 or thereabouts per event (apart from the per person charges), he will not only put together your menu and suggest the wines but also mingle with the guests. And sources in the industry add that visiting celebrity (foreign) chefs at the five-stars are often persuaded to extend their stay by a night and put together an exclusive dinner at a farmhouse.
If this is Delhi's way of showing off power, Mumbai has its own dalliances. Chembur-based Foodlink -- one of the first catering services to get ISO certification -- can get an Italian chef flown in from Bologna or a Chinese one to man a "live" noodle counter or even foreign hostesses.
"The customer is king," says Davinder Singh Raddi, head of the outdoor catering division. The company can also rent out monogrammed silver service, customised uniforms for the staff and authentic street vendors to "perform at the event". But as Raddi adds, "the same applies to customers' budgets too -- the sky really is the limit. Most people will list out their demands, not the price. That's our department."
If all this reads like a lot of excess, take heart. There is some simplicity in some areas. Ostentatious menus that mixed and matched cuisines are now passe. Instead, guests are increasingly opting for cocktails-and-snacks dos with just about 2-3 main courses.
Also, standard five-star invitee lists where you invited the world have rightfully been banished. And even in Delhi and northern India, the era of the Punjabi baroque seems well and truly over -- as much in architecture as in cuisine. Caterers organise an intimate do for as few as 10-20 of a coterie or a networking event of 40-50.
"Even that would be on the higher side...you can't just talk," says Cherian. In Bangalore, Ajit Saldanha, event consultant, says, "Rent-a-crowd parties in five-stars are passe. People these days first ask you who else is coming and how many before accepting an invite."
As for the menu, how about 15-30 types of tapas with wine, followed by a main course of fish and paella? Or sushi with sake shots and Bento boxes? Or then, again, a huge number of grills -- don't miss out on the Brazilian spread -- followed by something as basic as a biryani "on its way back", as Kukreja points out.
On the other hand, simplicity can also express itself as an Indian meal of only dals. Rakesh Anand, F&B director at Old World Hospitality, who first introduced Delhi to its famous haleem parties with a Charatram family do, remembers a recent party he organised where the main course was just six varieties of dals with different tempering -- including broken up galauti kebabs -- and 2-3 types of baby rotis. Now that is something to chew on!
(Inputs by Arati Menon Carroll and Gargi Gupta)