It is a management dilemma as old as the hills. If you write down a recipe that calls for four green chillies, how do you adjust for the fact that summer chillies are far more potent than winter chillies? In other words, should you rely on rules and regulations to run your organisation or should you leave things to the discretion of your people?
The answer, of course, depends on the size and nature of the organisation, with small, innovative organisations opting for people and large, structured ones favoring rules. Ananda Solomon’s choices are made more complicated by the fact that he is the corporate chef for the 33 business hotels of the Taj group, as well the executive chef for the Taj President, Mumbai. That means he is in charge of 33 other executive chefs, while practising as a chef himself. His core competence is cooking and it is not a behind the scenes supervisory job, where you bank on other people’s skills. You have to stay involved.
Rules, as they say, are meant to be broken, especially when you travel across geographies and cultures. This is even more so for food, tastes in which vary vastly in different regions. Though he may write down the basic recipe, Solomon gives the executive chefs located in various Taj properties full freedom to innovate according to the rules of their terrain. He can’t control what is happening some place where he is not there. In any case, ours is not a McDonald’s-style operation and it’s not at all necessary to replicate cuisine. You have to give chefs a free hand to create. Otherwise they will be out of the market.
Of course, it helps that Solomon has trained most of the executive chefs personally and has implicit confidence in their abilities. A graduate of Dadar Catering College, batch of 1978, Solomon worked in several establishments in India and abroad, before joining the Taj group in 1990. Since then, he is recruited many a trainee for the group, several of whom have gone on to become star chefs.
Now that talent is becoming harder to find, Solomon is looking beyond hotel management institutes. In a strategy many HR chiefs would empathise with, he is going to small, successful restaurants in the interiors, where the cooks may be unsophisticated, but are talented all the same. They don’t select people based on interviews, they see their work. They may not be very articulate, but in this field you don’t just go by the look and feel of a man. There are guys who didn’t know how to pronounce broccoli when they joined, but they have understood and mastered Thai cuisine over time.
Solomon knows his broccoli and the difference between summer and winter chillies. Mumbai gets its vegetables from 16 different regions and the master chef can tell which region a tomato has come from by looking at it. This is the kind of knowledge he passes on to the young cooks training under him at the Thai Pavillion, Trattoria and Konkan Cafe. In his younger days, Solomon apprenticed under chefs who would keep their best recipes secret. He has decided never to do that. He has no secret powders hidden in pocket that he adds when no one is looking.
Skilled cooks have made the three specialty restaurants at the Taj President hugely popular with the South Mumbai set. Chef Solomon knows his regulars well and is known for dispatching specially made complimentary dishes to their tables to complement their mood. You have to understand the atmosphere at the table. If a couple looks like they’ve been quarrelling, he sends them food with ingredients capable of cooling them down.
For Solomon, the most important customer is not necessarily the wealthiest or most glamorous, but the one who returns most often. Two of his regulars are Sachin Tendulkar and Asha Bhosle, and he defers to them more than he would to the Bollywood stars from Juhu, who only occasionally drop in. You have to decide whether you’re in the food business or in the fashion business. People don’t keep coming to a restaurant for its decor. They come for the food, the service and for the value they get for their money.
The Taj President, of course, has never been viewed as a luxury hotel, which suits Solomon just fine. Luxury brands are going out of the window. To succeed, you need to cultivate a broader clientele. You need to go beyond the upper segment to the middle income segment as well. Else your restaurant won’t justify the space it occupies.