USING SCIENCE TO STANDARDIZE INDIAN CUISINE – PETOO

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Art is one of the most un-scalable things known to humans. Creating great art is not easy hence we have very few greats like Michelangelo or Da Vinci. Of course their art can now be easily replicated using technology like photography and printing but if someone has to recreate it from scratch without using technology, it is bound to be an extremely difficult task. In a similar way, across the globe Indian food has traditionally been considered as a work of art. In fact, most Indians take pride in saying that Indian cuisine is complicated and making a good dish for example, a Biryani is rocket science. This is most often the excuse to explain why there are no global Indian food brands of the size of say, a McDonald’sUntil few years ago this fact frustrated me to my wits ends. I shared this frustration with my friends, who brushed it off saying ‘Okay, maybe you are right, but Indian food is so diverse and a pizza is so standard, how can you have a single brand do justice to the myriad options in Indian food’.  Others said, ‘Indian food is a complex amalgamation of flavours, a pizza is so simple to make… it is impossible to make an Indian curry as you can make a pizza or a burger’.

The answer to this question was obviously a    . I tried making a pizza at home from scratch and it would be an understatement to say that it was quite challenging. Even after multiple trials I could not even get my pizza base correct but look around and we have brands with 1000’s of outlet serving millions of pizzas, consistently every day across multiple countries. It then dawned upon me that it’s just that we haven’t really tried using science to standardize Indian dishes. This is perhaps the only reason why we haven’t done justice to our brilliantly flavourful cuisine. Remember that the Michelangelos of Indian cuisine have already created hundreds of amazing dishes, and someone now just needs to build the “copier/technology” to reproduce these dishes at scale.

The first step in this direction is to understand the problems plaguing this industry:

  Most famous restaurants depend on an artist! The chef is the soul of an Indian restaurant, this is true for fine dine as well as casual dine restaurants. If the Chef quits, he also takes away the soul of the restaurant. A new chef brings his own style of cooking and in most cases his own trusted team. It is impossible to maintain consistency under such circumstances. Needless to say, the chef becomes extremely powerful in such circumstances and it usually ends up becoming an operational challenge for the business owner.

 

  Most restaurants prepare food from scratch and hence need a bigger kitchen team and robust procurement process. Unfortunately, this makes the operations very complex and also vulnerable to ingredient unavailability and price fluctuations.

  Because most Indian restaurants prepare food from scratch, the space required for the kitchen and storage at usual restaurants is large, resulting in high cost of setup. A large kitchen also reduces the space available for seating customers, thus reducing the real estate ROI. Reducing the size of kitchen often results in the menu becoming curtailed.

  In a typical casual dine or quick service restaurant a lot of black hat techniques are used to preserve food. Most of us have encountered extremely spicy, salty or oily dishes at restaurants. This is usually done to increase the shelf life of dishes or in other words slow the rate of food deterioration.

  Most restaurants also depend on frozen or refrigerated food for storage and scaling. We all know about the woeful cold chain infrastructure in India. It is not just inadequate but also unreliable. Dominos and McDonalds both spent enormous amount of capital in developing cold storage infrastructure across the country before they started to scale.

Unfortunately, Indian restaurants do not have access to such large capital and the current infrastructure is grievously substandard to aid such an expansion.India has many regional cuisines and getting fixated with a particular region’s cuisine will make scaling pan India very difficult. For example it is difficult for a North Indian restaurant to scale big in Kerala, similarly a restaurant serving excellent Malabari food will find it difficult to scale in Punjab.

The above challenges are large hindering factors due to which most restaurant chains (Indian cuisine) are unable to scale beyond a limited geography. Those who have managed to scale are forced to cut down on their menu offering, which unfortunately reduces the opportunity to grow.

If we look at it, most of the above mentioned problems relate to how we go about preparing the dishes. Consider this, while making Chinese dishes or pasta’s at homes we usually do not think twice before using packaged sauces, but when we cook Indian food, we start by assembling raw ingredients to make the sauces (gravy). Innovations around processes which convert our artistic and complicated Indian dishes into pre-cooked components is the need of the hour. Imagine assembling such components with fresh vegetables, paneer or chicken to make tasty and healthy food within minutes at homes and restaurants alike! This is perhaps the only way we will be able to see a large Indian cuisine restaurant brand.

 

This however is not an easy problem to solve, primarily because all food preparation processes used in Indian kitchens have been ingrained in our mind set since decades. Food ingredients are at the end of the day naturally occurring chemicals. Unfortunately, most chefs do not understand the science (chemistry) behind the ingredients but follow age old recipes blindly. If we have to really build an Indian food brand which transcends regional and international boundaries, not only do we need a deep understanding of the chemistry of ingredients but also need to adopt a radical problem solving approach towards making food preparation less of art, chef independent and operationally light.

 

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