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What's for DINNER, chef?

Eating out is hip and happening... Master chefs in the city are on their toes conjuring up new recipes.

Photo: S. Mahinsha

WALK INTO Tiffany, the restaurant at The Muthoot Plaza, and you will see the lunchtime crowd seated in the room, relishing their meal. The tantalising aroma of the dishes in the baine-marie (food warmer) wafts across the restaurant. A few hours later, in another part of the city, the dinnertime crowd has just begun to troop into Mira, the restaurant of Hotel Horizon. So is the case with the restaurants in the hotels Residency Tower and The South Park.

The lunchtime crowd or the dinner crowd at any of the leading restaurants and hotels in the city is proof enough that eating out is fast catching up in the somnolent Thiruvananthapuram. The hotels are busy pruning their menu wherein the bill for a buffet would cost about Rs. 300 and a seafood delicacy (like lobster in sauces) would shoot upto Rs. 1,000.

So, why is eating out the new trend in town? Lots of reasons: more hotels and restaurants have come up in the past few years, there are more youngsters in high-profile jobs, the disposable income too has gone up and so has the number of people who are willing to splurge on food. And of course, more culinary experts are rustling up special recipes in the kitchens and fine-tuning the flavours to give the Italian and French cuisine an authentic taste.

Dig into any of the dishes that one of the restaurants is famous for and you'll begin to wonder, "What is the secret of such delicious dishes?"

Ask Tulasidharan Pillai, chef, South Park, who has been into the food industry for 25 years now and pat comes the reply: "The love for food and the passion for cooking. Each dish has to be prepared with love, else it will not appeal to the taste buds. Everything-- right from the ingredients, the preparation and the final garnishing- has to be done with great care."

Agrees Sashi Jacob, corporate chef, The Muthoot Plaza: "The quality and authenticity of the food is as important as the hygiene observed in the kitchen and while serving food. When people pay for the food, they expect the best. We cannot compromise on the food, especially when it comes to the exotic Italian or Oriental cuisine."

Be it the chicken taraiaki, fish pauppiette epinards or the veal osopocko, people, say the chefs, are interested in trying out food other than the staple dal makhni or schezwan noodles.

"We have been able to rework the cuisine to cater to the demands of our widely-travelled clientele. We take note of not just the number of covers (orders per guest) we get everyday but the kind of people who come in and also the food they wish to eat. We try and prepare the dishes as authentically as possible. The heath conscious clientele prefer low-calorie and less-oily food. We make sure the dishes are prepared as per their specifications," says C. Ravi Kumar, executive chef, Hotel Horizon.

Though the chefs lay stress on the authenticity of the dish, it's common knowledge to foodies that the so-called Chinese cuisine on many a menu is not the authentic version. "Few people will like the taste of the original Chinese cuisine. We are left with no choice but to alter the taste of the dish to suit the Indian palate," confesses a chef. This, says Lakshmi Nair, lecturer at the Law Academy, is not an excuse for whipping up unpalatable dishes. "I recently had Thai food at a restaurant and it was a sorry excuse for original dish. I've had Thai food at Bangkok, so I knew what it tastes like."

And this observation by Laksmi, who also hosts cookery shows on TV and is a trained cook herself (specialises in Thai cuisine), sums up the state of most `authentic' dishes served in hotels sans speciality chefs.

S. Rama Rao, general manager, Gemini Software Solutions, Technopark, says, "Vegetarians never have much of a choice; the vegetarian cuisine at most hotels here is limited. While abroad and in north India one gets to select from a variety of such food. About five years ago, there weren't any top-line hotels save two or three that served food late in the night. People had to drive all the way to one of the top-end hotels at Kovalam to eat good food." Erratic work schedules coupled with a lot of travel has increased the number of people eating out, especially at night. It is only recently that the concept of midnight dining has caught on. These days, one gets to see a lot of young crowd, mostly from Technopark, dining out. The increase in the number of domestic and foreign tourists coming in, has also given a fillip to the hotel industry.

"Running a hotel is a tough business," says Nagarajan J. Uduppa, general manager, The Muthoot Plaza.

The tidy profit one makes in the hotel industry is an open secret. "True, but it is not without its flip side," remarks Suresh M. Pillai, director, Hotel Horizon. "The clientele eating at our restaurant has more than doubled in the last one year. Though the bottom-line is profit, maintaining high standards of hygiene, sourcing the raw material such as meat, vegetables and sauces, procuring equipment like the deep-freezer (food is frozen at 18 C) eats into the profit," says Uduppa. This statement notwithstanding, the Muthoot Plaza is gearing up to opening the doors of its new hotel that is coming up adjacent to the present building. Another hotel seems to be toeing a similar line. "Plans to expand our business are in the pipeline. We are working things out," confirms Pillai at Horizon.

People come in droves to new restaurants, but a few months down the line when the novelty of the cuisine begins to wear off, the clientele decreases. "It is then that we have to be innovative in order to sustain the interest-- change the menu for buffets every day; introduce new dishes every week. The restaurant menu is revamped every four to six months," points out Arjun Vijay Das, executive chef, Residency Towers.

Most top-line hotels have chefs who specialise in different cuisine such as the Oriental, Indian, Italian and even the French cuisine.

How do the chefs keep a tab on the latest trends in the hotel industry?

Benoy Koshy, sous chef, The Muthoot Plaza, has the answer: "We refer to the internet and read cookery books, mostly foreign publications, to keep ourselves abreast of the latest recipes. As and when possible, we are taught how to make new dishes too, we even workout variations of the same recipe using different ingredients (like sauces), just in case we fall short of it at some point of time. We are planning a lot of nouveau items for the New Year."

Meanwhile, as you read this, the chefs and their team are busy concocting delicious recipes and deciding on how much nuts and choco-chips should go into the ice creams. Is the thought tempting enough to make you want to eat out? Bon appetit!

SMITHA SADANANDAN

Photo: S. Mahinsha

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