By Vikas Kumar
I grew up in a small town in western part of Uttar Pradesh. We were a family of extremely limited culinary adventurism. Eating out used to be mostly restricted to family functions or special occasions in our pure vegetarian family. My father was an engineer who travelled often and my mother was a school teacher taking care of three of us siblings, all by herself. To that end, I really did not have a ‘family environment’ that I could proclaim of having initiated my interest into professional cooking.
When I got to class 12, my elder brother, who had moved out to Delhi by then, probably recognised that I was not really cut out for a career in Science and suggested that I take up an entrance examination that was held by the Institute of Hotel Management. Till that time, I had not considered Hospitality as a career option. I qualified in the exam and was selected for the institute at Calcutta (now Kolkata). It was here that I had my first initiation into professional cookery and I was fascinated!
While training with the Taj group of hotels, I realised the extent of culinary expertise in India and its important role in the hospitality industry. Satellite Television was opening up at the time and culinary shows were becoming increasingly popular and therefore Chefs were receiving more and more recognition and appreciation in society. It was only then that I decided to consider a career in the culinary field.
I was lucky enough to be selected by the Taj in 1997 for their Hotel Operation Management Trainee (HOMT) program after the completion of my course and was absorbed in Taj Bengal, Calcutta. I opted for specialisation in Bakery and the rest, as they say, is history. I was fortunate to have a battery of Senior Chefs, including expatriate Chefs, who helped me hone my culinary skills. After 4 years at the Taj, I joined the cruise ship industry where I was among the very few Indian nationals on board the iconic RMS Queen Elizabeth2 and later The RMS Queen Mary2. A few stints in some other Luxury hotel properties followed thereafter.
I joined Flurys nearly 7 years back and without doubt it has been the best decision of my life, so much so, that this is the organisation that I have served for the longest time in my career thus far and hope to grow with in the future. I remember in my college days and later during my stay in Calcutta, Flurys, used to be this larger than life iconic destination that had made itself synonymous with the who’s who of the city – one that represented grace, finesse and luxury. Although in those days, Flurys used to be rather expensive for us with our limited monetary resources, it was nonetheless a place where people wanted to be seen and was the destination for people seeking the best quality confectionary and food in the city. Its Rum Balls, Chicken Patties and English Breakfast are the stuff of legends and thankfully, Flurys has been able to maintain the same quality and brand recall till today. Over the past few years, I have been fortunate to be a member of the team that has been given the responsibility of taking the glorious brand of Flurys outside the city of Kolkata and we have been able to do so successfully in the cities of Hyderabad, Mumbai and Delhi and are looking at aggressive expansion in the coming year, starting with the city of Chennai where we are looking at opening our first outlet in a few months time, most likely a Tea Room. I have also been involved with the media relations of Flurys and have been featured variously in the print and electronic media.
I have been giving lectures, presentations and culinary demonstrations at various venues and institutions. One thing I get commonly asked is the secret behind being a successful Chef, especially by youngsters who are looking at making a career in the culinary field. Although obviously there is no simple answer to this, I would still have to say the oft repeated – ‘hard work and perseverance’. Although these words get thrown around a lot, I would like to try and justify these with my own example. When I joined my first job on the cruise ship, we had to literally do everything that we nowadays expect the utility workers to do in our kitchens. From picking up supplies to cleaning the walk-in fridges, ovens and floors, we had to do it all. The hours of work, typically in a large cruise ship is between 14-16 hours a day, continuously for 8-10 months with no off days! In those days, there weren’t any onboard email or phone call facilities either. The work used to be very demanding but we, as chefs, belonging to many different countries and races, used to find our little joys and enjoyed learning new things and visiting new places, even if, just for a couple of hours.
In terms of perseverance, out of the group of almost 20 HOMTs that were selected from our batch from across the various institutes, today I know of only two who are still with the hospitality industry, the rest have branched out to other sectors. This probably proves my point about the requirement of hard work and perseverance needed to succeed in the culinary field. Also being a Chef, especially in the bakery and patisserie is somewhat of an amalgamation of being a creative artist as well as a skilled craftsman with a scientific acumen, where the food product has to be creative, well cooked and well presented – all at the same time. At a more senior position, a thorough knowledge of man management, material management as well as planning and execution is required, all of which come with experience, commitment, a sense of enterprise and constant innovation.
One of the best things about being a Chef is that no two days are same and to that end, the work never becomes monotonous. Generally speaking, I come to work at around 9 am in the morning. After going through my emails and responding to them, I have a meeting with the key members of my team where we see that everything is in order for the day. I try to communicate to the team any special events listed for the day. After that, generally I have a number of people that I need to meet which includes suppliers, guests and sometimes job applicants. On some days, I have to go to our various outlets for inspection, whereas on other days, I go to Flurys on Park Street and spend some time there trying to find out how we can improve on what we are doing. I also take periodic training classes for my staff members as well as induction classes that are conducted by the training department for our new and existing staff members. At the kitchen, I try and develop new recipes and try various products that can be incorporated in our menus. Shortly, we will be changing our menu and will launch a range of new products on which we are currently working.
At Apeejay Surrendra Park Hotels, our motto is to practice ‘Leadership through Differentiation’ and to that end, we, at Flurys, endeavour to take the brand to more and more cities within the country and expand our customer base through our unique offerings that have made Flurys the most loved confectionery brand in the country for the last nine decades and five generations.
Vikas Kumar is Executive Chef, Flurys