Confession Of a Food Writer: Food Journalism

Food JournalismJust by the virtue of writing about restaurants and by getting an opportunity to interact with their chefs, managers and owners, I have procured a bit more knowledge about the restaurant industry than an average diner. So far my reviews have mostly been one sided and show a restaurant from the customer’s eye. However, for long have I felt the need to work inside a restaurant and handle different departments to appreciate all aspects and perspectives of a restaurateur, which can help me become a food journalist than just a food writer. After all, journalism is all about giving a true picture from both ends and letting the reader decide what stand they would like to take. But to get such an experience, either I have to work with a restaurant, and I doubt that anyone will allow me to see their operations from a close angle, or I would have to open my own restaurant; a risk I can’t take with my hard earned money.

Food JournalistUndoubtedly, I have more respect for the food writers who have experience in the Kitchen like Osama Jalali, Anoothi Vishal and Rupali Dean to name a few, and my chance to get that exposure came in when I participated in a 4-day festival happening in the city and booked a stall. What happens ahead is my unedited and candid view of the issues faced by the industry. My views may again change as I get into daily rigmarole, and hence I want to write this post when it is fresh in my mind. Please note that since my only intention was to gain experience, we (My friends Anil Jadhav and Himanshu Arora who helped me inspite of their busy schedules) decided to serve the authentic Mumbaiya vada pav and hired a Soda banta vendor too.

Governance: There are various Government authorities and licenses required to start the operations, and even though I did not deal with them directly, I could feel the issues and pains the organisers went through. Such a brilliant theme was almost jeopardized given the greed of various authorities.

Customer is King: Yes, this is what we have always been advocating. But imagine a customer who sends his child to get a banta soda. When it is prepared, he comes personally and asks to make a fresh one refusing to take the argument that this one is also just made for him. What do you do with such customers or the ones who tries to slip without paying?

Pricing: As a food writer, I have always come heavily upon certain prices that are being charged in respect of their raw material cost. However, this event was an eye opener for me. The Banta soda that we were getting for Rs20 was being sold for Rs50 by us. To me it was high but then we wanted to make up for the stall charges. After 2 days we realized that there weren’t enough customers for us to sustain, and those who were coming, barring 5%, were hardly bothered about the pricing at the venue we were in. Against all my good sense, consciousness, and morality we increased the pricing to Rs100 per glass. Initially I had a strong hitch in quoting the price, but soon it became the business as usual. If I had gone for a review, I know for sure, that I would have highlighted this point even without getting the restaurateur perspective. Does it make it justified for a restaurant to charge such obscene pricing, I still would say no, but atleast it gives me another view point.

A good chef: Gone are the days when a good chef was the person who could make good food. These days a chef has to go much beyond the obvious. He has to accurately forecast the sales. Any excess is a waste and any shortage is the lost opportunity. We got our pavs from Mumbai in the zeal to serve the best and daily at 7am along with one of my colleagues, I would go to the New Delhi Railway Station to get the fresh Pavs where someone would keep them with the coach-in-charge of one of the Mumbai-Delhi train. Soon we realized given low off take our pav’s were becoming dry and can’t be used. We wasted over 2000 pav in the process and stopped order for the last day and served a day old pav. Again, I did not like it, but couldn’t help it either. The final cost of vada pav for us was close to Rs80 instead of Rs15 that we initially calculated because of low volumes and various leakages that we couldn’t control.

Spoilage: As I pointed out we wasted lot of pav, potatoes and green chilly making our cost shoot up many times compared to the planned numbers. Such costs are to be built up in the final product pricing.

Quality of food: We got the pav daily from Mumbai, the chutney was prepared fresh and using the best ingredients. We got many lovers and appreciation for our stuff. Still did it make us financially viable? No. So, the quality and authenticity of preparation is required but it is also required to serve what customer wants. Many gave us ideas to serve vada pav with cheese (Jesus) or some other interesting elements, which may get shot down by a food reviewer for not being authentic but makes financial sense.

Vendor Relation: It is important to manage your vendor well. He is extremely important for the final product. However do ensure that the dotted line is clearly signed. In our case our vendor (banta wala) wanted more money at the end when he saw us selling his stuff so expensive.

Raw Material: We bought the veggies from mandi but many a times ran short of few things that were bought at retail price. Like ice cubes that cost Rs10 per kg in the market were bought for Rs40 per kg from retail shop on increased demand. Such small things are to be avoided in a text book scenario, but we wouldn’t help it in practical situation.

Labor: Yes, my team and I were the coolie (getting stuff from mandi and railways station), cooks, cashier, server and cleaner at the same time. Even though we did not built-in our manpower cost, we were not able to recover even our raw material cost leave beside the stall cost or the management cost. Yes, we did far better than many known names in terms of overall volumes, but it still did not justify the efforts that we put behind.

There are many more learnings for us. The respect for daily wage earner, the odd hours in which this industry works including their odd eating hours earned much more of our respect than we ever had.

Running a restaurant is not easy, critiquing is. I aspire to be more constructive in my writings and sharing feedbacks.

pawansoni

Food Critic and a Marketing Wizz who had a high profile career with leading MNC’s like HSBC, GE Capital etc, Pawan Soni comes across as a quintessential corporate employee. He left behind his successful career as the Vice President of a MNC... all for his love for food. He a WSET Level II wine connoisseur and a foodie who loves to eat anything under the sun. Besides being a food and travel writer for various food forums and magazines, he is the Founder and CEO of Indian Food Freak. As one of the initial bloggers who started his blog almost a decade ago, his website www.indianfoodfreak.com is currently one of the biggest food and travel blogs in the country. Pawan also conducts highly successful restaurant awards and recently concluded the 6th edition of The Big F restaurant awards. He won the best influencer awards in India by BBC Food Food Awards in 2018