Next time you are in a restaurant, order a tandoori chicken. If the bird is dry and flavourless, it is very likely to be the fault of the kitchen rather than the chicken." No, Chef Mir Zafar Ali of Leela Palace Udaipur is not playing with words: he's never been more serious in his life. To him — as to all chefs — a kitchen is a sacrosanct space.

Next time you are in a restaurant, order a tandoori chicken. If the bird is dry and flavourless, it is very likely to be the fault of the kitchen rather than the chicken.” No, Chef Mir Zafar Ali of Leela Palace Udaipur is not playing with words: he's never been more serious in his life. To him — as to all chefs — a kitchen is a sacrosanct space. It is the heart of a hotel.

It is also the place where no guest is allowed to venture, so it is the area where shortcuts are taken, often at the expense of the food that emanates from it. The problem arises when the kitchen is not taken seriously. Ask Sachin Gund of Simple Enterprises, a kitchen fabricator with an all-India presence. “Whatever compromises are made in a free-standing restaurant is usually at the expense of the kitchen; the guest area is never allowed to suffer,” he says.

“You may re-visit a restaurant if the décor is not great. But you are unlikely to go back to a place where the food is not good,” are Chef Ali's words of wisdom. He believes that good food cannot come out of a badly planned kitchen. As a chef in a luxury hotel (Leela Palace Udaipur has been garnering its fair share of press for its ravishing beauty, food and impeccable service), he is happy that three quarters of the total area for restaurants and dining are back-areas.

“If you are serving tandoori food, you have to have no fewer than three tandoors: one for meats and vegetables, another for breads and a third as a finishing tandoor,” he says. His point is that if your kitchen is too small to allow for three tandoors, you have to start compromising. That's when you have to start keeping pre-cooked meats on standby. When the order comes for, say, a plate of mutton burrahs, all you need to do is stick the pre-cooked burrahs into a tandoor and you're ready with the order. The diner may have to chew his way through dry, tasteless burrahs, but it's as good as the kitchen can do, given its cramped conditions.

According to Gund, restaurant kitchens are beset with three main problems — size, layout and suitability to the cuisine. Most standalone restaurants operate on a rental. In metropolitan cities, this tends to be very high, so the restaurateur prefers to give more space to the front of the restaurant, which, after all, is the revenue-generating part. The ideal of 30 per cent of total area as back-area space takes a flying leap.

Also, most restaurants tend to be owned by first-generation restaurateurs, who are typically clueless about the inner workings of an eatery. They are usually guided by short-term gains rather than long-term projections. The other problem is layout. “I have seen kitchens,” he says with a shudder, “where the chefs are wedged into place by too small spaces. They have no place for movement.” Over-stocking a kitchen with useless gadgets is as much of a cardinal sin as poor layout, he adds.

“Look at your own kitchen at home. There's a place each for chopping, cooking and washing up. Plus there's a demarcated area for storage. It's exactly what a restaurant kitchen needs, though on a much larger scale,” says Gund.

You are likely to be alone in your kitchen at home and can easily move back and forth between the chopping and the washing areas; but in a restaurant, you would be bumping into your colleagues all the time. Owing to the sheer volume of work in a commercial kitchen, mistakes in laying out the various areas can be irritating at best, counterproductive at worst, says Gund. The path that a plate of food takes through the kitchen in a Chinese restaurant is not the same as it would be in a restaurant serving western food.

The layouts of two kitchens serving dissimilar cuisines needs to be different. “Even within the ambit of a particular cuisine, significant differences in the menu will dictate a different layout,” he says. He is referring to variations like a primarily tandoori restaurant or a largely curries menu; both are Indian, but each requires a different layout.

In the case of a western kitchen, each of the three elements in one plate (meat, vegetable/salad and potatoes/starch component) is likely to come from three different workstations, with the final touches done by what is known in the trade as the pick-up counter. It is quite different in an Indian kitchen, making customisation vital.

Slowly a change is seeping in. It's largely the effect of the show kitchen or open-plan kitchen. Delhi's famous Bukhara at ITC Maurya may have been one of the first to start this trend in India, way back in the 1970s, but it has caught on only in the last decade.

Fabrication unit owners like Sachin Gund will slowly come into their own: he is a one-stop shop for everything to do with the commercial kitchen — many other players either focus only on importing equipment or on designing, giving out fabricating tasks piecemeal. It goes without saying that a show kitchen needs impeccably-finished equipment in an optimally designed space. After all, it is the cynosure of everyone's attention during a meal.

So, does he think he will be able to compete with the fine finish of Italian kitchens?

He hesitates for a moment. “The problem is the lack of size standardisation in this country, which means that unlike western countries, a single die cannot be used.” Making a die is the single-most expensive part of fabricating a certain piece of equipment, such as a gas range.

In the West, the math does add up: divide the huge cost of making the die by the vast number of pieces you will end up fabricating. In India, with no size standardisation, it is impossible to make a die.

Even so, one day with a bit of luck, awareness should dawn among restaurateurs about the correlation between a well-designed kitchen and good food.

And that's when you will bite into a tandoori chicken and not find it dry and tasteless.

(This article was published on April 7, 2011)
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