Chef Himanshu Taneja, Director of Culinary for South Asia, Marriott International, talks about the meticulous planning that goes into menu engineering, the group’s sustainability approach and the reason why F&B in India has a bright future.
Chef Himanshu Taneja, currently the Director of Culinary for South Asia, Marriott International, has over two decades of experience in the industry. Today, he’s responsible for F&B at Marriott properties across Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and India. The group currently operates over 350 F&B venues across 131 hotels, with India, naturally, being the biggest market.
We got a chance to catch up with the chef on the new openings he is overseeing, such as Westin Goa, alongside other innovative initiatives such as Marriott on Wheels, the group’s delivery arm.
The lockdown saw all kinds of disruptions across the industry, with both restaurants and hotels shuttering down for a few months. But since things started opening up, demand has surged again to nearly pre-pandemic levels. The popularity of delivery services saw Marriott on Wheels which started before the pandemic, take off like never before. Demand has see-sawed across dine-in services and deliveries, evolving as the Covid situation does in the country. “We noticed a rise in demand for deliveries through the last lockdown. But as things started opening up again, the demand at our restaurants started going up. So, this is fluctuating based on the ever-evolving pandemic scenario. Marriott on Wheels has been active for some time, but we saw a need to really take a close look at our offerings. When the lockdown happened last year, a lot of properties started deliveries. But most of these menus were simply reflections of their in-restaurant offerings. I wanted to differentiate Marriott on Wheels and so, over a period, I went through the order books of several of our properties across cities to understand which items were doing well. And I was astonished to discover that 65 per cent of the orders were local, indigenous foods while 25 per cent was for the patisserie section. It wasn’t fancy salads or pastas that were most popular. So, we revised menus across all our South Asian locations. It was a lot of hard work but it paid off. Now, we have a solid base and you’re going to see a lot more activations and engagements soon, developing Marriott on Wheels as a separate pillar of our business.”
The R&D that went into menu engineering for Marriott on Wheels has had a huge impact on the rest of the business, focusing efforts on efficiencies across the entire F&B category. One of the areas the chef has increased focus on is local cuisine, with over 50 per cent of every menu using local ingredients and relying on local preferences. And this is evident in the menus of all the new openings too. “Local food, for an expat or a tourist would mean all Indian cuisines. But for us, local food means using ingredients that are specific to the region; the menus at our various properties change every 200-250km. We are sensitive to our customers’ needs and also respect the authenticity of various cuisines. For example, at W Goa, we have a pizza which has toppings of chicken cafreal. Whether it’s Goa, Sri Lanka or Dhaka, local elements have a huge role to play. So, when I created the menus for Westin Goa, our latest launch, all these factors were considered.”
The exercise of menu engineering follows similar patterns across locations, with local favourites taking centre-stage. The only difference is at properties where the profile of guests is slightly different, such as those at St Regis Mumbai or Ritz-Carlton Bengaluru. “At properties where the guests are usually well travelled, with evolved palates and a penchant for world cuisine, we obviously have a different approach to the menu.”
As we discuss local sourcing, the conversation veers towards the group’s sustainability philosophy. “We follow a zero-waste policy which has been in place for some time. There are guidelines across all our systems, whether it’s in the planning of our daily ala carte menus or buffets, whether it’s how we store ingredients and components, or even how our team inculcates certain best practices in their daily routines. And we constantly keep track of all parameters to ensure strict compliance.”
The Marriott International group has just launched Westin Goa and a couple more properties are in the pipeline. While the current scenario is challenging, Chef Taneja sees them as periodic problems that will eventually dissipate and new businesses will come up according to well-laid plans. “The F&B industry in the country is only going to keep evolving, at least for the next decade or so. And there are several reasons for that. First off, we are a country of foodies. Food plays a very important role in our lives. Look at the elaborate traditional dishes across all our different cultures, how every celebration, be it religious or otherwise, revolves around dishes made especially for those occasions. Then, our geographical location is extremely strategic. We experience all the seasons, we have an enormous coastline, we have a huge range of climatic and soil conditions. The sheer number of ingredients available to us is mindboggling. Also, India is a growing economy with a huge proportion of our population comprising young people. Indian consumers are travelling more, experimenting more and this is only going to increase going ahead. And finally, the industry itself has evolved a lot across the last two decades. When I started out, a career in F&B wasn’t something many considered. But with growth, institutes and establishments, today, there are many choosing to work in this industry. We, as a group, also nurture our talent and constantly develop their skills.”
Clearly, even through these dire times, the chef manages to stay optimistic. Part of it is because of his range of experience, having successfully navigated many challenges across his career and part of it is because he puts his faith in people. Whether it is the diner he is catering to or the team that helps him put his creations on the table.