A few days ago, I had the opportunity to spend some time with well-known celebrity chef Vicky Ratnani. As is common in today’s time and age, social interaction, even in person, is interjected with smartphone interludes. On this occasion, the chef showed me the promo and an episode of his new Web series called Vicky the Gastronaut in his signature gravelly voice. In it, the intrepid chef travels the world, from Peru to Australia, savouring the delights of the culinary world, while throwing in some deep-sea diving and cooking. It’s a whole new dynamic—a chef as a gastronome, cook and adventurer, and it’s been hugely popular online.
The Web series, which has been shared on his Facebook and YouTube channel, has been well received and is likely to prompt further spin-offs. A few years ago, a chef on the TV was as good as it got. Sure, there were celebrity chefs before the Internet. When I started out in the industry, the really famous chefs had cookbooks that translated into ‘monikers’—the naked chef—they had rockstar sex appeal and were also known for their tantrums. The angrier the chef, the more interesting he became. But when reality TV took over, could chefs be left behind? The celebrity crystallised, but purists in the food business scoffed that so and so was a TV chef and hadn’t worked a day in the kitchen. TV was transformative; I recall meeting a chef in a suburban hotel six months before he hit TV channels and billboards. His life of balancing food budgets and duty rosters immediately turned upside down.
Some of the greats have taken well to the Internet—and not just Instagram that lends itself well to food photography and travel images, but also to troll-populated Twitter that thrives on insult-speak. Gordon Ramsey, the opinionated chef, has his own thing going. People send him photographs of their food and he insults it and (sometimes) them. He once referred to a thali as prison food! These ripostes get shared widely and it turns out that people around the world love being insulted by a celebrity chef. Go figure!
In another recent instance, a restaurant-cum-hotel in Ireland announced that it was ‘banning’ bloggers. The owner wrote a tersely-worded statement that essentially said he was tired of catering to people who demanded freebies for goods and services rendered. This received wide-ranging support. Even in India, with present-day hospitality professionals, there is a fatigue with bloggers. Everyone has a horror story. The lament is that the older days were easier when there were just a few names that one had to cater to—the influencers could be easily mapped. Today, everyone is a reviewer. But as always, there is another side to the story. The blogger in question in this instance is a woman called Elle Derby.
The 22-year-old, who refers to herself as a social media influencer and speaks of it as a full-time career, posted an emotive YouTube video on what she perceived to be her public shaming. Her justification, which finds resonance, is that a lot of food and beverage establishments, which don’t have access to publications and advertising, need the marketing push that bloggers can bring. It’s a transactional relationship, so why cry foul, she said. Increasingly, since the advent of the smartphone, the role of the reviewer has been truncated. Be it film or food, the peer review holds far more credence.
Back in the day, if you experienced excellent service at a hotel or restaurant, the more intrepid of the service staff would push a comment card towards you and ask you to note down your experience and name names. As someone who was on the other side of the review game not so long ago, I recall how these comment cards were ripped open in the morning meetings and discussed amongst executives. Now, as what happened with me during a recent stay at The Lalit in Kolkata, I was asked if I would drop a line on Tripadvisor. I was more than happy to do so and, in fact, wrote a letter instead since I had a superlative experience at this hotel, a heritage property, which is one of the oldest hotels in the city. But as an observer of the hospitality business, it was intriguing to see how the digital medium has taken over and that its externality has lent it a credibility that the comment cards of my years just didn’t possess. We all know of the clever receptionist who wrote her own reviews from guests, sealed the envelopes and dropped them in the drop box!
The food/hospitality wars have gone digital and are here to stay. Hospitality has yet to come to terms with it, but the deluge of reviews also means that they have ceased to exercise a hold over this genteel business. So how will we ensure that the experience trumps the language and the smartphone outrage? It’s a path that the next generation of food professionals will have to figure out.
Advaita Kala is a writer, most recently of the film Kahaani. She is also a former hotelier having worked in restaurants in India and abroad