It's been more than a decade that I have been associated with the food and beverage industry in India. I love my job and even more to eat all the food that I create (in a team) for new menu launches, restaurants and as and when I consult quick service restaurants (QSR's). I eat more than 8 to 9 small meals a day or rather graze all day on the food lying around the hot kitchen pass (this is the food at times that goes on the table at restaurants).
I really don't want to go on narrating the kitchen confidential and vomit the secrets of most fancy kitchens. How they save and recollect the table butter which is left over by the guests and use it as a bread basket condiment or how the handpicked olives from the left over "oh so Greek salad" are recirculated back on the table. What I want to do is raise a very simple and straight forward question to myself and the evolving competitive food verticals in India. When is it enough? Or who is checking if what is being served is right?
For the past few months, I have been actively working with the quick service restaurants (QSR's) in the country with almost all the top brands you could think of. The giant pizza mammoth companies to the "Janta" burger brand (which I love too), cafes, doughnut joints, theatre food companies, deep fried national bird company (literally), healthy raw vegetable subs and many others private limited companies, which are owned directly by the brand or under franchise and equity share holders.
With all these chains operating in the country fantastically well, multiplying revenues and booming new concepts, they believe that they are giving the Indian consumer a very competitive value for their money. But that's what you see. What you don't see is this.
With increasing pressure to create the best dish on the window which would appeal to the masses, sell like "samosa" and create a relationship with the consumer, we are forced to create and conceptualize at a critical point. No! I am not to be solely blamed; I have to get the fat cheque in my bank account on the 30th of every month. But I have children and my sister has too and I feel answerable to all those who eat "junk food" nowadays with the products displayed on the commercial windows of any top brand you can think of.
So I am working on the new concepts given to me by the biggest pizza delivery company (they are quite good in delivery and follow the Six Sigma) to create the new range for the winter. We normally get our brief to innovate and create products based on consumer feedback, trials and most importantly what sells and the sales trends for that season.
But every good concept gets rejected if it's not cost friendly, I mean the food cost has to be as low as possible to generate maximum profits. This makes me wonder how low is really low? Most brands are willing to dilute their quality to generate maximum profits. With that goal in mind, they are more than willing to sacrifice ingredients altogether.
The tomato sauce used on the pizza is not just made with tomatoes but mixed with red pumpkin as a filler for the sauce. The cheese is no longer dairy but a derivative of mayonnaise with heavy stabilizers. If you are getting a pizza for Rs 49 and the new launch is targeted to sell it at Rs 29, trust me, you are eating real crap. In this case, you are eating a pizza which will have the tomato (red pumpkin) sauce, veggie toppings and will be drizzled with mayonnaise which is chemically stabilized to withstand the heat during baking and does not split, while giving you the feeling of cheese post baking. What you are eating is an absolute synthetic smart derivative of cheese.
I have lost all my love for garlic butter bread because there is no butter, it's actually a customized fat liquid flavored with garlic and hint of butter "flavor" toppled over the hot bread so it soaks in. You would be better off having 5 ml of refined oil than fool yourself with this hogwash.
The concern here is that who is checking the standards of these brands? FSSAI, or the Food Standards and Safety Authority of India? Of course, the FSSAI checks the food, but the guidelines that that need to be fulfilled to give them a green signal are many decades old. So if the criteria for judging what should cheese be made up of, is age old and irrelevant in today's context, how will you ever ban that cheese?
Then you have the burger chains making vegetable patties with absolute ridiculous quality of vegetables that are usually the last lot sold in wholesale markets. A major chunk of their production is happening in factories at Haryana and Punjab. The chicken is mixed with humongous portions of soya chunks and chicken flavor to give it a feel of a chicken patty. Break and check the patty by yourself. The problem is that for the time being, no one is checking.
One of the recent launches saw an innovative rice and pizza dish that created a real buzz in the market. It succeeded in fooling the consumers by selling a product which was not a biryani. I was zapped when I was in the back operations of this giant pizza brand on how cleverly the pizzas were made. The pizza making is a simple process in steps like kneading, saucing, topping, cheesing the pizza and it is all time bound. When there are many orders and the back end operations are stressed for time, no one cares to change their gloves while making a vegetarian topping or a meat topping. Yes the guy is wearing gloves but picking and topping the pizza as per the order and passing it onto to the next guy for cheesing. This is a vicious cycle and no one seems to care one way or the other.
I am not saying not to eat junk but at least be aware of the junk you are consuming. I have quit junk, even though each morning my job starts with creating more of it. Somewhere by writing this, maybe I am redeeming myself for being part of this junk food industry. NOTE: If any of the fast food chains are selling you a limited term offer (LTO), skip it. It's what these brands offer at the cheapest prices with the worst quality of food imaginable that is packed and marketed smartly.
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