Culinary-school classmates bring global flavors to the American market

When Nevielle Panthaky, the VP of Culinary and Menu Development at Chipotle, arrived at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), he wasn’t just new to the school; he was recently emigrated to the U.S. after a life of world exploration. His family was born in India. He had lived in England and Africa since he was seven years old. Maneet Chanhan, Chef/Owner at four restaurants in Nashville, was an upperclassman and took Panthaky under her wing in order to support him as he settled in his new school.

NRN reunited these long-time friends for a candid discussion about how it feels to innovate with global flavors, techniques, and for an American market.

MC: I can still recall you arriving at school and thinking we had to connect.

NP:  You were so kind to me when I got to CIA. You were so understanding of my journey. When I arrived at CIA, one of my most important mentors was you.

MC

NP: I interned at Tabla, which was run at the time by Floyd Cardoz, who was my second great mentor. My father had trained him years ago and worked with him so it was a poetic and serendipitous experience.

MC: It was difficult to adjust from my own experience. I did my undergraduate in hotel management in India and then I came to the United States to study at the CIA. This was a very wake-up call. I was the top student in my class at the Indian hotel administration school. Then there is reality. I had the hardest time getting anyone to sponsor my paperwork.

NP:  That had to be hard.

MC. In hindsight, that was a really lucky moment for me. It was because I was forced to work in an Indian restaurant which was owned and operated by my aunt, uncle, and cousin. I had previously only trained to become a pastry chef. It was then that I realized the gross misperceptions that Indian food had. This experience changed my life. This was the moment I made the decision to eat more savory food and less in baking and pastry.

NP. It is fascinating to discover what makes you choose your path. I made a conscious effort to jump into the corporate world 12 years ago with my two children. I felt that the startups and other ideas I was working in were not right for me and my family. I wanted to be there with my family.

MC: Was it a difficult change?

NP: It was a learning curve. But I am glad that I made the change. One of my greatest lessons has been on the corporate side. I report into the marketing function. Everything I do in Culinary has an intrinsic connection to Marketing. This is fascinating. It’s possible to understand the thinking of the C-level leaders in the business and how they see it today and tomorrow. That as much as the food is important, and the menu innovation is important — the context under which you develop those products, and how you build the story to grow the business, is something that is very inspiring.

MC: This sounds fantastic. It is important to look at marketing and cuisine in a holistic way. Media has been a major part of my business’ growth. There are more opportunities available because people are home. They are watching TV, scrolling Instagram, so there is more content. It’s critical. It’s like the Hindi saying that is translated into “If the peacock dances in the middle of the forest and nobody sees it, why does the peacock dance?”You must be able to explain what you do. It doesn’t matter how amazing your idea is or how delicious your food is. What’s the point?

NP: Does it make it harder to be exposed?

MC: Yes. It is important that everyone on the team understands that there is no room for error. I keep telling my team that everyone will see me. “Tournament of Champions”Or “Chopped”You can also share a recipe on Instagram and they will come to the restaurant because of it. If we don’t follow through or fail to deliver, it’s over. We have lost them. It is important to strike a balance between delivery and follow up. The media played a significant role in bringing people in, at least for the first occasion. The rest of your team has to ensure that they have an experience that keeps them coming back.

NP: That’s an interesting element, right! Because, regardless of your size or other factors, everything you need to be said is accurate for everyone. We now have a team that focuses on the consumer today. Who are our target clients? Who are they? Why are they coming into the room? How often do they come in? What are they buying What time are they buying it? What is their mindset about buying it?

MC: It’s true that you must really get to know your customer. My reason I’m so active on social media is to engage my audience and avoid the whole thing of “out of sight, out of mind.”

NP. And to be able use the platform to amplify other issues, right? For example, you might find that the food quality is a barrier to profitability and you start to ask questions. Hey, what if this happens to this product! Will the consumer notice it? My belief is that consumers don’t always feel it. However, they will eventually notice it.

MC: I agree. As a small restaurant group, I face challenges in terms of sourcing the best food, maintaining a high standard of quality, and maintaining a price that my customers can afford. The other thing that I control is how much the chef does. I don’t recall if you were taught this at CIA school. Chefs make terrible restaurant operators because they cook for themselves and not for the customers. That was something that was very important to me. We are a local restaurant group, the majority of our clientele is local, so we need to do what is right for the community that we are in, and my ego can’t drive that.

NP: You’re more sought after than a quick meal option because you provide experiences and diversity. There is an emotional connection to the community. It’s possible to do this with Indian food, Asian food, and Southern cuisine. How do you balance this? How can you keep your menu items fresh and innovative while still recognizing who your audience and their needs?

MC: What was really interesting was that when we moved to Nashville, it was a struggle to know what they knew. Is the audience aware of anything other than meat and three? Is there going to be expectations about chicken tikka masala being served? We believe that what was most important to us was that we started Chauhan with a section of traditional Indian food, but then we made an effort to include words that people could relate to when they entered our restaurant. We have our chicken tikka poutine and our keema Nachos. People are like this: “oh, nachos, I get that.”We were creating dishes that were instantly recognizable by people, with our own distinctive flavors.

NP If you think about carne asada which we launched, then carne asada could be considered ubiquitous. It can be found at most Mexican restaurants and taquerias. It was all about the unique spices and simplicity. We told a great tale. It was the freshness and fresh-squeezed lime, fresh cilantro. You’d be shocked to learn that many large companies rarely get fresh cilantro and rarely get fresh-squeezed juice lime juice. It’s usually bottle squeezed, frozen pasteurized, all sorts of stuff, and you can taste the difference.

MC: Innovation in terms of menus is more about the ingredients and sourcing. Tell that story to your audience so they are aware. Whereas a lot of what I’m doing is training my customers in new flavors and getting them comfortable enough to get a little adventurous with us, while still giving those authentic flavors to the diners who know the food. Quality is key for both.

NP: Two sides to the same coin. It is at a different place. You are sourcing locally. Only 5% of the meat that’s produced in this country is applicable for Chipotle’s animal welfare standards — our position on no hormones and no antibiotics. Same goes for our dairy. Our sour cream is made from 100% pasture-raised milk, as well as our cheese. Our food costs are higher that those of comparable companies because we are willing and able to pay more for these ingredients.

MC It gives us all hope. Because we must think ahead.

NP: You know, I think at the end of the day, if you can create something that’s delicious and memorable and serves the community and the farmers and serves multiple stakeholders, the story becomes just so much easier to tell and it becomes much more than just what’s for dinner.

MC: It becomes more real at the end. It is amazing to see how we both started from the same place. Despite the differences in scale, it is still interesting.

NP: That foundation is what it all started. I learned from Floyd, and I learned from you. Always be compassionate. Everything starts there.

MC: Also, I would also say think big, but start small.

NP. That is great advice. We can do the same for each other. Every new idea we have starts small, and we move on from there.

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