Holding two crucial portfolios — general management and kitchen management — is an advantage for anybody seriously into the food business. But, when he stepped into the kitchens of Hotel Chola Sheraton in 1994, Venkatesh Bhat never dreamt he would one day be the CEO of a three-hotel chain — the flagship Accord Metropolitan, a five-star property in Chennai, became his second home in 2012.
The stint at Chola Sheraton lasted two years and Venkatesh moved to Taj Coromandel as a management trainee in hotel operations and kitchen management. “That was my starting point. By 1998, I was elevated to the position of Sous Chef,” says Venkatesh, who studied catering at Asan Memorial, following it up with a graduate degree from Cornell University through Nanyang University, Singapore, where he majored in general management. “This gave me exposure to both kitchen and general management. When I moved to Leela Palace, Bangalore, in 2001, I joined as Executive Sous Chef and by 2004, held the post of Corporate Chef. Kitchen management became my forte, while my education and training helped me gain valuable experience in the general management of hotels,” says Venkatesh, who quit corporate life in 2007 to become an entrepreneur.
That was the real trial by fire. Venkatesh adopted a simple, inspiring phrase: “May you always do what you are afraid to do.” Working for a big chain was one thing, but starting and running one’s own chain was a different ball game. Venkatesh cashed in on his background and food habits. He belongs to the Udupi-Mangalore belt and is a strict vegetarian. “Vegetarian cuisine has limitless variety and is enjoyed by both non-vegetarians and vegetarians. If packaged well, I knew there could be no looking back,” says Venkatesh. He launched South Indies, a brand of fine dining restaurants and Up South, a Quick Service Restaurant. “Akin to McDonalds, the range is exhaustive, vegetarian and comprises fast food. I also launched Bon South, again a fine dining non-vegetarian restaurant. The success of these three brands can be gauged by the fact that we now have 14 outlets across Bangalore, Pune, Udaipur and Ahmedabad and plan to open one in Chennai too.”
Back to corporate life
Around this time, he came under the radar of the owners of Accord Metropolitan. The hotel was constantly evolving, but not really in the five-star league. He signed up with Accord Metropolitan with the added responsibility of Accord Puducherry, another five-star hotel, and Highland Hotel, Ooty. “I am a people person. I believe in empowering the staff by giving them the authority as well as the freedom to take their own decisions in favour of customers. No questions asked. I always tell them, ‘Remember, we are in the service industry. People are important to our business.’ There’s no point providing good food, if our customers are disgruntled with our service. Similarly, there is no use having a slack housekeeping staff as it would irk the guests.”
Donning the Chef’s hat
Venkatesh comfortably wears two hats during his 13-hour-six-day week. During the day he is the ultra-professional CEO, driving his team of dedicated staff with encouraging words and firm instructions. “By evening, the Chef in me dies to come out of the business suit. At six, I put on my Chef’s outfit and migrate from my office to the kitchens; I focus on our star restaurant, the Royal Indianaa that serves south Indian food. Of course, our other outlets — Pergola, which serves Chinese cuisine, the Zodiac Bar and Season, the multi-cuisine coffee shop, are equally important to our scheme of things,” says Venkatesh.
Despite being a vegetarian, Venkatesh is an expert at non-vegetarian cooking. “I have not tasted a single dish but have not failed in any of my attempts at cooking meat or seafood. I adopt a simple strategy: I add 20 per cent more of every spice and masala to the main ingredient, except salt, which should be around 5 per cent, and manage to get the right flavour. I’ve spent years in the houses of non-vegetarians learning from their kitchen staff and the lady of the house how to cook meat and fish. Observing, feeling and inhaling the fragrances at different stages of cooking can perfect your skills rather than just tasting the food,” says Venkatesh.