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Foreign delegates raved about the food served at the G-20 Summit

There was a time in my life when I used to have to attend many state banquets in various countries.

Some of them were fun because I got to sit next to interesting people and when I was attending banquets abroad I gained rare insights into the country I was visiting because high-powered guests on my table often spoke candidly and indiscreetly.


But almost every banquet had one thing in common: the quality of the food. It was usually unmemorable and sometimes it was just disgusting. At a state dinner thrown by the Prime Minister of Japan, I sat next to the Chairman of one of the country’s best known electronics giants who wondered aloud if the PM’s office had opted for a cheapo cut-price menu. Even at a grand White House Presidential banquet, the food was pretty terrible.


   At a dinner hosted by President Putin in a stunning room at the Kremlin the only memorable thing was a vast portion of fresh Beluga caviar.


   At our own banquets, the food could be hit and miss, though it was mostly miss. The food at the Prime Minister’s Hyderabad House lunches for visiting heads of government was usually pretty disastrous but it was better than the food at Rashtrapati Bhawan which was well, disgusting is too strong a word so shall we say ‘undistinguished’?


   All of this was not entirely unexpected. It is not easy cooking for banquets. Rarely is the food very good at any private conference lunch, either. Mass catering is the enemy of quality. When AB Vajpayee was Prime Minister, his top aides would not eat much at the official banquets but would wait till they were back at their hotel. This was because the PM would travel with the Taj’s top chefs of that era: Satish Arora, Ananda Solomon, Hemant Oberoi and Julia Carmen D’Sa. They cooked for the PM’s delegation and the food they made for foreign guests who came for small lunches and dinners with Vajpayee was always outstanding.


   Given this background, I was more than a little surprised to hear foreign delegates raving about the food served at the recently concluded G-20 heads of government meet in Delhi. Various ambassadors told me that their bosses were full of praise for the food and service at the Conference Centre.


   Given that over 350 people attended the big dinner thrown by the President of India, it seemed unlikely that the chefs could have maintained the highest standards. But no, everyone I spoke to insisted that the food was excellent.


  I asked for details and grew even more incredulous. Not only was the food all vegetarian (so, fellow citizens, you know what it is like to be ruled by us Gujaratis!) but the chefs tried to use as many unusual grains as possible (including, of course, every millet known to man) and incorporated such vegetables as jackfruit that most foreign guests were not familiar with.


   I worked out who was doing some of the cooking. I was in Calcutta for much of the G-20 and discovered that the chef and general manager at my hotel, the ITC Royal Bengal, had been sent to Delhi to help with the G-20 dinners. What I did not realize then was that ITC had done all of the catering at the Summit, not just the odd dinner. Every last biscuit served with the coffee at the delegates’ lounge, every last (vegetarian) kabab served at the heads of government dinner and every last roti in the meal-packs given to the attendants and security men at the Summit was made by ITC’s chefs.


   I asked Nakul Anand who, as a Director on the ITC board, has responsibility for the hotels division why his group had agreed to take on such a high-risk and difficult task.


   Agreed? Not quite. It turned out that ITC had actually been dying to do it. The contract for the catering was awarded on the basis of tenders and ITC made the strongest bid. It was, Anand said, a question of national pride. This was the biggest international event India had hosted in 40 years and ITC wanted to be there.


"At dinner, guests went berserk taking videos of the 300 safa-wearing waiters as they emerged single file from the kitchen carrying the thalis on which the meal was served."

   Was he surprised, I continued, that foreign guests were so overwhelmed by the quality of the food and hospitality? He was grateful, he said, that ITC’s efforts had been appreciated. It was certainly the most prestigious and high-pressure assignment he had undertaken in his decades in the hotel industry. But the reason it had worked out so well, he said graciously, was because of the strength of the team led by Anil Chadha, who runs ITC Hotels.


   I have known Chadha for over two decades, since he was F&B manager of Delhi’s ITC Maurya Hotel, so I knew what Nakul Anand meant. Chadha has a leadership style that eschews negativity; he looks for the strengths of his managers and builds a team based on positivity. But the G-20 experience easily dwarfed anything that even Chadha had done before.


   For three days, an ITC team of 2500 people worked around the clock (most managers and chefs were lucky to get one or two hours of sleep a night) to create the best food ever served at an official event in India and to provide outstanding service.


   Indian service can be the best in the world but the servers faced unusual challenges. At the official lunches, they had to pretend to be invisible. They would serve the food quickly and quietly, without distracting the Prime Ministers or Presidents in any way, lest they disrupted the high level conversations.


   At dinner, guests (including more than a few heads of state) went berserk taking videos of the 300 safa-wearing waiters as they emerged single file from the kitchen carrying the thalis on which the meal was served.


   Service ratios were high. At the top tables, each of 60 guests had a waiter to themselves. Another 240 servers looked after the other 290 guests. Service was faultless, a relief to Chadha who says now, “I knew that if even one Thali was titled too much, let alone dropped, while the servers were carrying it in, this would be treated as a disaster.”


   Good service is nothing without food. Challenged to create an adventurous vegetarian menu, Manisha Bhasin, ITC’s top chef, invented dishes that took the guests by surprise. “It was important to showcase Indian ingredients on the world stage subtly yet ensure the complete flavour came through,” she says now.


   Unable to serve a real galauti kabab, ITC created a jackfruit galette and served it along with a puddle of makhni gravy (what they use for butter chicken) and Kerala red rice. They reconstructed papri chaat by using foxtail millet leaf crisps along with a dahi sphere.


   Often, the requirements of the summit made menu planning different. For lunch during a day of intense discussions, ITC was told to serve a vegetarian Indian meal with no gravies. Besides, they were told, it would be better if the Prime Ministers did not have to use any cutlery. It was not easy but they kept to the brief putting food on skewers and sticks.


   As important (and impressive) as the banquet food was, ITC also worked round-the-clock at the media centre and at the lounge for delegates. Moreover, a team headed by Vijay Malhotra, the group’s top chef for the Eastern region, prepared 9000 food packets for every meal so that the security-men and staff-members could eat well. This was, almost by definition, unfussy food but from all accounts, it was also a great hit.


   Anand and Chadha say that this was a once-in-a-lifeline experience and Anand takes pains to say that ITC could only pull it off because every department of the government bent over backwards to help make it easier for them.


   But I still have two questions. One: if our chefs can turn out such excellent food at such a large summit then why is most banquet food around the world so boring?


   And secondly, now that ITC has created these dishes, will they only be served to the likes of Joe Biden, Rishi Sunak and Emmanuel Macron? Or will the rest of us get a chance to eat them at one of ITC’s restaurants?




  • Sumit Shukla 29 Sep 2023

    I am interested

  • Kajal kumari 28 Sep 2023

    ITC is the good platform from agriculture student
    To produce the good quality of product like Ashirvaad Aata and All Ashirvaad products

  • MG DWIVEDI 24 Sep 2023

    I hope ITC have not patented/copy righted dishes served. So let them be in public domain to be widely adopted and popularized in Bharat and abroad.
    Action:ITC,Hotels and Restaurants.

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