How Are Hotels Keeping Up with the Creative Churning in the Smart-casual Dining Segment?

Chef Toine Hoeksel of Marriott International Inc gives us the inside story.

Sumita Bagchi

Will it be an exaggeration to say that India’s gastronomic scene is on a trailblazing journey? We think not. With a dizzying culinary landscape, India’s Food and Beverage industry—robust in choice, cuisine and service—is creating ripples by turning age-old trends on their head. With more options to eat out than ever before—from standalone restaurants to a hip lounge at a luxury hotel chain to pigging out at an exciting pop up by an award-winning chef—things are only hotter than ever before.

Shedding its old skin when chefs were earlier invisible to now stepping into the spotlight, from transforming food plating into an art and planning a menu inspired by locally sourced ingredients and smart-casual-dining elbowing out ‘fine dining’, India’s culinary scene has come of age. Amidst this exciting culinary cornucopia, the genre-defying and speciality dining restaurants, has challenged the traditional luxury five and seven-star hotel restaurants to up their game and bring more variety and flavour to the platter.

As the struggle for space gets real, we speak to Chef Toine Hoeksel, Senior Director Culinary, Asia Pacific, Marriott International Inc., who brings us up to speed with the group’s efforts to raise the bar in the hospitality industry, surviving the standalone restaurant frenzy, steeping out of their elitist imagery and the new age philosophies that the luxury hotels are adopting to stay ahead in the game. With 24 years of experience in the culinary industry, chef Toine leads the culinary initiatives of the Marriott International’s chain of hotels and has also led a host of Michelin-starred restaurants, which include De Hoefslag in the Dutch village of Bosch en Duin, Paul Bocuse in France's Lyon, and at The Ritz Carlton in Japan's Osaka.

The rise and fall of formal fine dining 

Restaurants are often social and gastronomic experiments, so they follow a cycle of change every now and then. There was a time when fine dining was big; it went on a downslope with the rise of fast food and comfort food—from the easy-to-eat tacos to burgers and food trucks—that made eating on-the-go a fad. ‘Fine dining’ lost its sheen due to the snobbery and ‘the codes of fine dining’, but I think it’s making a comeback in a more modest way, sans the fanfare. The avant garde definition of fine dining won’t necessarily mean exorbitantly expensive because I think that's what killed it. In the modern F& B scenario, the experience of fine dining, with a pursuit of excellence in food, and a meaningful value proposition is the secret!

Standalone restaurants vs restaurants in hotels

The classic hotel restaurant is so passé. We encourage the same kind of creativity and innovative spirit in the restaurants in our hotels. The idea is to blend the journeys of global flavours and the local, hyperlocal, cultural flavours. We are doing that by hiring artisans and local craftsmen who can bring in the real flavours and authentic food experiences. The focus for us now is to shine the spotlight on the people behind the food as the real heroes! To keep up with the current pace, we have just recently entered the TV game with a cook-off show where our chefs battle it out. In Seoul, we have recently started a very small micro Japanese restaurant which is very entrepreneurial and completely different from whatever you see in any of our hotels. In Mumbai, for instance, Saffron in JW Marriott Mumbai Juhu, Romano’s in JW Marriott Mumbai Sahar and The Sahib Room & Kipling Bar in The St Regis Mumbai are some of the restaurants that all self-driven restaurants by artisanal chefs. At Marriott, we also provide innovative incentives to promote creativity among those who work for us.

Top trends in the F&B world

The biggest trend is about going back to basics and going local! Sourcing ingredients that are sustainable and environmentally responsible and offering authentic flavours and foods is key. The food orb is a vibrantly changing industry where trends change faster than you imagine, but these two are here to stay in the long run.

Trends that should take a backseat

Fusion cuisine

: It’s time to not have too many ethnic cuisines, idiosyncratic flavours or textures in one plate. Overly decorated menus, with foams and OTT garnishes (did I say molecular!) can take away from the simple pleasure of eating, if not done in the right measure. The food you eat should connect with you with its taste, aromas and flavours.

Sous vide cooking

: Chefs should refrain from going overboard with technology in cooking. If you ask me; steaks it should be grilled not sous vide.


: The current frenzy of superfoods and gluten-free is another trend which I think should exist more due to solid dietary requirements and not because it’s just a passing trend! We need to educate people with their benefits, rather than just add them to the menus because they are trending and garner more sales from health-conscious patrons. Every country has a different dietary pattern, for instance, in China, nobody has a diet, whereas in Japan everyone follows some sort of diet. Restaurants should not misuse these trends to differentiate their menu offerings. 

The concept of pop-up restaurants

‘Less is more’ is the mantra to nail one-off pop-ups. The format of pop ups is a great culinary experiment to cross gastronomical boundaries. Like the one we did with three Michelin starred chef Daniel Humm to launch the edition of The World Series at The St Regis Mumbai where he curated an exclusive and delectable eight-course dining experience. Not everyone can go to New York and eat at his star restaurant, so a pop-up gives people the opportunity from across the world to soak in a one-of-a-kind experience. The rule of thumb is, don't feed the guests what you think they want to eat, feed them what they really want to eat. That’s what will make you a people’s chef.

On soulful cooking

Soulful cooking is all about passionate storytelling, simplicity and balance of flavours, not more than three to four flavours. The language of cooking should narrate a strong and poignant story—from a traditional family recipe, a food culture, a current trend, purity of ingredients, or the terroir of seasonal ingredients. 

Working in Michelin-starred restaurants vs standalone restaurants

Working in Michelin-starred restaurants is all about the pressure of being flawless and keeping up with it at all times. The discipline of sticking to a thought process and showcasing it with your creativity is what really that puts them on the line. The first Michelin star in the kitchen is the chef, so if the chef leaves, they lose the rating. 

Favourite Indian restaurants

I like Bombay Canteen, where the local/street food is being invented, and the service is impeccable. From the server to the restaurant manager to the bartender—everybody in that restaurant knew the story of the dishes on the menu and that’s what makes the whole experience of dining a class apart. Kareem’s in Old Delhi stands out not just for its delicious kebabs, but also the humility and the authenticity of flavours that you experience there. Also, I have a weakness for Rajasthani kebabs and, as clichéd it sounds, a good dal makhni. My mouth starts watering at the mere thought of dum biryani cooked by the Qureshi’s brothers!

Featured image: For representational purpose only 


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