My Dream is to Create a Brand for 100 talented Indian Chefs: Gopi Byluppala

The Culinary Lounge is a highly interactive culinary studio space in Banjara Hills, Hyderabad, designed to make the art of cooking and baking a memorable and unique adventure. A space that brings food enthusiasts from all ages together, to bond over food. Uniquely curated experiences leave long memories of the kitchen experience in participants.  Gopi Byluppala, CEO and Founder speaks to CSP on taking Indian Cuisine to the globe.

Recipes and more at: The Culinary Lounge - YouTube

How has Indian food changed over the decades? In your opinion is there a renewed interest in what our ancestors ate?

Culture takes centuries to evolve. Our 4000 year old Indian cuisine has undergone tremendous changes , especially over the recent years. This happened due to globalization and Internet.  Earlier people were only aware of cuisines from their region and community. But with the advent of the internet people are becoming curious about cuisines from other regions. Indian cuisine has been globally recognized with the blooming of Indian restaurants across the globe.

Improvisation and innovation is ruling the roost with many traditional dishes having myriad variants. For instance Szechuan Dosa is a creative fusion of Chinese and south Indian cuisine resulting in a palatable dish. As I said , progressive cuisine is the way forward and many chefs are collaborating with many local regional home makers to understand their family secret recipes and presenting them back in their restaurants with a modern touch to serve a global audience. We need more Gaggans, Garima Aroras and Vikas Khannas to take our Indian cuisine global.

There are thousands of such unsung chefs present in India who have the potential for taking Indian cuisine forward in Innovative ways. The Culinary Lounge's vision is to be the platform to give them the opportunity and to create their branding, so that they will be recognised globally and take Indian cuisine across the world.

And yes, we are going back to our roots of what our ancestors ate. With the increased awareness on health, there is revival of old forgotten millets, rice grains with immense health benefits into the Indian cuisine.

How does The Culinary Lounge support authentic Indian cuisine?

The Culinary Lounge clientele is quite diversified. We directly work with homemakers, we rely on local chefs with family culinary histories. Because The Culinary Lounge is connected globally, we take this authentic Indian cuisine, global.

I will give you an example. Bolivia gave India quinoa.  Today The Culinary Lounge is innovating with the Bolivians getting the original quinoa and making for them a unique recipe - following the authentic Hyderabad recipe, but adapting to their tastes and ingredients. We call it The Bolivian Biriyani. This is being launched on their independence day, August 4, as a gift from India!

A few years ago we invited Mehboob Alam Khan, the legendary culinary personality from Hyderabad. This was for a group of 50 CXOs across the globe. They came to The Culinary Lounge for an experience, where Khan Saab introduced the 400 year old culinary history of Hyderabad while demonstrating the entire intricacy of the process, of how an authentic Hyderabadi biryani is made. From meat selection, to choosing each ingredient, to marination, to even the aromas of the cooked biryani!

How does the Culinary Lounge bring in new clients? What kind of branding have you been doing for the last one year?

There is nothing that can replace ‘Customer reference’ and it works for us the best. Our obsession with ‘Customer Delight’ brings new clients to us. We communicate with our customers and most importantly through visual format. We try to capture all our experiences in candid documentation. Our positioning and branding is defined by our clientele and our quality.

We don’t believe in hard selling, as The Culinary Lounge experiences are unique, and that's the reason we don’t have a sales team. We only communicate with our customers personally on various platforms about how we can out do in delivering for their requirements, whether they are team bonding activities, or experiential dinners or culinary courses.

The last year saw the emergence of many people taking to cooking and social media. Could you bring in some of these people to the Culinary Lounge?

Yes, 2020 was a year where it made everyone get into the kitchen, including ones who never did cooking or baking in their lifetime!

We gave the year a creative spin, in many ways it was a pivot for us. We did a lot of virtual cooking/baking sessions with our existing as well as new clients, in ways that even surprised us.

We found many women coming to us who wanted to start cooking to support their family income as their jobs or their husbands' jobs had taken a hit due to the Pandemic. We sharpened their cooking and baking skills. Many started their cloud kitchens from their home in collaboration with Swiggy or Zomato to reach out to their customers. This happened not just in Hyderabad but in other nearby tier #2 cities like Warangal, Vijayawada, Nalgonda. Today some of them are enabled enough to set up their own stores. This gives us immense satisfaction.

As I said above , corporate teams were missing their buddies badly and they needed the bonding. So , we did close 25 virtual corporate cookoffs. Recently we had engaged 60 corporate CEO’s and their families in a virtual Italian cooking class, where we had delivered all the exotic ingredients in SUV’s to their doorstep! This was our biggest engagement as the overall participants were close to 150 members.

How does one increase the profile of the local chef and make him a celebrity? Could you share some exciting examples?

Many talented chefs remain in the kitchens performing silently, so a few years ago we did a campaign - Artists behind the Walls. Our intention was to bring chefs out of the kitchen and let the world know who they are. To get the world to recognise them.

That's one of the core reasons for me to start The Culinary Lounge, where chefs can Teach, Innovate, Mentor, Perform and Entertain. Every artist needs a platform to perform and get appreciation.

I recently had a conversation with one of the executive chefs of a top hospitality brand. He said he has a dream of starting his own restaurant/food truck in the next 3 years and also of launching a book. He asked for my suggestion and I said, “Inside your hotel, everyone knows you as an executive chef. But in the evening once you get out of your property , most of them in the city don't even know you. This is a very important point that , tomorrow  if you come out and start a restaurant or food truck and an amatuer starts something similar beside you, customers won’t have much idea whom to go to. And if you go ahead and launch the book , there are very less chances it will become #BestSeller, rather, will be placed among other tons of existing recipe books in the bookstores.”

This is the case with most of the chefs in this country. So it's highly important for every chef to start investing in their personal branding and profiling. They need to generate interesting content, have their own social media, podcasts, blogs to voice out their opinions and share their knowledge beyond paneer or biryani recipes.

It's my dream to create a brand for 100 talented chefs in this country. We are signing up with 10 chefs by June 2021.

How does one make cooking seem like an art, rather than a chore?

One should basically enjoy the process of cooking. You need to have a lot of passion to stand for 18hrs in the hot kitchen and finally see people happy while eating the food you have cooked. One should have immense enthusiasm to showcase their culinary skills.

Food, as an art form, is unique in many ways. While painting appeals to sight, and music appears to the sense of sound, food, when created at its highest form, appeals to all five senses at once. Textures, flavors, colors and aromas all have a role to play in a successful dish.

The intricacies of being a chef do not end here, however, as the palate has its own maze to navigate. Marrying the perfect balance of unique flavors and textures is the most highly sought after accomplishment of a given dish.

On top of that, food as a form of art, is temporal. Uniquely created plate by plate, for each customer, carefully executed in its eye appealing presentation, only to be consumed moments later.

A Chef gets called many different things by different people: an artist, a craftsman, a visionary, or sometimes just a cook. The one certainty, however, is that for a chef, work and life cannot be separated.

While Indians come together over food, it is usually women who do the cooking. Can cooking be made more participative? Will it change how we view food?

It was true to a certain extent, but it slowly changing. Last year , everyone of us understood how important it is to support each other at home, especially in the kitchen. I strongly believe that kitchens shouldn’t have any gender bias. Anyone can cook. It's the most important & creative space in the home.

Many young couples come to The Culinary Lounge and celebrate their pre wedding parties over our famous cookouts. At the end,  on a friendly note I tell them that true chemistry and bonding can be developed in the kitchen while husband chopping veggies and wife cooking, together mixing the dough, together organizing the kitchen. So, I always suggest that they should invest in a good kitchen rather than in a bedroom to brew long and beautiful relationships!

And when it comes to family, we should have more Sunday family cooking sessions at home, where everyone should cook together by helping each other. It's a lot of fun. And kids will learn - from a young age -  that the kitchen doesn't belong to just moms and sisters, it's everyone’s place to be in. That definitely changes their perception about food and their respect towards food, chefs, farmers will be a lot better.

How do we get people to travel to different parts of India and explore regional cuisine. Are regional chefs or cooks ready to showcase their food in a way that is attractive to Indians and foreigners?

Culinary Tourism is vital to make it happen. It's huge in European countries where they take a lot of pride in showcasing their vineyards and their cheese. In India we have rich culinary diversity, culinary heritage and history.

Regional culinary cultures should be promoted using local chefs and yes, these local chefs certainly take pride in their cuisine to be showcased. India is still stereotyped as Idli-Sambar if it is South, and Paneer-Butter Masala for North. It is definitely beyond these.

Only chefs can take any country's culture beyond borders through their food. Indian Govt should focus on Culinary Diplomacy, what Thai govt has done in 2001, to spread their culture across the globe, by helping chefs to open regional restaurants in other countries to spread our culinary culture and traditions.

We should find out a way how our regional and traditional foods are presented to millennials with a blend of modern culinary techniques. Here comes the chef’s role who can make their kitchens as labs to brew innovation and there would be more demand for our food across the globe. Progressive cuisine is the way forward which chefs have to adopt.

What are your plans for the future?

We are pioneers in Hyderabad for our corporate cookoffs, private dinners, culinary courses and food innovation. Now, the focus is on how to take our offerings to other cities and also help other entrepreneurs in the food space.

Till date, we were helping aspiring chefs and young business owners on a one-on-one basis to train them in culinary skills as well as business setup.

We are launching our 12 week culinary training program in May 2021 designed to meet the growing demand for qualified chefs in Hyderabad while simultaneously increasing access for young adults looking to start their careers in the culinary arts. Participants will gain the technical skills, industry exposure and on-the-job training experience necessary to launch and grow rewarding careers as line cooks in the hospitality industry. This will be a connecting bridge between the expert chefs and amateurs.

We have digitalised the culinary education for children. We are sending DIY kits for children who’d love to learn culinary skills from top chefs to cover as many towns and cities in India as possible. Almost 70% of kids are in smaller towns who we connect with our global chefs network to inspire them to innovate and explore taste and nutrition in the kitchen.

Can we have more shows where the focus is on Indian food in India? What role does the media play in this branding?

Definitely yes. Content is the key in promoting our indigenous food. India has a huge potential to have its own OTT for showcasing its 8000 years old culinary heritage. This has a global audience.

Understanding Indian cuisine is not an easy task, as it's not one single cuisine. It's highly local and seasonal which changes drastically from one region to another. It’s high time we document this information before we lose them forever.

Digital media plays an important role. This has much more reach than traditional media. Mobile and internet penetration to even tier #3 cities in India will be a great boost. And if these culinary stories were told in local languages, that is when it catches fire!

TCL has taken an initiative - Handi Talks -we have been  conducting conversations around food since 2018 to  create a vibrant community for the food ecosystem and innovation sector.

We are at the beginning of the most radical transformation of our food industry since the Green Revolution. From sensors and software that help farmers improve margins, to crowdfunding platforms that help food artisans kick-start their business, to big data and apps that allow consumers to make more informed choices, there has been an explosion of startups and innovators who are disrupting how food is produced, distributed, sold and consumed. We aspire to be the voice of and hub for this revolution. We need more people to talk about the evolving food landscape from Kashmir to Kanyakumari.

You seem to be an avid cook yourself? How do you showcase your own food?

I respect food a lot. Yes, I do cook. But I like to cook slow and easy. So more than appreciations there may be  a lot of complaints from my family and friends!

I am very particular about making any dish, as I don't like to follow any shortcuts in the kitchen. I like to cook in the most authentic way that dish has to be made. For me personally cooking is therapeutic and a stressbuster.

Cooking with friends and family, especially with my 4 year old daughter, keeps me away from all the stress as we get immersed completely into the culinary world.

The way I prefer to communicate my love, or sometimes even apologies to anyone, is through food. I cook with a lot of care and love for that person, and I believe my food carries that positive vibe and lets the other person know what they mean to me.