Blog post by Ved Sarvothaman
Article originally published in The Hindu
In Indian marriages, a common factor which determines the performance rating is food, its varieties and taste. With my experience of having attended more than 800 marriages, I always wonder how caterers manage to make hundreds of guests happy. My curiosity made me venture on a project to study the challenges involved in the management of mega marriages where thousands are fed high quality food.
My professional guru, a veteran from Thanjavur, always emphasised that management is nothing but a lot of common sense, the ability to anticipate crises and be ready with an action plan and solutions. He defined some other qualities needed to be a good manager — the ability to tolerate nonsense, a good listening power and receptiveness to a lot of free advice coming from fellow employees and unconcerned people too. His best example of exemplary management skill is “Mani Mama, the chief cook of Tamil marriage,” who demonstrates all aspects of management functions and copes with challenges, both expected and unexpected. He is expected to provide a variety of high quality food — fresh, tasty and in the right quantity — for three days at a stretch with no scope for rehearsal, stock return or chance to change the item served on the banana leaf.
On analysis, I found out how difficult it is to cook 28 varieties of tasty items in a span of five hours and the challenge is always to work on guessestimates, that too handling perishable items and managing team members trained in a variety of cooking skills. I decided to observe a reputed chef, who had more than 25 years of experience in cooking for marriages and catering in Chennai. He reluctantly agreed on condition that I would not ask any question; nor would I talk to any of his team-members. I should always remain in the kitchen, keep taking notes and my questions would be answered after the third day. But as time slipped by and I became absorbed, he started telling me his management secrets at every stage.
Mani Mama gave me the list of pre-decided menu for three days, consisting of nine sessions of eating spree with a fluctuating number of guests. The total number of items was around 145 made with 85 ingredients, including 25 varieties of vegetables and fruits. There is risk involved in handling milk (with no storage technology) and hot oils and sensitive cooking processes — you cannot afford over-frying or uneven cooking.
There is a great risk involved in serving food manually to more than 1,000 guests on time with very less time left for taking care of cleaning and garbage management. Mani Mama said the success of marriage and the strong bond of relationship between two families depended to a great extent on the high quality food served.
He narrated many incidents, fracas that arose between the families of brides and bridegrooms over the quality of food; sometimes, the complaints were talked about for generations.
It was a marvel to see Mani Mama at work. With his commanding personality, he was giving rapid-fire instructions, with a wave of his hand and his keen eyes which never missed any detail. His expert nose is his barometer to evaluate the quality of the food being prepared.
He told me that he was not aware of the terminologies of management science. “We have our own terminologies, but I guarantee you that we cover all aspects of management. Our management success is purely dependent on the mutual trust between fellow workers and the respect for their individual skills, transparency and delegation of work based on individual experience and capability. I have dedicated persons to handle the preparation of sweets, and to add salt in right proportions and to cut vegetables.” Vendor management, stores management, serving the guests, cleaning, dining-table seating, waste management and guest relationship are handled by skilled hands.
“I have a person whose only job is sit in front of the oil pan and handle all items pertaining to frying right from vada to appalam. Deep frying is taboo and he should ensure against any accident. One guy handles all customer and hospitality relationship pertaining to the bridegroom, who is the most important VIP for three days. There you see, Kuttappa — he is dedicated to handling milk. Nobody else is allowed to do that work. I myself keep an eye when salt is added to any item which needs to be fried. Our sweet master has been working with me for years. He is an expert in preparing all kinds of sweets. You know our Ambi Kuttan, an assistant with us, who is an expert in headcount. His job is to be alert to avoid thefts, pilferage and also keep a watch on the guest inflow. He will give us the best estimate of guest arrivals since we don’t have an electronic gadget or the RSVP system.
“We have a core team which manages any crisis or shortage of items; we can cook certain items at short notice, say in 15-25 minutes, with the right taste and quality. You know guests never speak of anything except the food and it is our duty to ensure that they remember our clients for the best fare served. The appraisal is usually over the taste of coffee, sambar, mysore-pak, a sweet the preparation of which needs a knowledge of physics, and avial (a dish made of multiple vegetables and curd).
“We also have a system of serving certain items in a certain format on the banana leaf. We have to maintain the sequence of serving food in the right quantity, watching the eating efficiency of the guests, in terms of serving the delicacies. We can’t afford to ignore any guest or bypass the sequences,” Mani Mama concluded.
I was wondering why I had not studied anything about perishables/ manufacturing techniques and waste management lessons or solutions in food management.
My MBA degree and experience went for a toss before Mani Mama’s management skills. He met all the challenges which aplomb. He had solutions even for spoilt milk; it will be converted into a particular sweet. He was a leader with hands-on expertise in every aspect of food management, right from materials management to packing solutions. He knows the traditions, rituals and marriage procedures and what to serve at what time. He has not gone to any school, and just graduated from a helper to the chief chef by dint of hard work, rich experience and the willingness to take risks.
He is an institution by himself in his industry with people working 24X7 for years; he does not know the latest HR fundas, but knows how to retain his team-members for years.
He is handling the most sensitive event of his client which is not just about money but concerned with the prestige of his life involving human relations. One false step, and the damage will be permanent.
His profession is purely dependent on time and quality performance with no second chance available. His business survives on the concept of the taste of the pudding is in the eating. I made it a point to direct all my students to do the project for their MBA in a Tamil marriage kitchen. You do get to know all aspects of management that are not taught in Harvard and IIMs. Mani Mama walked in graciously with a white towel on his shoulder asking me, ‘do you have any tips for me to improve my efficiency?’ I bowed to him in reverence to the wonderful management skills demonstrated before me.
(The writer’s email is firstname.lastname@example.org)