Do home chefs matter? Here is what the consumer has to say.

Home Chef Matters 2019 at St Regis Hotel. Saloni and Sameer Malkani of FBAI and the talented team of home chefs who cooked us a lovely meal that afternoon and those who had cooked in the past and were mentors this time

I was at the 3rd edition of the Home Chefs Matter meet at the St Regis Hotel in Mumbai yesterday. This is a wonderful initiative spearheaded by Saloni and Sameer Malkani of FBAI and it has been an honour to be associated with it right from the first edition. The high point of these meets for me is the lunch put together by a set of home chefs, who cook in the hosting hotel's kitchen, and who are guided and supported by the in house chef team. Yesterday's lunch was fabulous as always and featured Kashmiri (Jasleen Marwah), Bengali (Joyadrita Raghavan), Maharashtrian GSB (Roopa Nabar), Lebanese (Bimba Nayak) who has worked in Kuwait and learnt this while there, Gini Shah (Asian), Devansh Jhaveri and Hemali Prasad (low cal and keto), Aparna Choudhury (Bengali) and Lunica Desai (soups and salads). Another very interesting part of these meets is the talks given by people from the food industry - chefs, restaurateurs and hoteliers, writer and bloggers, food stylists, interior design folks, legal specialists and the like. These are packed with practical tips for home chefs.

I took a session too yesterday. It was on trying to understand what the home chef customer is looking for. I based it on a social media based consumer market research that I conducted among home chef consumer across India and used multiple Finely Chopped social media channels for the same. The idea was to help home chefs tap the emerging consumer trends.

Who is a 'home chef?' Is your granny one?

Who is a home chef you ask? Home chefs refer to people who are usually not formally trained in culinary arts, and who offer food from their home kitchens commercially to customers. Not just someone who cooks at home. No, your grandmom is not a home chef. Not unless you pay her for the meals she makes you. It is another matter that the most precious currency to any grandmom is the time you spend with her. Your grandmom can become a home chef if you create a revenue model for her cooking. That is how the  Bohri Kitchen started that way a few years back in Mumbai with young Munaf Kapadia set up a home dining pop up business where his mother (not grandmom), Nafisa Kapadia, would cook Bohri food for paying customers at home. The brand has grown a lot since then, but this still remains at the heart of what they do.

Home chefs are not a new phenomenon. There were those who cooked food at home in Mumbai for example and send it through dabbawalas for paying customers at offices. I used to subscribe to many such faceless dabbas in my market research agency days. Then there were the Maharashtrian maushis (aunts) who set us stalls and shops and sold food cooked at home to office goers in places such as Dadar and Parel. I used to go to one such maushi when I worked in a market research agency in Dadar. She and her young son would sell their wares of dal, rice, bhaaji and fish fry from the staircase in our building. The maashis (maternal aunt in Bengali) of Kolkata who would run tea shops and sell ghoogni and pauruti and deemer jhol were home chefs too. And there was more. Those who made papads, pickles, theplas, biryanis, cakes and mithais at home and sold it on festive occasions. Often through local shops.

In most cases, these were women who helped run their families through their work. Their customers were those looking for home food AND at a low cost.

Home chefs 2.0






The home chef 'movement' in India saw a Renaissance about 5 or 6 years back. This started with food bloggers who conducted pop up meals at home. Usually offering food from their native heritage. Most were English educated and came from a different economic strata from the early home chefs. The focus of most of them has been to provide regional Indian food. Their audiences were more upmarket too. People looking for an 'experience' in this case and not just budget eats unlike before.

The movement gained momentum over the past few years with more people coming in and start up companies such as Meal Tango (they have moved out of this space) and later Authenticook trying to build on and leverage the space and offer a platform to home chefs. Most used social media to market themselves and were covered in both social and mass media too. With time, some have become quite celebrated names. The rules of engagements has changed too. Many of the new generation of home chefs have gone beyond doing pop ups at home and have broadened their horizons. You have folks like Shri Bala, Sherry Malhotra, Sangeeta Khanna,  Kashmiri Barkakakati Nath, Ananya Banerjee and more recently, Rhea Mitra Dalal and Madhumita Pyne, doing food festivals at five star hotels and modern fine dining restaurants and clubs. 

Others such as Subhasree Basu and Perzen Patel (who has recently migrated to New Zealand), Soumitra Velkar and his wife Manju Malwade, who got together to set up Hungry Cat Kitchen, and Joyee and Priyangi of O'Tenga, have set up their own cloud kitchens for catering to customers on a more regular basis.

Some have moved their areas of operations into a quasi restaurant format. Manzilat Fatima of Kolkata who runs Manzilat's Kitchen would be an example of this. As would be the Bengaluru Oota Company run by Divya Prabhakar and Vishal Shetty, who offer Gowda and Mangalorean food on appointment (I have not eaten here but Vir Sanghvi praised them profusely recently). Not that the phenomenon of home chef started restaurants and eateries is new to India. Some of the places that I dine at often or have had memorable meals at in Mumbai.... Soam, Ling's Pavilion, Aaswad, Sindhudurg, Candies, Ideal Corner ... have all been started by home chefs (some men), and a recent example would be Mustard where the Bengali menu was originally done by Pritha Sen (she has moved on since then), who among many other things, is a home chef. In Kolkata, this would include Kewpies and Suruchi at one time and among recent favourites Doma Wang with her restaurants such as Thakali, Blue Poppy and Shim Shim. Some other lovely home chef started restaurants that I have been to would include Mising Kitchen in Guwahati and Venkatdri Vantillu at Vizag.

With the drivers behind yesterday's Home Chefs Matters meet. Chef Paul Kinny
of St Regis, Mumbai. Sujit Patil & CN Nageshwaran of Godrej. Saloni &
Sameer Malkani of FBAI who were ably supported by their teams who worked
behind the scenes 

Many acclaimed professional chefs such as Ashish Bhasin and Ravitej Nath have worked closely with home chefs, as has Thomas Zacharias of the Bombay Canteen. I have heard chefs such as Abhijit Saha and Sabyasachi Gorai among others, speak firmly in support of the work done by home chefs in public events. All lovely examples of different parts of the food ecosystem coming together to support each other.

Pics below: Some of the industry expert sessions at the Home Chefs Matters meet yesterday.






As the home chef movement grows and gets its place in the sun, it is important to know what their target audience thinks of them and expects from them. To get some answers, I put on my market researcher's hat to get a sense of this. I posed questions on my social media channels to those who patronise home chefs to understand what they looked for from home chefs. What were they willing to be a bit lenient about? What was not negotiable.

This is what I found out.

What do Home Chef consumers want? 


Speaking at the Home Chef Matters meet, 2019
Pic credit: Sumitra Chowdury

The discovery of India


The word that came up the most when it came to what their patrons looked for from the new age home chefs was 'authenticity.' Authenticity in the food space is a much debated and misused term but it was clear that they sought to experience the many splendours of regional Indian food through the home chefs. They wanted to savour cuisines from across the country that they were not familiar with. Or, go beyond the 'usual.'  kosha mangsho in Bengali, dal batti and gatte ka sabzi in Rajasthani or rajma and bharta in Punjabi for example, and discover more. They were on the lookout for the sort of fare that will not be available in restaurants. Dishes that do not currently have the mass appeal to make them commercially appealing for restaurants that look for scale, to offer.

I compared notes with some of the meals put together by home chefs that I have had the good fortune to have experienced. Those where I got a taste of Assamese cuisine for example, first through meals at the house of Gitika Saika and then Joyee and Priyangee of O'Tenga, in Mumbai, and later Pushpanjalee Dutta and Mitali Dutta in Guwahati. Of Koli food through the Authenticook organised Koli family lunch at Versova and then the one by Anjali Koli for my mother and me. The ones Bimba Nayak's Pathare Prabhu meals. Or chef Alus's East Indian meal in Bandra. The GSB Maharashtrian meal by Roopa Nabar in Mumbai and the Mangalorean ones by Shobha Kamath in Mangalore, or the Bengali meal by Pritha Sen in Gurugram. Those meals were truly unique and I knew exactly what my respondents meant.

Just that little bit of the human touch


The respondents added that what drew them to home chefs was the experience of eating at home which one never gets in restaurants and understandably so. The following are some examples that they gave to make their point.

Gravies in restaurants are often prepared in advance for inventory management related issues. In the case of home chefs, the food might get prepared just as you sit down to eat and this was appreciated. What might be deep fried in restaurants (fish for Bengali curries for example), might not be so at home because of the touch of personalisation here. A home chef understands that oodles of ghee, butter or worse still, food colouring, is not required to add glory to food. That flavour can come in from restraint too. Restaurants on the other hand, are often guilty of excesses. The expectation is that ingredients used by home chef are fresher as home chefs work on low volumes and that anything extra would get wasted. 

Tell me your story





The other thing that distinguishes a home chef experience from that in a restaurant is the role played by the home chef herself. Her customers want to know the chef's story.  They look for their unique touch which makes their food different from templated restaurant meant. 

The expectation is that in the best traditions of Indian hospitality, the home chef will go out of the way (in the case of dining experiences) to make you feel at home, explain the food to you, the order in which to eat it, what to look out for in each dish and so on. Contrast this with the times you might go a restaurant and are met a blank look when you ask questions about the food to the waiting staff. This could be due to ignorance in the case of new places and the lack of ability to explain in old school places. Unless of course, you have a Baba Ling or Nini Ling, Manzilat Fatima or a Pinky Dixit Chandra or a Doma Wang, at their restaurants telling you about their mother's and grandmother's food which is on offer and the stories around them. 

As humans, we love stories and that is what their customers want from home chefs.

Drawing a parallel once again with the world of blogging, I would say that it is all about the person behind the meal when it comes to home chef experiences, just as it is when it comes to a blog. Which is why customers of home chefs are willing to overlook things (as their responses indicated) like presentation of food, the availability of air-conditioning or lift access. Just as perhaps, readers of blogs are a bit lenient (hopefully) about copy errors or layout skills. 

Which is why a home chef should not try to aim to replicate a restaurant experience in my opinion, just as a blogger should not aim to replicate a website. It's the personal voice that the customer seeks in this case. The face behind the food. Or the words.

Professional chefs and the world of restaurants and that of home chefs cannot substitute each other. Both have their reasons to exist,  their own strengths and weaknesses and it is all about mutual coexistence at the end. This is the spirit that those in the meet yesterday, from both sides of the spectrum, seemed to convey.

A win win situation for us food lovers.

With Roopa Nabar, Pia Promina (a founding member of Kewpie's), Bimba Nayak
and her son and in yellow, Dr Manisha Talim  who is a big supporter of the home
chef movement


Next steps?

This brings me to the question that clients often ask at the end of research presentation. 'This is data, now what do I do with it?'

These are interesting times for home chefs as I said earlier. Awareness of what they offer is increasing as is the appreciation of it. With this comes opportunities to grow their businesses. This space is currently driven largely by women and offers a powerful tool for women empowerment and that makes it even more important. 

With avenues opening up for home chefs, they would now need to look seriously at how to price their services. Be it for customers. Or for distribution partners such as internet aggregators, delivery apps or hotels or restaurants or even FMCG companies that they associate with. 

Which is would like to end this post by reiterating what I said at the end of my presentation to the home chefs yesterday.

Please do not undervalue yourselves. What you offer is truly precious. Your customers say so.



The post is based on findings from a Finely Chopped Consulting study. Please get in touch with me at kalyan@finelychopped.net if you are in the food business and need consumer inputs on how to grow your business. I would be be happy to work with you on the same.

Appendix:


Some consumer quotes on the topic posted on the Finely Chopped Instagram and Facebook pages:








On PM: 
Home chefs -
1. a.Interesting cuisines - not available in restaurants. Eg Assamese, bohri, Pathare Prabhu, East Bengal/Bangladeshi, Koli, Bihari, seasonal cuisines of say a Rajasthan/Gujarat , interesting, offbeat, innovative takes on traditional cuisine wo messing it up, etc. I think there is the option of having many more different/ niche ones and not enough offbeat unusual cuisines or offerings exist from home chefs. The industry catering to the regular home cooked meal, which is a big one , is not what I am a consumer of. b.To support the home chef as an entrepreneur - mostly women C. Keeping alive cultural norms/heritage that are getting lost 2. Packaging, punctuality ( to an extent). Expect better VFM than restaurants since fixed cost lower, unless very unusual expensive ingredients used 3. Quality of produce used, authenticity of cuisine, hygiene, taste - of course 4. Non availability of the cuisine type in restaurants -so heirloom recipes, forgotten cuisines , use of rarely available/ unusual / seasonal ingredients( a huge plus for me) etc , authenticity of cuisine( though difficult to determine in cuisines I am not aware of).. more home delivery options would help rather than mostly pop ups, given logistics and convenience..


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