The Million Pound Menu: The restaurant reality show has just one sour point, Atul Kochhar

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The Million Pound Menu: The restaurant reality show has just one sour point, Atul Kochhar

There’s much that will impress anyone about this show. Any budding restaurateur, who has a great idea and simply needs the advice and investment to take their idea to the next stage. A million pounds is a lot of money to kickstart most new business ideas.

“, then you have to remind them that they terrorised Hindus for centuries. Okay, I dressed up the statement slightly. But I don’t know what stumped me more while watching BBC 2’s new reality food series, now being shown on Netflix, The Million Pound Menu – the fact that budding restaurateurs and chefs could win up to a million pounds which is almost Rs 9 crore, or that Islamophobe chef-restaurateur Atul Kocchar is one of those judging the participants and is handing out crores to more than one of them?

There’s much that will impress anyone about this show. Especially for someone like me, or any other budding restaurateur, who has a great idea and simply needs the advice and investment to take their idea to the next stage. A million pounds is a lot of money to kickstart most new business ideas.

The Million Pound Menu is a six-part series which is currently being shown on Netflix. A group of UK’s most well-known restaurant investors including chef-proprietors, hotel owners, VCs choose two entrepreneurs with a food, brand and investment plan in each episode. These two restaurant teams then get to run a three-day, all-expenses paid, pop-up. They get identical pop-up spaces, where the menu and décor are designed for them, ingredients are bought for them and the restaurant costs are covered for the days of the episode. They have a half-priced “soft opening” dinner for the public, cook a private meal for whichever investors are interested in their idea, and a full-service meal for anyone who wants to show up on day 3. The investors judge them and make them an investment offer if they are impressed. In some episodes, two investors make competing offers and the team gets to choose one or reject both. The smallest offer made was for £150,000 – that’s almost Rs 2 crore. This is what fantasies are made of for budding restaurateurs.

The amount being offered paled though in light of the fact that here was Atul Kocchar playing mentor and benefactor. It’s ironic that a TV programme brought Atul Kocchar international infamy and got him fired this June. And in a parallel universe, pretty much to the day, another TV programme returned him to the world of fame and acceptance.

Kocchar is no small fry or flash in the pan. Now that my cooking puns are out of my system – much like Kocchar had got his Islamophobia out of his system in June – Kocchar, is just the second Indian to earn a Michelin star in 2007 for his London restaurant Benares. But in June, after watching an episode of Priyanka Chopra-starrer Quantico, which showed Hindu militants pretending to be Islamic militants, Kocchar – who evidently feels strongly about fiction programming – tweeted, “It’s sad to see that you [Chopra] have not respected the sentiments of Hindus who have been terrorized by Islam over 2000 years. Shame on You”.

More shame on Kocchar as JW Marriot Marquis Hotel, Dubai promptly canceled their contract with Kocchar’s restaurant Rang Mahal on June 13, 2018 and released a statement saying, “We pride ourselves on creating a culture of diversity and inclusion for our guests and associates across the hotel and our restaurants”. Kocchar, by then realising that bigotry doesn’t go unnoticed especially when you spell it out in 140 characters, deleted his tweet and apologised and said, “There is no justification for my tweet, a major error made in the heat of the moment on Sunday. I fully recognise my inaccuracies that Islam was founded around 1,400 years ago and I sincerely apologise. I am not Islamophobic, I deeply regret my comments that have offended many.”

In a parallel world, BBC 2 had already shot this series and started airing it in the UK on June 12 little realising the debris Kocchar was leaving in his wake in the UAE and on social media. To see Kocchar play paternal mentor with a very large wallet in this series, is a little hard to digest. It’s almost like watching John Galliano play mentor on a fashion show, a day after his anti-semitic alcoholic rant in 2011. Simply put, it’s difficult to ignore the side-helping of bigotry which comes along with Kocchar.

The series though, is a celebration of the restaurant industry and chefs unlike any other. Especially, when you think of the money on offer. This is not a loan which needs to be paid back. This is a flat-out investment, which is paired with the skill and expertise of the investor.

To put things in perspective, there was an Indian reality show called Grilled which had a similar concept. The show handed out only Rs 1.5 crore to one winner. The judges included the Pentagram drummer Vishal Dadlani, restaurateur Riyaaz Amlani and chef Sarah Todd. I’m not even comparing the production value or expertise or inputs on display, to the BBC 2 series.

This show means business. Participants are judged on front of house experience, how they manage the kitchen, food presentation skills and their business savvy. There’re no cutting corners here or serving shoddy food. These investors aren’t banks or angel investors who have no clue about restaurants. These are hotel owners, restaurateurs, chefs – who’ve cut their teeth in the business. It’s a million pounds. Across the episodes, crores are handed over to multiple participants – Kocchar is one of the most enthusiastic investors and also extremely perceptive about what works and what doesn’t. More often than not, the investors increase the amount of money being asked for by the participants.

The investors who decide whom to back and who not to, include Kochhar whose restaurant portfolio is worth an estimated £13m-£15m. There’s former Soho House Group commercial director Chris Miller who launched an investment service called White Rabbit Fund back in 2016. Among his other investments, he’s invested in Indian tapas restaurant Kricket. Jamie Barber is the CEO of Hush restaurant in Mayfair, London. Shruti Ajitsaria is an Angel Investor who manages a portfolio of investments, and previously invested in JKS restaurants (Gymkhana, Hoppers). She’s interested in investing in food and craft beer. Tim Gee is a Property Director with Allied London and is looking for new restaurant concepts for the company’s estates in Manchester. Jeremy Roberts is co-founder of Living Ventures, a northern-based restaurant and bar group with an estimated annual turnover of over £100 million. Darrell Connell is a partner with Imbiba Partnership, an investment group that specialises in backing and growing high-end bar and restaurant concepts. Scott Collins owns MEATliquor, a pop-up burger diner and bar chain. Lydia Forte is Group Director of Food & Beverage at the Rocco Forte hotel group. David Page, one of Britain’s most successful investors, has a restaurant investment company called Fulham Shore.

There are no drummers or celebrity chefs or dressing up meat as lamb here. This is a group of investors who have money to invest and the skill-set to spot a potential winning idea and chef. A high-end restaurant in a city like Goa – the show is set in Manchester – would cost around Rs 1 to 2 crore if you included cost of ingredients, cost of staff, rent, overheads and running costs for at least a year. To be handed Rs 9 crore is simply mind-boggling. And to be given access to the kind of advice on offer from these investors is truly manna from heaven.

Even the host of the show is a food industry veteran, so when he speaks to the participating chefs, his understanding of the food business is evident. Fred Sirieix, earlier presented the show First Date. His day job is that of general manager at Galvin at Windows, a Michelin-starred restaurant at the Park Lane Hilton in Mayfair.

Some of the restaurant ideas are truly spectacular. There are vegan Thai restaurants, a Cuban street food brand, a fine-dining concept by two women – one of UK’s youngest women sommeliers and a chef who want to celebrate British produce, there’s a bubble and squeak stall. Trap Kitchen was my favourite. It’s a food business run by a young man out of his parent’s kitchen, serving 250 spicy seafood meal boxes three days a week and with a massive social media following of 43,000 Instagram followers. He needs £500,000 to transform into a restaurant.

If you’re in the food business, starting out, looking for investment – I’d highly recommend this show. Also, because it’s proof that if you have a good idea and some talent, you never know which generous mentor might back you. Even if it is Atul Kocchar. The series would have been the perfect makeover for Kocchar though, if they’d just had a Muslim contestant whose idea he decided to financially back. There’s always Season Two for that.

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