New Exec Chefs, Old Hotels Reinvented


Back in its hay day, Courtyard Marriott on Anna Salai was a happening place. Headed by Chef Girish Kumar, a Marriott superstar, Marriott popularised the concept of the brunch in Chennai. With nearly 7 live counters, a road side tender coconut vendor dressed in Marriott uniform cutting fresh tender coconuts for you, the street tea shop vendor invited to give you tea; man, the place was vibrant. Sadly, after he left, Marriott never seemed to have recovered. While there were a few talented chefs who took over, none were able to fight competition that came up and soon Marriott was a shade of its old self. A short trek from the airport, Hilton seemed to have gone that way too. A once fantastic Ayna succumbed to I don't know what, but Ayna never came back to its, short, but fabulous glory days.

Not anymore. (A rather fit) chef Surya has been at the helm of the Hilton Chennai for about 9 months now and seems to have turned it around. With average banquet food, an Ayna gone wrong and Est needing to match the food with its ambiance, the chef had his work cut out, but he has gotten it back on track. After a really really long time, I enjoyed the food at Hilton, first at the Oktoberfest where the sausages were excellent and later at the Sunday brunch, the food has taken a pretty good upswing. Recently, the pass around snacks at the Christmas tree lighting wasn't some careless snack, but carefully thought out and carefully put together. I am now looking forward to the brunch again, with its city themes (I'm headed for the Istanbul version) but with the chef in no hurry to rush things and reinvent Ayna without perfection, I am extremely excited about what Ayna will be under Surya.

What about Courtyard Marriott? With JW Marriott being abandoned, I thought Marriott had given up on the food in Chennai (their rooms are still great value and located right in the heart of the city), but the launch of the brunch last month almost set a higher benchmark. After being used to very average banquet food at Marriott events, the fantastic fried idly threw me off balance. Dish after dish, the pass around snacks at the launch was better than the previous dish and I finally met Pranjal, a rather young executive chef. The brunch the following day was a huge improvement over the last few forgettable brunches I've had here, especially the dessert.

Westin, though is a completely different story. While both Hilton and Marriott had excellent food that went downhill before being wrested back, Westin, except for occasional shades of good food, wasn't particularly known for its culinary excellence and despite some excellent space,like the open air space, the food didn't do much of the talking here. While the existing restaurants still don't excite me, Madras Kitchen Company is a different ball game altogether. I believe the old chef has put in significant effort for this attempt and I am yet to meet the new exec chef, but MKC is nothing like any restaurant Chennai has ever seen. A 3rd space in a 5 star hotel is usually restricted to resident guests in a more formal setting, but MKC is attempting to change the rules entirely. A quirky set up designed to let you do your own thing, the food is anything but. From the Masala Bovonto to the Shirmp toast to the Butter Chicken masala, the food will distract you from doing any work. I've started holding my meetings here and this is the sweet spot between a coffee shop like Starbucks, a coffee shop in a hotel and a hotel resident lounge. Hell, this is the perfect space, one I didn't know I missed all these years.

The most exciting change-of-guard for me is at the Hyatt Regency. I've known Chef Deva for a decade, right from his Marriott Chennai days (yes, he was a mini rock star there too helming the once classy Rhapsody) and he has journeyed around the country and was back home as exec chef sometime back at Crowne Plaza. This is probably the first time an exec chef is moving to another property within Chennai as exec chef, but Deva is also moving to a property that has two excellent specialty restaurants. Focaccia and Stix are both fabulous restaurants, each catering to an exclusive audience who swear by these, and personally too, I believe Focaccia is the best Italian restaurant in the city.  While these two are fabulous, I cannot say the same about their brunches or the breakfast at Spice Haat. Ironically, I am yet to visit Hyatt Regency after Chef Deva has taken over and I believe they've done a few festivals already, so let's see how this unfolds.

The 5 star dining in Chennai is rather sad and except for ITC Grand Chola under the watchful eyes of Chef Ajit Bangera and maybe Park Hyatt under the quiet and reclusive, but supremely talented chef Balaji, it is hard to have a consistently excellent experience in any of the other 5 stars in Chennai. With these four chefs, I have my hopes up! Let's see. 


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Grub Waz: New Exec Chefs, Old Hotels Reinvented
New Exec Chefs, Old Hotels Reinvented
Grub Waz
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