Plates to podcasts: The pandemic is driving chefs, TV show hosts to depend on iPhones and Zoom
Food. The one thing that surely binds us all together, even over the lockdown. With the hospitality industry largely stunted right now, what are the chefs and food enthusiasts doing?
"Humour keeps us alive. Humour and food. Don't forget food. You can go a week without laughing." American director Joss Whedon said that, according to Good Reads.
For all the pandemic-stricken weeks that are passing right now without the heady laughter of friends, the quiet smirk of sympathy exchanged with a colleague and or a polite smile of meeting someone new - we have food.
We have experimental omelettes, trying our hand at recipes that we have seen parents or grandparents perfect for years, we have bread from scratch, we have ridiculously whisked coffee.
Stuck at home, we, the privileged lot, have enough going on in the kitchen to keep us occupied. If only because the restaurants are shut, our favourite bars are closed, and the cafes we worked out of have unplugged their coffee machines. Till further notice.
For all the people who were otherwise cooking up a storm, churning out stories from the other side of the table - what have they been doing while we try to measure out water and flour for dough?
You are lucky, remember that
Well, Fig & Maple and Ivy & Bean's Radhika Khandelwal has been creating online videos.
"The hospitality industry cannot work from home and I am no exception. So to keep my spirits up, and to keep engaging with my guests and my potential clientele, I have started creating videos online," she said. Khandelwal has been creating IGTV videos in her time away from the restaurant kitchen (Fig & Maple is delivering so a huge part of her day goes into that).
"I shoot them myself and these are all based on easy-to-follow and sustainable recipes, some anecdotes about sustainability and how it is really important at this point of time to eat sustainably and to look after your health, and the planet's health," she adds.
Khandelwal shoots with her iPhone 11 Pro Max and edits the content on iMovies and posts it on Instagram. While it's the downtime for everyone in the hospitality industry, it's also downtime for food bloggers. "There is nothing to blog about, no restaurants to go to," says Khandelwal adding that bloggers should possibly use this time to make their own food.
"Hopefully they go down that path and understand how food is produced. I work very closely with Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), especially SDG 2, which is zero hunger," she says. Her restaurants are known for optimising how food can be used, in fact, she ran the first zero-waste food campaign in Delhi.
"Everyone is trying to make a dollar stretch a mile right now, there is a limited amount of food coming in as well. Food sustainability is very huge in that aspect. Privileged people like us are eating three times a day - this a chance to make the right choice," she notes.
Do your bit
Moving from IGTV videos to a webinar with more than 900 people, Chef Vicky Ratnani is using tech in his kitchen to do his bit for the world.
"This is the only way I can contribute to the people, (by) giving them insights, giving them a little humour, trying to keep them more positive," he explained while talking about all the Instagram lives, the posts, the tweets and the recipes he is sharing with his followers.
"I just did a webinar with 980 people watching. Normally, I would have to travel somewhere for this, but now everyone can watch me from my home kitchen!" Ratnani says, adding that perhaps the only positive thing that has happened thanks to the lockdown is the fact that he is not travelling for half the month as he usually has to.
"Tangibility is important but when I can have 900 happy people who watched three recipes with turkey and participated in a Q&A, the job was done! What is going on now didn't stop me from cooking or teaching people, and at the same time it didn't stop people from learning where they are," Ratnani adds.
He shot his videos and conducted the webinar using his iPad and the Apple iPhone 11 Pro. Using Zoom as the platform, Ratnani used two IDs, one on the iPad and one on the iPhone so as he could cook, look at the questions coming in on his iPad and answer through his iPhone.
He has also been using his phone to shoot pictures of his food that he shares on Twitter. He takes his daughter's help with editing on iMovies for the shorter videos that he shoots from his phone.
For the webinar, he shot two videos of himself cooking with his phone and sent it off to someone else to edit. The third video was of Ratnani cooking live, wearing the same chef's jacket. For the webinar audience, they had just watched the chef cook three recipes back-to-back.
The lockdown gave Ratnani the time and the push he needed to create video content, something he always wanted to do. "That's how people are consuming content right now," he says. Ratnani has released his 'Vicky the Gastronaut' series on Instagram and Facebook and he is also doing carousels of snapshots, time lapses, slo-mo videos, black and white frames of himself cooking and sharing the recipes via the captions on these posts.
The lockdown has its pros and cons for Ratnani, as it does for everyone else. It has made him use technology like his devices, social media and video-calling apps like Zoom more intensely, for both work and leisure. But it's also a realisation that you cannot do everything from home.
There is always something new to do
Plates to podcasts, that's how food enthusiasts and TV show hosts Rocky Singh and Mayur Sharma are winging this lockdown. Off the highway, Rocky and Mayur are now "sitting at home getting bored, having done everything we could in the kitchen for over a month".
"We have just released our newest thing - podcasts," they said. Their show Highway on my Plate has been replaced with Highway on my Podcast, at least temporarily.
"This is where we go down memory lane and go back to all the trips we made all over the country and talk about all the fun things that happened behind the scenes that don't make it onto the camera. We have a little freedom of language, censorship does not exist, so it's easier to talk about all the things that happened. Share the memories, the food, the places, the people," says Singh.
He added that within three weeks they have become the number two food and travel podcast in India on the platforms where they're available. And it's not just podcasts, they are also going online every Monday and Friday for an hourly chat with friends on Instagram. They are also writing their third book. Singh is even trying his luck on the stock market and sorting out his trove of wildlife photographs.
If you thought you were being lazy over this lockdown, you know where to get some inspiration from (not us, we are working through the week, hit up Rocky and Mayur).
Zoom is the software platform, while iPhones handle hardware. For the podcasts they are using a combination of devices. The duo pointed out that of all the devices "around the house" the iPhones have the best mics, and they use Zoom as the main platform for distribution. They use iPhones for split screen visuals and they can see each other and their reactions when streaming via Zoom.
No, they aren't worried about Zoom's security issues. "A lot of stuff we are saying anyway is very insecure so anybody who wants to listen and stuff is welcome to do that!" they joked.
"We experimented with different platforms and with Zoom we were getting the best audio quality and it was also able to handle any dips in WiFi - because you have four people talking and there are connectivity dips," they said.
Besides the podcast, Mayur adds that they are doing a series of challenge videos for, encouraging people to stay home and stay fit. They are sharing ideas about exercises one can do while doing household chores and some diet tips with whatever restricted ingredients can be found at home. The videos are shot on an iPhone 11 Pro Max.
There is also the #rnmfridgechallenge on Instagram where they are encouraging their followers to share videos of them making something, send a photo and/or a recipe of a dish they have made using the limited ingredients at home.
"Since we are using iMovie, we are teaching ourselves on the fly, to edit, to add sounds, to put all the clips together. We have started doing all of these ourselves because now we have the time. iMovie is fairly intuitive so it's actually quite easy," he pointed out.
While these two seem to be perfectly equipped to deal with the lockdown blues, how do they see things changing once life is back to "normal", of sorts?
"There's going to be a huge change. As soon as the lockdown is over, food bloggers are going to go mad looking for good looking food. Everyone is sick of looking at omelettes," they said.
Rocky and Mayur feel that once this is over, people will be out looking for the most visually exciting food they can find.
"The variety of visual food is everything on social media, taste is important for guys like us since we are reviewing a restaurant. But for a social media post the colours, the presentation, the ambience of food becomes very critical. Food stylists have become really big and deservedly so," they said.
As soon as the lockdown ends there will be thousands of visuals flooding social media of really good food, the guys predict. "What devices have done is that they have democratised the whole thing. Earlier people in the food business, people like us had a television show, we had a set audience. If these guys wanted to see a food show, if they wanted to see Highway on My Plate with Rocky and Mayur and travel to Arunachal Pradesh they'd have to wait till that episode came on TV," they said.
You don't need a specialised camera crew anymore. If it is for a TV channel then you need a bunch of specialised people but otherwise people can shoot content on their phone. So from a 100 content creators on 10 TV channels you now have a billion content creators on multiple channels, they pointed out.
"In one aspect it's great, there is a lot of stuff out there. However, the challenge is that while everyone can create content, not everyone creates content that people want to watch. There is a lot of mediocrity out there."
"So that is where we like to think we have an advantage - our long time with television, with food content, travel content - we understand what makes content work, long form or short form," they said.
The second advantage they have is of better devices, like their iPhones. Not everyone is going to invest in an iPhone, the guys pointed out.
"The advantage for us is that we can quickly shoot a very high quality video, edit it on iMovies, add some fancy effects and plug it out there and it will look good too. So even while there are so many more people doing the same thing, all these things give you an added edge."
"One, people know us so they know how to look for us, they know where to find us and they know how to follow us. And, two, we can guarantee them better quality content than most other people because we have the knowledge and the correct tools," Rocky said.
"I used to carry separate cameras, but I no longer do. It's made the game so easy, the visuals are so compelling that it is pushing more and more people to realise that there is so much you can do with this kind of technology. As long as technology keeps closing the gap between professional and amatuer and what you can do with a hand-held device as opposed to what you can do with a DSLR, the gap is going to keep closing. The more it closes the more you will find people doing it," he added.
So will some food bloggers change vocation now because of the current lack of content?
"I doubt it, like Rocky said, we've got lots of time, everybody is home. And the one thing you can do at home is food. In fact I think there is going to be more people starting food blogs. Because suddenly a lot of people who weren't bothered with all this, who were privileged, who had staff to do all this - have time to do it now.
We might come out if this with more people saying - this is fun, I want to try this. But how many will be able to make a living out of it or when they realise they cannot make a living out of it they may drop out. But content will keep increasing and the lockdown will be a boost," says Mayur.
"Social media is always alive and now people are on social media all the more, more eyeballs there. We have a couple of clients working with us right now. Social media-wise we are doing just as well as before. All the good bloggers out there are probably getting as much if not more work. For the rest they need to introspect what more they can do to get more work," the guys concluded.
Maybe you'll make an omelette today, maybe you'll knead the roti dough all wrong for the third time in a row, maybe you will cook paneer because you are sick of chicken - whatever you do, remember, you are lucky to have that food on your plate and that smartphone in your hand to document it.
Stay safe and wash your hands.