Over the course of a 50-year career, Mavinder (“MPS”) Puri has created memorable restaurant concepts for many of the world’s leading brands. So what’s the key to creating and sustaining iconic F&B offerings? MPS Puri talks to Abi Millar about the changing face of F&B in contemporary hospitality, how Covid-19 has impacted the industry, and why an upcoming generation shouldn’t be afraid of the long hours.
After nearly five decades in the hospitality business, the veteran food and beverage consultant MPS Puri can’t conceive of doing anything else.
“Imagine being a lawyer, an accountant, a doctor,” he says. “I mean, how much joy can you get out of giving an injection? Or reading books on law, or looking at figures? There’s a lot of creativity in what we do, and a lot of joy, and a lot of passion. I don’t think you have that in many other professions.”
Currently based in Switzerland, where he runs his F&B management company, The P Factor, Puri has played many roles during his time in hospitality. He has worked for a long list of brands, founded his own hotel group, created a raft of new restaurant concepts, and lived as far afield as Texas, Hong Kong and Hawaii.
The common thread throughout it all has been a love for F&B. As he sees it, a restaurant is far more than just a restaurant and a bar is far more than just a bar. Getting it right involves a kind of alchemy – taking disparate ingredients and turning them into gastronomic gold.
“You need to have very robust cultures around food, around wine, around cocktails and mixology, around ambience, around entertainment,” he says. “And then it’s how the staff look, the service culture, being able to curate a wonderful crowd. When all these elements come together harmoniously, that’s when it’s magical.”
At a time when so many restaurants feel purely functional – just a place to grab a bite, or the backdrop to a night with friends – there is a real romanticism to this picture. It’s a glamour Puri sensed, and hankered for, as a teenager in northern India, when he first caught wind of what hospitality might be.
“My family did mega-construction projects, and were involved with building the Oberoi Hotel in New Delhi,” he says. “I thought, this seems glamorous – it certainly looks more glamorous than construction – so it might be a career I want to pursue. Plus, I always wanted to travel. If you’re in hospitality, the world’s your oyster.”
This much was no exaggeration. The young Puri signed up for a management training programme with Hilton, which took him to Germany. After some time at the Dusseldorf Hilton, he moved to the United States to work for the Hyatt in Chicago. Aged just 25, he got his first ‘big break’, to become a director of food and beverage in Washington DC.
“That led me on to La Mansion Hotels in Texas, and then the Fairmont Hotel Company,” he recalls. “Back then the Fairmont Hotel Company was a family-owned company with supper clubs in each of the hotels. Our supper club was called the Moulin Rouge, and it was modeled after Toulouse Lautrec. You would have performances every night from Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett, Lou Rawls.”
His next stop was Hawaii – first the Halekulani Hotel, and then The Ritz Carlton. Convinced this island paradise was about as good as it got, he wasn’t initially interested when tapped to go to Singapore. Then he heard he’d be reopening the Raffles Hotel following its $160m renovation.
“The mandate was just to be able to make it completely great again – and that’s exactly what we did,” he says. “Every three star Michelin restaurant in France came in and cooked there, along with the greatest winemakers of the world.”
Further stints followed at Rosewood Hotels, The Fullerton Hotel Singapore, Peninsula Hotels and Settai South Beach. In 2008, he set up Nira Hotels and Resorts, and oversaw the genesis of four hotels, before divesting his stake in 2017.
“I wanted to go back to food and beverage again full time, because that’s really my passion, that’s my heart,” he says. “I’m now involved with the Dorchester Collection and Raffles International, as an advisor and consultant for food and beverage. I can only express gratitude for all these wonderful opportunities that have come along that allow me to continue to have fun.”
Although conceding that F&B can be a demanding gig – it does require you to wave goodbye to the 9-5 – he believes there is no line of work more glorious. Part of this is the lustre of the guest list. Puri’s restaurants have attracted A-listers, aristocracy and heads of state. But another part is the simple and equalising fact of bringing joy through food.
“I dare say everything in every society revolves around food,” he opines. “Our fondest memories, from our grandmother’s cooking to the wonderful ice cream truck, to every birthday, every anniversary, every wedding, whatever the occasion is – everything involves food and drink. In F&B, we can share people’s most precious moments.”
While the golden days of hotel supper clubs may be behind us, Puri doesn’t think the underlying drivers have gone anywhere. Particularly with the younger generations, who classically are seen to value ‘experiences over things’, the idea of spending a lot of money on a big night out is very much intact.
“The millennials and Gen Z, they want to go out three times a week, they want to have fun, and they’re not so much obsessed with owning things,” he says. “They’re more obsessed with rituals and collecting experiences. The oldest millennials are now in their 40s, and there’s been a huge transfer of wealth from the baby boomers, so they’re flush with cash too.”
He adds that if the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that it’s important to live fully – a spirit of carpe diem that becomes more pronounced when one’s freedoms are temporarily taken away. Of course, the last 21 months have been devastating for the hospitality business, and many restaurants and bars have been left grappling with staffing shortages. But the rebound factor is real, and many restaurants have been busier than ever when granted a reprieve from lockdown.
In terms of more lasting changes, Puri believes the pandemic has instilled a widespread seriousness, which is manifesting in a keener awareness of what we consume. That means more veganism and vegetarianism, along with a growing desire to eat more locally and seasonally and care about the provenance of our food.
“It’s not about eating strawberries every day of the year – it’s about enjoying the ripest, most beautiful strawberries when they’re in season,” says Puri. “I think there was a period where we really commoditised food, and that gave us abundance. But it also gave us lots of problems, and I think what we’re realising now is that ethical consumption will lead to a better world.”
He sees the restaurateur as playing an instrumental role in this change. Rather than merely reacting to consumer demand, anyone in the food and beverage space ought to be asking the difficult questions themselves.
“It’s about respecting the season, respecting the bounty of the place, finding out more about who’s behind this?” says Puri. “Who’s the farmer and how did they grow it? And do they do this biodynamically? Do they do this organically? What sense of responsibility do they possess? That helps us to be able to identify who we want to work with and how we want to do things.”
In other words, we may be heading towards a kind of ‘roaring 20s’ hedonism, with people wanting to eat the most delicious food in the most amazing venues. But mindless consumption is out of vogue, and the trend is towards responsible celebration.
Puri himself hopes to be a part of that for a long time to come. As well as developing new restaurant concepts, he is involved in the day-to-day food and beverage at the Dorchester Collection, and has even started a foundation called Ice Cream Dream that distributes ice cream to vulnerable children.
“For me personally, I want be able to keep working,” he says. “One of my hobbies and my passions is work. I’m addicted to work. And so I hope that God gives me the strength to be able to keep working, and to be able to keep contributing to our industry. I also hope be able to nurture the next generation.”
He remarks that, while people can be disenchanted about the long hours, this is a line of work like no other – affording you travel, adventure, immense creativity and lots of fun. Spanning three continents and five decades, his own career is a case in point.
“I think I’d much rather be in food and beverage than be a nurse, where people come to me only with their aches and pains,” he says. “They come to us to party and to celebrate. And so yes, we work hard. And yes, we work weekends, and yes, we work holidays. But it still remains an incredibly glamorous and glorious industry. I want to continue to do that and develop new concepts as long as I can.”
This profile appears in the Winter 2021 edition of Hotel Management International