While some beat the lockdown stress indulging in cooking/baking, for others who lost their jobs or faced massive pay cuts, moving towards the kitchen became a necessity. As a result, many home chefs were born. Laxmi Nagar resident Kishore Labar, who worked as an art curator before the pandemic, is one such example. “For the initial month or two, I was at my wits end. I held a few webinars, but realised people did not want to pay. Food is the next best thing I can do,” says Labar.
It’s been three months since Labar is cooking and selling Chinese meals, and the going has been good. But the recent announcement that all homemade food selling operators must register with the FSSAI before the start of their business, has him in a fix. The non-compliance of the FSSAI regulations attracts a fine of up to Rs 5 lakh or life imprisonment or a ban from the FSSAI. While registration is compulsory for all homemade food selling operators, those with an annual turnover above Rs 12 lakh also have to obtain a licence.
“Bringing in such a regulation at this time when we are struggling to make ends meet is not a good idea. The government must be more empathetic,” laments Labar. Echoing him is Shalimar Bagh resident and home chef, Arun Kaura, a home chef, who complains, “I work on orders, most of which come from my neighbourhood. They all know me. On one hand, the government talks of Atma Nirbhar Bharat, and on the other hand it brings in conditions that makes it difficult for any small entrepreneur to survive.” Sinduja, a home chef from Sector 45, Noida, who specialises in South Indian meals, is yet to register with the FSSAI.
She began operations after the lockdown, and is still accepting feedback, and gauging whether people accept her cooking. “There is no point in spending beforehand. Anyways, no customer asks us for the certificate,” she says. Proving Jain and Sinduja right is one of Kaura’s loyal customers, Vineet Puri. “I have known Arun for a long time, and I trust him. It doesn’t matter whether he is registered with the FSSAI or not.” Also, many are seasonal home chefs, like Pitampura’s Gursimran Kaur, who dons the hat and apron only during the festivals. This new order will put an end to their business.
But a few industry people support the government’s move. Like Abhilasha Jain from Gurugram who has been selling Marwari food and Indian mithais for six years now. But she registered with the FSSAI after three years of beginning operations, and applied for the licence only recently. “Having the FSSAI registration/license assures the customers that we are selling quality stuff. It will give us more credibility, though no customer has asked me to show the registration certificate or the licence,” she adds.
“This regulation was much needed as illegitimate businesses had sprung up from which unsuspecting consumers were ordering food. Safety is of paramount importance, more so now in the pandemic. The term ‘home chef’ sounds nice, but there is no way of verifying whether the food was cooked at home, on a footpath or at the side of a road next to an open drain,” says Sanjay Kumar, CEO, Elior India.
“Customers ordering on digital platforms have no way of knowing whether the kitchen in which their food is being cooked is following safety precautions because they are neither audited nor inspected by any outside agency,” he adds. Kumar suggests that big players in the field can rope in home chefs on their digital platforms, which is exactly Elior India’s business model “Additionally, they can use their QHSE (quality, health, safety and environment) facilities for auditing the home chefs for certification and periodic assessment,” he adds.