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Cover Story
December 21, 2018

Making Waves: Aditi Dugar

Text by Shirin Mehta. Photographed by Sushant Chhabria. Styling by Akanksha Pandey. Hair and make-up by Riviera Vaz at Anima Creatives

The maverick restaurateur reflects to Verve about curating menus, foraging for ingredients, seasonality, sustainability and zero waste. All at that restaurant, Masque

With the light seeping only through the high atrium ceiling in the late afternoon, with the clatter of crockery, cutlery and diners silenced, the beautifully appointed interiors of Masque, the daring Mumbai restaurant that has been making news over the past two years, seem to withdraw darkly into the cavernous mill building that the eatery has been culled from. Devoid of artful lighting and comforting air conditioning, the rawness of the space becomes apparent. Masque owner Aditi Dugar bustles in. She is young, and looks younger in her black fitted jeans and loose grey T-shirt. But her grit becomes apparent soon enough when, after over an hour of discussion, we somehow manage to lose the recording of the entire session. “Oh no!” she exclaims and immediately digs in to start all over again. The deed is soon done, or re-done, with the same amount of passion for her project that she had shown the first time around. (Masque chef and co-owner Prateek Sadhu, on the other hand, quickly runs into the kitchen emerging with a bowl of steaming haleem (meat and lentil stew) that he places before me, ‘to cheer me up’, which it certainly does.)

A day earlier, Dugar had energetically traipsed up Bhandarwada Hill in Mazgaon to reach Joseph Baptista Gardens while I had straggled behind huffing and puffing. With full make-up on, in the torturous afternoon heat, she pivoted, turned and posed for cameraman, Sushant Chhabria, in crayon-blue oversized outerwear while make-up artist Riviera Vaz wiped the sweat pouring off her face. “I had fun!” she exclaimed, at the shoot’s end, striding back down the hill, energetic and strong.

Dugar, I realise, is unfazed by setbacks and willing to climb that extra mile when there is work to be done. She will also stand by her conviction as she has done with her project that had more naysayers than fans when it opened. Two-hour meals in a city that has no time; a set menu with no choices; surprise elements and unexpected ingredients! And yet what won people over, perhaps, was a certain openness and the apparent desire to include guests into the very fibre and being of the restaurant. The first starter was served in the spanking kitchen with cooks watching on…. Chefs walked out of the kitchen, confident and proud, bearing their offerings and serving at tables; explaining the origin of the ingredients. Diners suddenly discovered themselves connected to the very soil from where these ingredients were procured. This was an experience, so much more than a meal.

At Masque, on a fairly busy Wednesday evening, I realise how much the cuisine has matured since the meal I had had at the very beginning of its inception. What had started out as showy ‘dinner theatre’ has today become solidly rooted in the cuisines of India, particularly of the Himalayan belt. The hotchpotch of styles showcased earlier had all but disappeared. Locally sourced and foraged ingredients, seasonality and sustainability have become key while the dishes are calculated to trigger memories of childhood and other meals in restaurant patrons. The fennel pollen placed atop a tomato and marigold course, for instance, prompted for me the memory of sugar-coated variyali sweets from my childhood while the bright-yellow flower took me back to myriad festive occasions, putting me immediately into celebratory mode. My dining companion, on the other hand, was transported to a vacation in Kerala when he tasted the lobster in fresh coconut sauce with curry leaf oil. Both offerings, needless to say, were delicious.

You cannot keep the chef out of his restaurant and it is relevant for Chef Sadhu to come into our discussion here especially since his vision runs parallel to Dugar’s. “India has seen a big change in terms of food and beverage,” he intones. “We’re talking about regional cuisines; we’re talking about dining experiences. The perception of Indian cuisine has started changing from within India and from the West as well. It has just been two years but I think we’re part of this great, great moment — not only for us but for everybody in the industry….”

Let it be said then that at the forefront of this huge change in the very perception of Indian food worldwide has been the daring ingenuity of this young girl, probably in her mid-thirties, who has travelled a long way in the last two years to plate a focused Indian nouvelle cuisine at one of the city’s most stylish restaurants….

Excerpts from the (second) interview….

How has the concept at Masque evolved?
Initially, we thought that there was a big gap in the market where chefs didn’t have any idea of the journey of where the food was coming from and its connection with the soil. Our concept was based on an ingredient hunt and we wanted to close the gap and communicate — cut the middle men out and relate the story between the farmer and what the diner would finally be experiencing having those ingredients.

We realised at the beginning that people who came to the restaurant didn’t know which cuisine we were serving — was it Western, was it Global, was it Asian? This was because every ingredient was treated in the manner that the chef fancied; he wished to do something creative with it. We also realised that what was needed was a human connect or a memory and I think that’s where our food really evolved its identity. In this whole process what we started doing is distilling Indian food and providing an experience of what we thought nouvelle Indian cuisine should be.

Do you see this cuisine as being culturally relevant?
It is, because we are going back to its roots. We work with a lot of forest departments within the country and with a lot of locals all around India. So, it’s telling their stories and our stories of our travels. For instance, there is a dish on the menu which is a buckwheat toast which Prateek serves with quince or mackerel. The idea of that course came from when he went to Gurez (a high valley in the Himalayas) and saw that people are making buckwheat rotis by placing them under the ground. He wanted to use that ancient grain to make a toast with a beautiful course on top of it.

We also have millets on the menu — another grain that we’ve been eating for generations but never really respected…till it became cool internationally. So, it’s all about using ancient ingredients and techniques…. What Prateek has created is quite simple — a millet ‘khichri’ with a refined way of eating, because instead of using chopped-up vegetables as in a khichri, he’s taken baby vegetables or used a cutting technique with the vegetables, to plate it in a unique way.

How are you addressing the model of sustainability which after all is inherently an Indian thing?
Sustainability has always been the soul of Masque, from the first day we opened or even when the idea sprouted in our minds because we realised that — like you’re saying — it’s really part of our culture. Our ancestors only ever ate seasonally.

When Prateek and I met, our visions aligned because being from Kashmir, he had obviously only seen that consciousness in his mother’s cooking. They would have been dehydrating vegetables two months before the winter to survive through those months. And in the same way, in our household, my grandmother only ate seasonally. If it was guar season in Rajasthan, we would have guar phalli; if it was tendli season, there was tendli; if it was bathua season, we were eating bathua.

So, the realisation came quite easily to us that it was not just about opening a restaurant…. Of course, it’s about the business, but it’s also about creating something that we feel proud about, and to feel good that we’re serving food that is pure and clean.

Have you managed to achieve the zero-waste policy that you are aiming for?
Yes. At Masque, the thought process leads us to entrust our team to make a collective effort to work with ingredients consciously. So if they’re using pork then they use the ribs for the broth or if they’re using prawns then the heads will be used for oil. Lavender stems are being distilled by the bar; the skins of lemons and oranges are being dehydrated to use as garnishes…. So, we try to break down every ingredient for all its uses.

There’s a course which has marigold flowers and because Prateek is all about precision, there’s the tedious process of cutting those marigold petals to all look the same. The waste is then used to make a marigold salt which goes on top of the dish.

Can you describe how you forage for ingredients?
Recently, we went morel hunting in Kashmir and we had to trek for maybe six hours to find only three morels. It’s a process, so a lot of the times, before our trip, we are already coordinating with the forest people to start the collection days before because it’s not possible to have everything foraged in the few days that we are there.

We are also creating an exchange of knowledge between the horticulturists, farmers and the locals who we’re working with, and what we’re doing at Masque.

Are the foraged ingredients used by the locals?
I think in the North-East, most of their food is cooked with what they get from the hills. So, you see a lot of the produce sold in local markets. But that’s probably not always the case. Like in Uttarakhand, you may not see these ingredients in the big mandis (markets), but when you go to the smaller villages, you might see the locals using the produce from the hills. So, you can’t broadly say that fiddlehead ferns are available in Uttarakhand…you will never find them in a sabzi mandi. However, maybe if you’re going into certain areas where the locals are using fiddlehead ferns to make achar, then you may see the achar.

Do you see yourself as an enabler for the kind of cuisine you want to see out there?
Whether it’s me or Prateek, we have a vision and what we’re doing is providing a platform. I think it’s really the team that’s bringing so much of their know-how and also their experience to the table. I don’t think Masque is run by just Prateek and me being enablers. We have a cook-off between the chefs on Sundays and so many of those ideas go on to the menu, not directly perhaps but in some form. I think it’s also about surrounding yourself with the right energy and intelligent people.

What has been the driving factor for you?
I think it was seeing a gap in the market that we wanted to fill. We travel for these experiences worldwide and we wanted to be the first ones to create them here in India because we saw that we already have the right ingredients but nobody was putting it together. I guess it’s a difficult concept to pull off. And it was only when we were getting spoken of globally that we started getting attention locally. Otherwise nobody respects what you have in your backyard.

Bringing up three kids, how do you manage a work-family balance? You also run a catering company and are in the process of creating a new food-related space, The Commune, in Mumbai….
I have a very strong support system. My in-laws and parents live very close by; my husband has been the backbone. I wake up with a new idea every day and he’s never denied me my dream or vision. Even if other people think there are roadblocks he always views them positively. He sees me driven, he sees me excited and I think that’s what drives him. My kids too have always been supportive of me working and I think they look up to me and are proud of what I’ve created. And Prateek is a great co-worker and I’m able to have that work-life balance because he’s holding the reins together.

Can you tell us about some of the chefs like Matt Orlando (Amass, Copenhagen) and Garima Arora (Gaa, Bangkok) whom you have collaborated with?
It started off with simple support that was extended to us by Matt from Amass. He had been the head chef while Prateek was working at Noma in Copenhagen. Matt was surprised with our plan since he could not imagine a restaurant like this existing in India. He never thought that we could break down the food to this level. He said, “I’m not doing a pop-up; I want to be able to come there and think with you guys and put out a collaborative menu.” It started with a simple idea and we saw the vibe and the statement that we were able to make and we felt so proud when we realised that we were so global.

What can we expect going ahead?
We would like to make the kitchen more open, or even create a dining table inside the kitchen. The other thing that we have started is the R&D lab. Every menu goes through a big R&D phase. We study every vegetable; we study the region, the history, the geography…. And every dish that comes out has a story to it. It has a soul.

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