How a restaurateur put Indian ingredients on the world map

Last week Masque celebrated its sixth anniversary in Mumbai. In a short span of time, while a pandemic also swept the world, the ingredient-centric restaurant has won prestigious awards and was ranked 21st in this year’s list of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants. It is now considered India’s #1 restaurant.

The driving force is the founder, Aditi Dugar, who started with the aim of bringing the restaurant to the world map. “I stay very focused. When I have to get from A to B, nobody can change my mind,” the 39-year-old entrepreneur tells me on the phone.

Dugar began working on the restaurant in 2014, before local Indian ingredients were a buzzword. But she sensed the potential for a premium restaurant that would bring a modern twist to berries from Ladakh, lemons from Himachal and jamuns from Maharashtra. The “aha” moment didn’t come out of the blue, however. It took her around 15 years to “connect the dots,” says the restaurateur and goes on to describe how it came about.

She comes from a food crazy family and married into a family that shares this passion. To this day, Dugar and her team at Masque go in search of ingredients. On a trip to Kashmir, her father-in-law helped her with contacts to collect morels. The travel-loving family – from her parents to husband Aditya and three sons – love to discover restaurants and try new cuisines.

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Over the years, she became curious about how restaurants work and how chefs create menus. “Somehow I got the cooking number and that’s how I started to build my network, even though I wasn’t even in the food industry,” says the former finance professional.

Her interest in food led her from Mumbai to jobs at two Michelin starred Le Gavroche and La Petite Maison in London. Her flair for networking is further reflected in collaborating with chefs from Michelin Star restaurants around the world. Last weekend, Matt Orlando of Amass in Copenhagen, who has earned awards for cooking with waste, teamed up with Masque’s chef Varun Totlani to create a tasting menu for their anniversary.

Dugar works smart. She’s not the one calling to invite top chefs. When Masque opened in 2016, she signed on to London’s elite PR agency Lotus. “People ask why we get foreign chefs; because we want them to understand Indian cuisine. They bring in the techniques and work with our ingredients. It’s an exchange of ideas and both parties have a common vision of where we could take Indian food.”

15 years ago there was no plan to open a restaurant. Her mother used to run cooking classes from home. In 2010, this grew into a luxury catering venture, Sage & Saffron, led by Dugar. She introduced an imaginative menu of dishes like Thai Bhel, made from her mother’s recipes. “We’ve been in the luxury realm and found that if you have a truffle bar, a burrata bar and an avocado bar, your party will be a smash hit,” she says. It not only taught her how to cook, but also how to create unforgettable experiences through decor, dishes and themes.

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Crispy shiso, togarashi cream cheese made from sage & saffron.

Crispy shiso, togarashi cream cheese made from sage & saffron.

Coming from a vegetarian family, she has teamed up with a British chef for the non-vegetarian part of the menu. Sage & Saffron supplied the who’s who of Mumbai, including industrialists like the Ambanis. Demand increased and they had to rent a 4,000 square foot commissary in a former industrial mill.

However, Dugar’s cooking partner was soon diagnosed with an autoimmune disease and returned to England. While contemplating what to do with the premises, the idea of ​​opening a restaurant came to her. This would become the target restaurant Masque, starting with a capital of 6 crore, with her husband as partner.

She was already familiar with high-end hotspots that advocated concept-based, chef-led tasting menus. “They have an enormous focus on the preferences of their guests. As my family is vegetarian we would email them when making the reservation. Although vegetarian cooking is not their specialty, they would go out of their way to create dishes for us,” she says.

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It was this experience – of ingredient-driven tasting menus customized to diners’ preferences – that she wanted to bring to her restaurant, focusing on assembling a team aligned with her vision.

It was around this time that she met Prateek Sadhu through a mutual friend. Sharing their vision of creating a space for locally sourced Indian ingredients, he came on board as executive chef, where he stayed until earlier this year.

Dugar once again realized she’s “connecting the dots” — and is poised to connect even more. The restaurant and the now established catering company belong to the parent organization Urban Gourmet India. In August, they opened a bakery, TwentySeven Bakehouse, which may expand to other cities. She is also planning Diwali mithais and fruit rolls for sage & saffron. Fruit Roll-Ups “is a variant aam papadwho has such a strong childhood connection. We have dehydrated fruit leathers, like tamarind and fig, with layers badam katli and then rolled for innovative mithais.” Dugar is unstoppable.

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