Diva of the kitchen

Chef Ritu Dalmia PHOTO: Photo: R. Ravindran.   | Photo Credit: R_RAVINDRAN

Ritu Dalmia is incredibly cheerful for someone who’s landed in Chennai at 2 a.m., and is on her feet, cooking, at 10 in the morning. “I am a restaurateur… I am used to late nights,” she smiles, tossing together pumpkin and sweet potato for the crowd gathered at the Mercedes-Benz LuxeDrive at Madras Motor Sports Club, — Irungattukottai. Not surprising for someone who’s been doing this for over 20 years.

The chef is famous for bringing in Italian food at a time when all the country knew was cheese pizzas. She started early and, in 1993, as a 21-year-old, launched her restaurant MezzaLuna in Delhi’s Hauz Khas village. Getting ingredients used to be a task. The young chef found herself flying to Italy every month to stock up on grocery. Now, globalisation has ensured that at least 90 per cent of exotic, imported ingredients are easily available here.

Born in Calcutta, she moved to Delhi as a seven-year-old. How then did she get acquainted with Italian fare? The affinity was a result of her numerous trips to Italy, while assisting her father in his marble business. Gradually, she picked up their culinary skills and techniques. A few years later, with enough expertise and some savings, it was time to set out on her own. “I had Rs. three lakh in my account and thought I was the richest woman in the world,” she laughs.

The amount was just about enough to set up shop. The vegetables for the next day would be bought with the money from the previous day’s sales. “I was young and stupid,” she smiles, and adds “I try to always do everything too quickly and too soon. I have no patience.”

A couple of years later, she sold MezzaLuna and moved to London, “the gastronomical capital of the world”. A fine dining restaurant called Vama was set up. Four-and-a-half years later, India beckoned. It was time to launch Diva in Delhi. In 2002, despite Vama doing steady business, it was sold. Because, “I’m a control freak and I personally go to each of my restaurants every day. That’s also the reason I’m not opening in another city”, says the chef with books and TV shows to her credit.

Ritu’s seven restaurants are all in the capital city. Though Italian is her favourite cuisine, of late, Pan Asian too has made it to that list. As a result, Diva Spiced was launched last year. “I’m not trained in Asian. I just use ingredients that I like. When I turned 40, I told myself that some personal growth has to happen and this was part of it.”

The country’s food scene has matured, believes Ritu. “People are travelling and sampling various cuisines. When they come back, they want the same meal they had probably tried at a little village abroad. The chefs now also have to recreate international experiences.”

According to her, a trend that is more exciting than international food is the surge of Indian regional restaurants. “Earlier, when you went to a city, you would find only their local food. But now there’s Bihari, Bengali, North Eastern, Kannada... this is the next big trend.” No wonder then, her idea of comfort food is kadi chawal and aloo jeera.

The phone rings in between. The caller seems thrilled about a successful party he threw for his wife with food done by this diva of the kitchen.

A quick chat and she hangs up looking delighted. “We love happy clients,” she says. Meanwhile, a crowd is slowly forming around Ritu’s counter. They look hungry, a few even impatient… the fact that it’s 40 degrees doesn’t help either.

Does it get tough? In reply, Ritu uses a quote from one of Anthony Bourdain’s books. “He writes ‘What do I hate about my job? Long hours, anti-social lifestyle, heat, pressure, noise, stress. Give me a few drinks and ask me what are the things I love about my job — long hours, anti-social lifestyle, heat, pressure, noise, stress.’ These things are challenging, but they are also what give me the rush.”

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Printable version | Jan 24, 2022 3:59:01 PM |

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