Ritu Dalmia: Conquering Italy with kadhi

It is party time at Viva Viviana Varese, a new ristorante by Milan’s famous chef Viviana Varese. Sprawled across Italian marketplace Eataly’s second floor, with a beauteous view of the iconic Piazza Venticinque Aprile 10, more than 700 guests will walk in and out as the evening progresses, eating dishes prepared by 30 chefs — all of who are Varese’s friends and have flown down from various parts of Europe and Asia to pitch in. Eventually, the evening will end with some of these chefs clearing a counter, and dancing at the pass!

For now, however, chef Ritu Dalmia is at the pass, dishing out kadhi pakori to sober revellers, who carefully hold spoons of the silken yoghurt sauce to their tongues and pronounce it the most elegant Indian food Milan has ever tasted. But she is, in fact, feeding much more than kadhi to Italy. She is building a veritable restaurant empire there — in a country that she has always so closely identified with ever since she visited it as a 20-year-old handling her father’s marble business.

Ritu Dalmia: Conquering Italy with kadhi

Ahead of her time

In the early 1990s, Dalmia, who’d always been interested in cooking, shook off the ties of the family business. She took up a short cooking course at the Case Vecchie school run by the formidable Anna Tasca Lanza, who specialised in Sicilian gastronomy. Then she returned to Delhi to open Mezza Luna, an ahead-of-its-time Italian restaurant in Hauz Khas Village, in 1993. This was much before India had learnt to appreciate al dente, and it inevitably failed. But Dalmia did not give up, moving to London for a few years, before coming back to open Diva in 2000.

That was a watershed moment for Indian standalone restaurants. Along with Rahul Akerkar’s Indigo (1999) and AD Singh’s Olive (2001), Diva would usher in a new era of cosmopolitan gastronomy. Dalmia’s Italian — where ingredients, textures, freshness and flavours were not compromised on or bastardised — found acclaim and acceptance, paving the way for Italian food in India.

In many ways what Dalmia is doing in Milan, the least gastronomically-conservative of all Italian cities, is the mirror opposite of what she did in Delhi. If the idea then was to bring Italy in all its uncompromised flavours to India, now the idea is to take India in all its untrammelled glory to Italy. This is a chef and restaurateur who stands firmly between two cultures, lives between two cities (Delhi and Milan), and tries to explain one to the other.

Ritu Dalmia: Conquering Italy with kadhi

A concerted expansion

In October 2016, industrialist Analjit Singh bought a majority 51% stake in Dalmia’s company, Riga Foods. The expansion in Milan is a result of this funding, and has enabled the chef to not just open Cittamani, a modern Indian restaurant that turned two this year, but also Spica earlier this year. At the latter, the global food is inspired by her travels, from South America and Thailand to Mumbai, and where the octopus ceviche is as effotlessly done as the keema pao. Then, there is a 20% investment Riga Foods has made in Viva, which has enabled Dalmia to partner with kindred creative soul, Varese. “All these restaurants under one umbrella means I will also have a bigger base for my catering business in Europe,” she points out, always a savvy Marwari, as she is fond of calling herself.

Catering is clearly a mainstay of the empire she is building. Any major Indian wedding or event in Italy is incomplete without her gourmet blessings. Her top clients include business families such as the Ambanis as well as a host of celebrities like Anushka Sharma and Virat Kohli, whose wedding she catered. However, she also seems to be extending the scope of the business.

At the mega Google annual conference this year, inside the exclusive Sicilian Verdura Resort, she catered to global A-listers that ostensibly ranged from top CEOs to actors like Tom Cruise to Coldplay’s Chris Martin, whose performance supposedly kicked off the shrouded-in-mystery annual extravaganza. Every vendor was made to sign non disclosure agreements. Dalmia obviously does not share any details, but it is apparent that having a restaurant empire in Milan is going to consolidate this arm of the business and grow it further.

Ritu Dalmia: Conquering Italy with kadhi

With diversity in her mix

At Cittamani, more conquests are being made. As Dalmia chats with a group of guests who have come for lunch, persuading them to come again that evening for my pop-up of Kayasth Khatirdari, a senior editor from Corriere della Sera, the leading liberal paper in Italy, who has dropped in, laughs as he tells me, “I am always amazed by her charisma, at how Ritu is able to seduce everyone!”

It is perhaps an innate ability to navigate disparate cultures. In culinary terms, this is more than apparent in the way she dresses up typical Indian flavours and makes them comprehensible to Italians. Kachori, after all, could be a variation of the fried, puffed-up pizza fritta. As I fail to find suitable plantain to make a mock fish dish, she suggests topinambour, the tuber of the Jerusalem artichokes that has a similar texture. It works perfectly. A chef without this ability to understand deeply diverse cultures and cuisines equally cannot hope to pull off this task of introducing one to the other, I muse.

In the meeting ground of diverse cultures, there exists a potential, creative and business, that Dalmia is tapping.

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Printable version | Jan 18, 2022 1:49:51 AM |

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