Kitchen confidential

Chef Ritu Dalmia explains her love for Italian food and why she will never expand beyond Delhi

Written by Dipti Nagpaul D'souza | Published:March 31, 2013 1:00 am

IN 2000,when Diva was still new,Ritu Dalmia hired a senior chef to head her kitchen. But every time she would give instructions,he would avoid looking her in the eye,turn a deaf ear and do whatever pleased him. “The reason for this,I realised,was his discomfort with the fact that I am a woman. I threw him out and instead hired people who were like me,completely untrained — some were my cleaning staff,a few were off the streets and so on — all with a passion for cooking. It was the first time I took such a drastic measure,but I did not want my restaurant to turn into the replica of a five-star eatery,” she recounts,adding that most of her kitchen staff has since stayed with her.

The aforementioned instance,however,she shrugs off as a singular event. Dalmia has always been her own boss,and a successful one at that. With five restaurants in Delhi,a television cookery show and a couple of cookbooks under her name,the 40-year-old who specialises in Italian cuisine,is perhaps the most renowned female chef in India.

Her popularity was reaffirmed when Dalmia became the only Indian female guest chef at the Taste of Mumbai festival last weekend. Yet,the chef asserts that she will never expand beyond Delhi. “I have had numerous opportunities,especially in Mumbai,but I am old fashioned enough to believe that any good restaurant needs a personal touch. If I open elsewhere,I won’t be able to visit it everyday. In Delhi too,I have only one fine-dining restaurant,Diva,where I spend my evenings in the kitchen and attend to guests. The rest — Cafe at ICC,Latitude 28,Cafe Diva,Diva Piccola — follow the cafe format,” she explains.

Her inclination to spend each evening in the kitchen despite her two-decade-long experience in the industry,stems from her passion for cooking — the same passion that made her give up her dad’s business at the age of 20 to self-train in Italian cuisine. At the age of 22,in 1993,Dalmia launched MezzaLuna,a Mediterranean restaurant,in Delhi. “It was an idealistic and romantic venture where I used to take the orders,cook and serve personally,then sitting and chatting with the guests. It was also the place where I made all the mistakes and learned my lessons,which made me the entrepreneur I am today,” she says.

After a failed debut,the food enthusiast shut shop in 1996. She moved to London,launching an Indian fine-dining restaurant,Vama,under partnership,that became a success. However,Dalmia’s heart lay in India and Italian food. She returned to Delhi in 2000,started Diva,her Italian restaurant,in partnership with Gita Bhalla under Riga Foods.

“I love Italian cuisine because it is honest,unlike French or Mediterranean cuisines — there is no pretence since the flavours revolve around the ingredients,” she says.

While Diva established her in the hospitality circuit and among the swish set,it was her book,Italian Khana,in 2007 that made Dalmia a household name,with recipes for Italian cuisine that could be prepared with ingredients available in India. “I worked on it for six months,bringing my best recipes from Diva. But one day,over a bottle of prosecco,Chiki Sarkar told me it won’t work. The book was intended for an audience like her,who didn’t own an oven or have access to fancy ingredients but cooked often. That’s when the penny dropped,” she says,recounting how she then reworked the book.

Ironically,she is the only woman chef across her five kitchens. Dalmia explains that most parents cannot handle it that their daughters or daughters-in-law,who aspire to become chefs,will be out at work till late in the night. “This is a tough and demanding job and women are often needed to stand neck-to-neck with men in a sweaty room when tempers and bad words are flying around. To make matters worse,I am a tough boss,” says the five-feet-nothing chef,in contrast to her beaming smile.

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