LAST year, Aditi Dugar, who used to run a high-end catering business in south Bombay, and chef Prateek Sadhu packed their bags and headed to Turtuk, India’s northern-most village in Leh district, in search of sea buckthorn berries. Once at a restaurant in Copenhagen, Prateek had relished a dessert which had used these tangy berries. So, he thought of sourcing these berries for Masque, a concept restaurant in Mumbai that Aditi was setting up. Research threw up some leads and after a two-day journey, they reached Turtuk to find these tiny yellow berries in season and their thorny bushes used by locals as fences to protect their homes. Known for their medicinal quality, they are rarely used as a delicacy in India. By the time the chefs returned from Turtuk with their stock of sea buck thorn berries, they had established relationship with the local suppliers for future use.
Over the last year and a half, the search for the freshest, home-grown produce and rare ingredients have taken Prateek and Aditi on a number of such trips that involve meeting with local farmers and traders. “We were surprised to meet a couple in Pondicherry, who make probably the best chocolate in India. They source their beans from Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. Three hours away from Bengaluru, we found high-quality tomatoes and chillies. After travelling nearly 100 km from Shimla, we met farmers who grow quinoa,” he says. It is from Himachal Pradesh that they ended up procuring black rice, buck wheat, and, much to their surprise, rye. “A local farmer produces really high-quality rye. He supplies it to people in and around Himachal Pradesh. Now, we get regular stock from him,” says Prateek, who started his career with Taj Mahal Hotel, Delhi, and went on to work at Le Bernardin, New York, and Noma, Copenhagen.
In Himachal Pradesh, they also found wild rosemary, apricot, peach and apple. “We served pickled apricot with almond milk and ice cream,” says Sadhu. Another delightful discovery was to find olive oil in Rajasthan.
While central and south India are suitable for growing regular vegetables, north India has the climate to produce exotic ones. And their travel across north India was primarily meant to source ingredients that one has little access to. This required a year-long research during which they did not work. “After each trip they would return, excited. They spent a lot of time in the kitchen sampling and experimenting,” says Aditya, Aditi’s husband and CEO of Masque. Over a period of six months, Prateek and Aditi cooked and tasted a range of dishes. They narrowed down to 40-50 dishes. This was further tweaked and trimmed. “We invited chefs, bloggers and relatives to taste the food,” says Aditya.
Set up with an ambitious concept, Masque intends to constantly evolve and change its menu. “Every week we will be changing the menu. By the end of a month, it would have changed 90 per cent,” says Aditya. Masque opened in Mahalaxmi’s Laxmi Woolen Mills last month. It has a tasting menu which offers seven courses (Rs 3,200) and experience menu with 11 courses (Rs 4,500). Designed by Ashiesh Shah, this 68-seater focuses on artisanal food. In tandem with the concept of the restaurant, it will also experiment with gastro-mixology offering a range of beverage menu with all the mixers and syrups blended not by mixologists but by their chefs. They have also tied up with a vineyard in Nashik for wine. Even though Masque is located in a mill area in Mahalaxmi that turns quiet in the evening, Prateek and Aditya don’t mind that. “We did not want a space which is in your face,” says Aditya.
Currently, Masque procures chocolate from Pondicherry, pork from a farm in Coorg, cod fish from the Andamans, olive oil from Rajasthan and goat milk from Mangalore. “Goat milk is healthy and has a strong favour. We make all our cheese and butter from the goat milk that we get every week from Mangalore,” says Prateek. While he is a non-vegetarian, Aditi is hardcore vegetarian. That could be reason Masque’s menu has paid equal attention to vegetarian as well as non-vegetarian dishes.
The rich experience of foraging is something Masque wants to share with other restaurateurs once it is fully operational. “We are setting up a warehouse which will store all the produce we have sourced from different parts of India. That apart, we are growing tomatoes, herbs and peppers at our Pune farm. Eventually, we would like to supply to others,” says Aditya. Their next stop, for foraging, is Sikkim.