In Goa, summer arrives as early as March. Chef Ritu Dalmia was there in her home when the lockdown started. “For the first two weeks, no fresh produce was available,” she says during a video call, adding, “But I felt blessed.” She started cooking simple khichdis. Then she turned to the jackfruit and mango trees in her garden. The fruits had not ripened but that didn’t deter her from experimenting with them to jazz up meals. When restaurants opened for delivery in May, Dalmia would request them to send her pre-made salad dressing and pasta sauce. In May, the chef returned to Delhi by train: “It was one of the most beautiful journeys I had done in a long, long time.”
The Goa experience seeded the idea of DIVA Casa Pantry. And by end the of 2020, Dalmia had launched it, retailing freshly rolled pastas, a variety of signature sauces, special rubs and seasonings for meats and salad dressings in Delhi.
Edited excerpts from a video interview:
What were your first thoughts when the lockdown happened?
I was quite angry and frustrated; the government was not supporting us and no one even acknowledged that tourism and hospitality are the industries which suffered the most in the lockdown. Anger was followed by depression because I didn’t know how to deal with it. Finally, it was followed by acceptance.
How did you reach this place of acceptance?
It’s an internal process. I have always been a fighter and I always like to give it my best shot. But in the pandemic there were things beyond my control. After some time, rather than trying to fight it, I told myself, maybe it is a sign from the good God above to take care of myself. It’s a strange feeling, because I have always been this hamster on a wheel. I have been working since 16 and suddenly my job became project Ritu, who was trying to cook with what was available and experimenting with leftovers to convert them into something delicious. By the end of it, I was having so much fun with cooking for myself that acceptance came very easily.
You closed three restaurants in the pandemic. Why?
In Delhi, we had Delhi Diva, Cafe Diva, Diva Spice, Cafe Diva in Sangam and we had Latitude in Khan (Market) and the Italian embassy and we tried to negotiate with landlords to reduce our rent. But some landlords would not negotiate with us, and we decided very early on to shut those restaurants. We had to retrench over 50% of employees, unfortunately; now we are just about 100 people or under 100 from 225 people when the lockdown started. In hindsight, it was the only pragmatic decision I could have made as a restaurateur. Because if I hadn’t, perhaps the whole company would have gone under by now.
In May, it became clear to us that the situation was not going to get any better. And I was very lucky because I also have restaurants in Milan. We noticed whatever was happening in Europe was relayed in India with a lag of six-seven weeks. So, we knew our bottom line will suffer, beforehand. It left me heartbroken. I doubted our decision to let go of employees. I was scared of picking up my phone because most of them had worked with me for a long time. It was the worst feeling and the worst thing that could have happened then. But it has to be done for survival and even today our business is in bad shape; we are at 50% of pre-covid levels, and I don’t think it’s going to get better anytime soon.
Why did you launch the DIY meal kits?
Survival, honey, survival. I was in Goa, bored out of my head, and a few ideas came to my mind. Our sister restaurant in Milan had done the DIY kit only for two weeks during Easter and the rush of orders surprised us. With Italian food, deliveries are not recommenced, as these are dishes that don’t heat too well. Everyone was posting what they were cooking on Instagram. So, then I said, instead of doing delivery let everyone get the thrill of cooking at home and we do the dirty work for them. It led to the launch of our DIY meal kits from DIVA Casa. Even now, when restaurants are open, DIY meal kits are going strong. When we started them, it constituted less that 5% of our business and right now it is 13-14%. The rise happened despite the limitations, such as servicing only a few areas.
The other interesting thing that happened was DIVA Casa Pantry. It’s still a nascent business but I find it exciting. Every day, we do a lot of research for the pantry products and we will be expanding to other cities by April-May. I think they might be here to stay because a lot changed due to covid-19. People have started to appreciate eating and cooking at home again, rather than going out five times a week. I hope we can fill up our restaurants again with guests, but that’s not happening anytime soon. So there are alternatives, like the DIY meal kits from Diva Casa and DIVA Casa Pantry produce if you don’t want to eat out.
What is a restaurant in 2021?
I would be the richest person alive if I knew this answer. One thing is for sure, many restaurants have learnt this, that there has to be efficiency, zero-waste cooking and respect for ingredients. I think the word “exotic” might cease to exist. Right now, does one really need lamb chops from New Zealand or avocados from Peru? I think sooner or later people will realise that the best way of cooking is to pick what’s available locally. They are affordable too and running a restaurant business is a challenge now. If cooking with local ingredients and cutting wastage down to the minimum happens, it will be the biggest triumph for restaurants that came out of the pandemic.
You have been posting a lot about books on your Instagram feed. What are some of your favourite recent reads?
I rediscovered my love for books and none of them are food-related. I think Frankissstein: A Love Story by Jeanette Winterson is one of the most beautiful books. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, about Korean prisoners of war during the Japanese invasion, is a gripping tale (if you think Japanese novels are dark, try Korean, they take the whole bakery). I found a nice book called The Garden Of Small Beginnings by Abbi Waxman. But if I have to pick two books that must be on your reading list right now, they would be the fantasy drama The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern and Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo. There were lots of trashy thrillers of course! I don’t even want to tell you, because I have a reputation to protect.
Do you want to write a book?
If I ever write a book, it will be erotica.
One dish that signifies:
Hope—spaghetti with tomato and basil
Love—gnocchi with almond pesto and cherry tomatoes. It’s one of the dishes I cooked for my beloved many years ago.
Turning the Tables is a series of interviews with chefs and food entrepreneurs on coping with covid-19.