“This is the peak of my career,” says Varun Totlani. The 30-year-old is the new head chef of Masque after Prateek Sadhu moved on from the game-changing restaurant. Totlani seemed more nervous about the interview—his first—than his role at the helm of one of Asia’s top restaurants. For him, there’s no space for self-doubt; he has been part of the team since the beginning at the impressionable age of 24. The ingredient-focused, team-first and forward-thinking philosophy of Masque is in his DNA. His voice holds promise.
This week, Masque released the first menu with Totlani leading the team. True to its regional-inspired approach, there’s a dessert with aam papad served with a wine sorbet and Murungakkai Marrow—a dish borrowed from Tamil Nadu’s Murungakkai Kuzhambu made with drumstick marrow. Totlani had tasted the dish when the Masque team was in Chennai for a food tour. There were invited to someone’s home who prepared traditional Tanjore dishes. One of them was Murungakkai Kuzhambu enlivened with sweet, spicy and sour flavours made with drumstick pulp. Their warm host said when someone removed the chewy fibres of the drumstick and served only the pulp, it was a way to pamper the guest. The story stayed with Totlani and he wants to bring that experience—of pampering with food—into the new menu.
“I always connected with food,” says Totlani who has a large tattoo of a chef’s knife on his forearm. As someone growing up in the nineties, he binge-watched cooking shows featuring Sanjeev Kapoor and Nigella Lawson, while coaxing his mother to recreate the food that he saw on television. The first full meal he made was on firewood for his friends, in standard six, in a boarding school with help from his teachers. “Everyone loved it,” he says beaming.
After school, he interned at the Intercontinental Hotel in Marine Drive in Mumbai, and while in college, he joined Olive for a few months. “I was thrown out of college for missing too many classes due to work,” he recalls. But, nothing came in the way of his quest to cook. The barbecue-loving chef went on to pursue a course in Hyderabad’s Culinary Academy of India and later joined the Mecca for a chef’s education, Culinary Institute of America (CIA).
But, there was a problem. At the CIA, there was hands-on exposure to the expansive world of ingredients, from cheeses to potatoes. “I thought all that was great, but they were not available back home,” he shares. When Totlani joined Masque, there was a similar experience. There were workshops to introduce the team to ingredients sourced from various regions of India. “It was a completely eye-opening experience because 90% of the time at CIA when I thought ‘this is great, but this isn’t available back home', is finally available at home.”
Totlani is all set to discover new regional dishes and foods to bring them to the tasting menus of Masque:“Even as we inform our guests what the country has to offer, the end game is to serve good flavourful food and give them an experience.” In fact, their regular clients have now started bringing them ingredients from their travels and sending lunch boxes from their homes which are opening newer channels for the discovery of regional Indian food.
While answering a question about the one dish that signifies happiness, Totlani who loves pav bhaaji, a good roll and sigdi kebabs can’t pick one. He has a philosophical response: “Dishes are nice. But, it’s more about the people and the experience—enjoying a roll with friends after a long night of partying or treating your parents at a fine dining restaurant—that elevates food, and makes one happy.”