Exactly a year ago, Masque, the premium dining restaurant from Mumbai, was honoured with a prestigious award. It had received the Miele One To Watch title by Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list. Last month, they moved up the ladder to rank 32nd on the prestigious list. Co-founder and executive chef Prateek Sadhu says being featured on the list was the motivation their team needed after a year of striving to survive.
But, within a matter of weeks, the celebratory feelings were replaced by lockdown worries. In early April, the government of Maharashtra announced a curfew between 8 pm and 7 am and prohibited dine-ins, just as restaurants were gearing up to welcome better times with vaccinations rolling in. “Several businesses in the hospitality industry had taken loans to tide over last year, and if things don't look up now, they might have to shut shop,” says Sadhu. “Last year, the silver lining was we could deliver post midnight. Now, we have to close by 8 pm.” Sadhu believes that the only way the industry will survive is if the government offers some relief to counter the hefty taxation and fees paid by these businesses to the state.
“Hospitality is a people-driven industry. We are in the job of making memories for guests when they walk-in,” he says. When restaurants were shut due to the lockdown last year, Sadhu’s team brainstormed to introduce home-delivery menus that would create memories and infuse a sense of warmth. They launched Milestones with Masque, a takeaway concept to celebrate special occasions like birthdays and anniversaries. Apart from this, they were one of the first restaurants in the city to introduce picnic baskets called 'Chef's Pick' which featured a curated menu by a team member from Masque. “We were trying to have fun and hoped that it translates into the takeaway menu. It’s food that offers a sense of joy,” says Sadhu.
Edited excerpts from an interview:
What happened around this time last year?
Just before the lockdown was announced, we had won the Asia’s 50 Best One to Watch trophy. Our spirits were high, but the world had different plans. Last April, we were really confused. The only thing we wanted to do was survive, no matter what happens. It is my inherent belief that adversities bring out the best out of you; it is a terrible thing to waste. We were thinking about how we could create joy through food which led to concepts like celebrating milestone moments and the picnic basket.
How did this ‘joy’ translate into your menu?
When times are difficult, we always seek comfort and familiarity. Using this as the yardstick, last year our menu had ghee roast baos, chaat, thukpa, biryani and ice creams. Around August-September, we introduced the American-style Tailgate concept: while dine-in was still disallowed, people could park their cars in front of the restaurant and enjoy a meal of burgers, fries, crispy waffles and pina coladas. The response was overwhelming and it felt like a silent festival.
What happened to your team?
From chefs to backend employees, we are a team of 31 people. We were fortunate that we were able to retain every single team member and there were no salary cuts. As a chef and co-founder, I feel extremely proud.
Last month, did you launch a spice brand?
My wife Aashina Kaul and my friend Zainab Burmawalla launched it and I am supporting their initiative. It is a women-led brand named Paushtik. The idea is to introduce hyperlocal spices by sourcing quality ingredients. For instance, we have the Maharashtrian Goda masala and the East Indian bottle masala. I helped by sourcing saffron from Kashmir and pitched in to create spice blends from the state. The manufacturing unit is in Pune. It is run by women from rural areas near the city who are adept in blending spices. There are 20 masalas now and we plan to scale up to 40 in three months and take them beyond India. We worked on Paushtik for a year and it is a pandemic baby.
With the second lockdown in place, what are your plans for Masque?
This weekend, we will reintroduce the chef’s pick concept. One of our chefs will decide the menu and we will execute it with him. It is conceptualised by my colleague chef Kamlesh. He had travelled to Mexico and he will be recreating dishes with food memories from that trip. This is going to be fun and will hopefully translate into an unforgettable memory for you.