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How a restaurateur put Indian ingredients on the world map

Aditi Dugar shares her recipe for building a top restaurant—clarity, teamwork, and unwavering support from family

Aditi Dugar, Founder, Urban Gourmet India. 
Aditi Dugar, Founder, Urban Gourmet India. 

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Last week, Masque in Mumbai celebrated its sixth anniversary. In a short span that also saw a pandemic sweep the world, the ingredient-focused restaurant has won prestigious awards and ranked 21 on the list of Asia’s 50 best restaurants this year. It’s now considered India’s No.1 restaurant.

The driving force is the founder, Aditi Dugar, who started with the goal of putting the restaurant on the world map. “I stay very focused. If I have to get from point A to point B, nobody can sway me,” the 39-year-old entrepreneur tells me on the phone.

Dugar began work on the restaurant in 2014, when regional Indian ingredients were not a catchphrase. But she sensed the potential for a premium restaurant that gives a modern touch to berries from Ladakh, lemons from Himachal and jamuns from Maharashtra. The “aha” moment did not come out of the blue, however. It took her about 15 years to “connect the dots”, says the restaurateur, going on to describe how it all happened.

She comes from a family that’s crazy about food and married into one that shares this passion. Even today, Dugar, along with her team at Masque, goes on foraging trips to source ingredients. On one trip to Kashmir, her father-in-law helped her with contacts to forage morel mushrooms. The travel-loving family—from her parents to husband Aditya and three sons—enjoys discovering restaurants and trying new cuisines.

Over the years, she became curious about how restaurants work and how chefs create menus. “Somehow I would get the chef’s number and that’s how I started building my network, even though I was not even in food,” says the former finance professional.

Her interest in food led her from Mumbai to jobs at the two-Michelin-star Le Gavroche and La Petite Maison in London. Her flair for networking continues to reflect in collaborations with chefs from Michelin-star restaurants around the world. Last weekend, Matt Orlando of Amass in Copenhagen, who has earned accolades for cooking with waste, joined hands with the head chef of Masque, Varun Totlani, to create a tasting menu for their anniversary.

Dugar works smart. She is not the one making calls to invite top chefs. In 2018, she signed on the elite London-based PR agency Lotus for this. “People ask why we get foreign chefs; it’s because we want them to understand Indian cuisine. They bring in the techniques and work with our ingredients. It’s an exchange of ideas and both parties have a shared vision of where we could take Indian food.”

Fifteen years ago, there was no plan to set up a restaurant. Her mother used to conduct cooking classes from home. In 2010, this evolved into a luxury catering venture, Sage & Saffron, headed by Dugar. She introduced an inventive menu, with items like Thai bhel, using her mother’s recipes. “We were in the luxury space and realised that if you have a truffle bar, a burrata bar and an avocado bar, your party is going to be a super hit,” she says. It taught her not only about cooking but about creating unforgettable experiences through décor, crockery and theme.

Crispy Shiso, Togarashi Cream Cheese from Sage & Saffron. 
Crispy Shiso, Togarashi Cream Cheese from Sage & Saffron. 

Since she comes from a vegetarian family, she partnered with a British chef for the menu’s non-vegetarian section. Sage & Saffron went on to cater for the who’s who of Mumbai, including industrialists such as the Ambanis. Demand soared and they had to rent a 4,000 sq. ft commissary in a former industrial mill.

Soon, though, Dugar’s chef-partner was diagnosed with an autoimmune condition and returned to England. It was while she was deliberating on what to do with the space that she hit upon the idea of starting a restaurant. This would become the destination restaurant Masque, started with a capital of 6 crore, with her husband as a partner.

She was already familiar with high-end hot spots that championed concept-based, chef-driven tasting menus. “Those have tremendous focus on their guests’ preferences. Since my family is vegetarian, we would email them while making reservations. Although vegetarian cooking wouldn’t be their speciality, they would go out of their way to create dishes for us,” she says.

It was this experience—of ingredient-focused tasting menus tweaked to suit guest preferences—that she sought to introduce at her restaurant, focusing on putting together a team aligned to her vision.

It was about this time that she met Prateek Sadhu through a common friend. He shared her vision of creating a space for regional Indian ingredients and came on board as the executive chef, staying till earlier this year.

Dugar realised, once again, that she was “connecting the dots”—and is ready to connect some more. The restaurant and the catering company, now established, are under the parent organisation, Urban Gourmet India. In August, they launched a bakery, TwentySeven Bakehouse, that may expand to other cities. She is also planning Diwali mithais and fruit roll-ups for Sage & Saffron. Fruit roll-ups “is a take on aam papad, which has such a strong childhood connect. We have dehydrated fruit leathers, like tamarind and fig, layered with badam katli and then rolled for innovative mithais.” There’s no stopping Dugar.

Also read | The chef who changed fine dining, one restaurant at a time

The story was modified. An earlier version mentioned the London-based PR agency Lotus was signed in 2016. 

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