Three weeks before the lockdown last year, chef Amninder Sandhu launched Iktara—a delivery-only kitchen offering comfort Indian food in Mumbai. Her vision was to introduce good quality, chef-led dishes which can be ordered home while eliminating the high costs of running a restaurant. At that time, she was also managing the kitchen of the premium dining restaurant and lounge, Arth in Mumbai. A celebrated chef venturing into delivery kitchens was unheard of before the pandemic, but she was ahead of her times.
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Sandhu teamed up with Food Matters India Private Limited, the parent company of The Table, Mag St Kitchen and Mag St. Bread, for Iktara. Along the way, she parted ways, got married and moved to Pune. Now, she shuttles between Mumbai and Pune overseeing two delivery kitchens—Ammu and Barfi & Sons—which started operations three weeks ago. There’s also a luxury chef-led wedding catering company, Bliss Food Experiences which launched last November. It has been an eventful year for Sandhu.
In an interview with Lounge, she speaks about her new delivery kitchens, dealing with changes and her future plans:
Iktara launched and the lockdown was announced almost immediately. What did you feel then?
It was as if I designed the lockdown (chuckles). People laughed at me for getting into delivery kitchens, but I felt it was the right thing to do. At that time, delivery kitchens were only competing on the price points; for example, you could order in a biryani for 19 rupees, and it’d be delivered super fast. But, that model didn’t focus on food quality or dishes that one would find at a restaurant which has great ingredients, is slow cooked and is made with love and care. I felt there was a gap in the market. We ran Iktara for one and a half years, after which I moved on to do my own thing and nurture a different vision for delivery kitchens.
So, what is your vision?
It’s a jigsaw puzzle at the moment. I want to launch multiple brands from a single cloud kitchen for it’s the only way to cover costs and cover a larger radius. I'll be setting up a larger central kitchen (in Pune and Mumbai), followed by small satellite kitchens. Then we have the wedding catering company, Bliss Food Experiences, which is a completely different format. While the delivery brands are mid-segment, with the wedding food brand we’ve stepped into the luxury category.
Tell us a little bit more about Bliss Food Experiences.
A friend of mine, who is a wedding planner, reached out to me last November for a high-profile wedding in Kolkata. The couple who was getting married was well travelled and they dined at Michelin-starred restaurants around the world. We had to think of something which focused on luxury food and service. I collaborated with my friends and chefs (one of them was Prateek Sadhu of Mumbai’s Masque), and we prepared menus to encapsulate the essence of travelling with flavours. One day, we did open fire cooking where I created traditional dishes, and Prateek did his new-age beautiful food. It was during the pandemic, so everything was in small plates.
For the main wedding day, we did a sit-down multi-course menu for 120 guests where we had 60 servers. It was brigade-style service, and everyone had to be served at the same time within 5 minutes. It was planned in such a manner that the servers changed their outfit for every course depending on the world cuisine we served. It was meant to be a destination wedding which couldn’t happen due to covid-19, so it was left to us to dazzle and delight by creating an experience which hasn't been seen before.
We built the kitchen ground up, designed the crockery, uniforms and it took three months to put everything together. It was the most intense thing, I have done. So, we do about four such weddings a year. Apart from the weddings, we are also open to catering for smaller parties, like Christmas.
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What prompted you to start your delivery kitchen Ammu?
I take pride immense in Indian cuisine and in doing simple things well, even if it's butter chicken, daal-makhni and naan. For a chef, there is a skill needed to do them well consistently. I have a few signature dishes that have stood the test of time, like Deomali chicken. They're very close to my heart and I want them to stay available. So, Ammu offers traditional Indian dishes that’s comforting, hits the right spot and you can enjoy them from the comfort of your home.
You also launched the mithai brand Barfi & Sons. Do we need another sweet brand?
The idea is to use really good quality ingredients to make mithai. These are not modern mithais, but just an honest attempt to mithai well. So, there is no Dalda, artificial food colours and they are not cloyingly sweet. If it’s motichoor laddoo, there’s desi ghee, saffron and it’s not unnecessarily sweet. There’s something I call the dream laddoo and it’s something from my childhood. I had a lot of Marwari friends growing up in Assam and they used to have this atte ka gond ka laddoo, that they would bring to school in their tiffin. It was flavoured with ginger powder and nuts. I used to miss that laddoo so much that I dreamt about it. So, I put it on the menu and call it a dream laddoo.
What are your future plans?
I will launch two more chef-driven brands from my cloud kitchen. You could say my end goal is world domination. Never think small.
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