Auroni Mookerjee is an accidental chef. Born and brought up in New Delhi, he started out in advertising and worked in Mumbai. Then one day, an online announcement caught his eye. Chef Viraf Patel of Mumbai’s Café Zoe was giving an opportunity to amateur chefs to do a pop-up at the cafe. After it went well, Chef Viraf asked Mookerjee if he would like to carry on and train. That’s when the penny dropped. Auroni seized the opportunity to shift careers to what had until then been a hobby and a passion. He knew then that he had never enjoyed anything as much in advertising.
In 2018, Patel sent him to create the menu at The Salt House, a restaurant on Kolkata’s Shakespeare Sarani. He was supposed to be in the city for only six months. But he enjoyed it so much that he took over and ran it for almost two years. Even after accepting an opportunity to work at Chef Ritu Dalmia’s famed Italian restaurant, Diva, in New Delhi, he missed Kolkata and wanted to come back. And then along came the team behind Sienna Café, especially owner Shiuli Ghosh. By the end of his conversation with them, Auroni knew he would return to Kolkata to take over the business.
Over a walk at a bazaar, Mookerjee speaks to Lounge about how both the café and the bazaar inform his work, his belief in a workplace as a place of nourishment and the most overrated ingredient he knows. Edited excerpts.
Describe your current workspace to us.
My daily workspace is the café and its kitchen in a residential house in Southern Kolkata. We’re a small team working in a limited space, so we must be quick and efficient. But now the cafe is expanding – the restaurant floor has moved into the first floor, and the new kitchen will be on the roof.
The bazaar is my other workspace. I spend at least half an hour there every week, chatting with the vendors, snacking on freshly fried luchi and aloo bhaja, and looking at the produce and catch of the day. This is where I come up with the week’s special ‘From the Bazaar’ menu, inspired by the shapes, sounds, colours and smells.
One of the practices I learnt about at the bazaar is how no part of the plant is wasted. For example, look at the pumpkin plant. The flower, the leaves and the stalks – it’s all sold here and used in Bengali cuisine, with delicious regional recipes handed down from generation to generation. That’s ultimate sustainability.
Has it always been this way? Or has it evolved over the years?
No, I’ve worked in different kitchens over the years. I used to make dabbas inspired by my grandmother’s recipes for friends in the kitchen of my flat in Mumbai. Then I worked in a commercial kitchen for the first time at Café Zoe. Following that, a friend and I started a delivery business called Curry Brothers with outlets at Bandra and Lower Parel. At The Salt House and Diva, I worked in full-sized industrial kitchens. Now that we’re expanding at Sienna, I’m very excited about a pizza oven that we’re about to install!
And of course, the bazaar is different every time. The produce changes from season to season, month to month and even day to day.
How would you define your daily relationship with this space?
It’s home – quite literally. When we started, I knew that we wanted to create a nourishing space here for all members of the team. So at one point, instead of having people commute every single day to work here, we made dormitories where they would sleep over!
Tell us about some of the eureka moments you have had and major works that you have done from here.
The weekly ‘From the Bazaar’ menus were a turning point. We started them during the pandemic as weekend specials. They became so popular that we ended up turning them into weekly menus. The entire ethos of our operation, as a place of nourishment in more ways than one, was also a eureka moment. It’s even present in the way we treat each other.
If you were to trade in this place for another, what would it be?
None! I love what we’ve created here.
What's the one thing that has always been at your workspace over the years. Why?
The ideals that we just spoke about. It’s important to me that I create something that prioritises those who work here, and supports our local bazaars and vendors.
Tell us about an ingredient or dish you think is overrated or overexposed.
Avocado! But unfortunately, I’ve not been able to find a desi version of it that would have the same creaminess and umami. I used to think the same of asparagus and then I found an Indian herb, the frequently foraged fiddlehead fern or dheki shaak, that tastes pretty much identical. So now we’ve replaced it on the menu.
What is your biggest influence and continuing inspiration as someone in the cut-throat world of a professional kitchen?
Everything around us, from current events to holidays. My team and I recently visited a sari-making workshop in Santiniketan. As soon as we saw the leaves being printed onto the fabric, we knew felt it was exactly like pasta being laminated! Even the adjoining Sienna Store sometimes becomes an influence and becomes influenced by us. We once held a ‘chhoto macch’ (small fish) potluck with Chef Thomas Zachariah, and we gifted him and his partner a sari, which had a fish-patterned border, from the store. The design became so popular afterwards that the store expanded the line from just parshey to other fish like bhetki and koi.
Rushati Mukherjee is a writer based in Kolkata