Chef's Table: Ritu Dalmia Talks About Toughest Days and Cooking for Aliens

 , NDTV  |  Updated: February 16, 2016 16:00 IST

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Chef's Table: Ritu Dalmia Talks About Toughest Days and Cooking for Aliens
I hadn't intended to eat in at Café Diva this week but when a cousin from Mumbai surprised me and got with him a serious craving for Italian food, I knew what would do justice.  It is one of the few restaurants in the city where I probably don’t have to peek into the menu. Asian Sesame Salad, Beetroot Risotto, his choice of pizza (because I love ‘em all) and the classic Tiramisu which is never to be shared. The food at Diva is presented with the confidently minimalist style of a chef who trusts her instincts, and doesn't feel obliged to pad out each dish with creamy sauces and boring carbs. For Chef Ritu Dalmia, cooking is an art, guided by a natural sense of taste and talent. “When I was in Italy, I learnt that the trick to good vegetarian food is how you balance starch with carbohydrates. At Diva, we decided to create a global menu to cater to every dietary need,” she shares.

Born in Kolkata to a Marwari business family, she joined her father's marble business at a young age of sixteen. Her love affair with Italian food goes back to a time when she travelled to Italy very often for work.  At the age of twenty-one she started the first chef-run restaurant in the country. MezzaLuna in Delhi offered Mediterranean cuisine with an Italian accent. Back in 1993, the cuisine was way ahead of its time. In her words, it was a ‘wonderful disaster’.  When that didn't work out as planned, she moved to London where she opened the acclaimed Indian restaurant Vama. Vama was an instant hit, she got to learn a lot about running a restaurant professionally but her heart belonged to India. She returned to Delhi and witnessed a sea change in the food scene.“During my first venture, MezzaLuna, I had to fly to Italy almost every week to get fresh supplies. When I returned, I saw that most ingredients were easily available and people were much more enthusiastic about trying International cuisines,” she says. Diva opened in 2000, and there has been no looking back since.  So, what’s her secret recipe for success? “If the food is not good, nothing else can compensate. Use the freshest of ingredients, and you cannot go wrong. The golden rules for Italian cooking are very good produce and simplicity. In fact, my favourite dish is a simple pasta with fresh tomato and basil and loads of good quality olive oil,” she reveals as we get inside the mind of the global chef, restaurateur, and cookbook author.

1. What's the first dish you learnt cook?
Macaroni with baked beans

2. Three strengths of a chef
To be able to teach and not be secretive, constant innovation and attention to details

3. The foodie destination of 2016
Iceland

4. The most important ingredient(s) in Italian cooking
Basil and extra virgin oil

5. Guilty food pleasure
Double scoop of praline ice cream in a waffle cone

6. What advice would you give home chefs who are inspired by your style of cookery? 
Always experiment, follow a recipe but add your personal signature to eat.

7. In a city with a number of Italian and new restaurants coming up, what makes yours stand out? 
Consistency and never every compromising on the quality of ingredients.

8. Your restaurant cooking and TV focus has been Italian, any other cuisine you'd like to experiment with? 
At the moment I am experimenting a lot with Asian food and Regional Indian food.

9. Is there one dish that sums up your adventure?  
I have a new adventure every month.

10. I understand you are self-taught. How important do you feel formal training is?
Formal training is important for technique, but personally I don’t ever feel I missed out on something.

11. Your favourite kitchen tool
Blow torch

12. Is there anything that you would never serve?
I am quite boring that way and would never serve things like crocodile meat, donkey meat etc

13. What does India's culinary scene need to acquire more prestige?
Quality world class restaurants

14. Biggest pet peeve in the kitchen
Bad hygiene

15. Tradition or innovation?
A mix of both

16. If you had only one dish to bring to aliens to make them understand the essence of our food. What would it be?
Butter chicken, dal makhani and naan

17. What was your toughest day in the kitchen?
One day suddenly 80 percent of my kitchen staff fell sick. It was a Monday night and the restaurant got packed. Food was getting delayed, and I actually had one client who entered the kitchen and shook me by my collar. Many years ago, but I still feel horrible when I think about that day.

18. Slow food, raw food, local food – there may culinary trends around at the moment. Do you see the future bringing more of the same or a swing back to our roots?
I am a great believer of slow food and would not call it a fad.  Both local food and slow food are in some ways very much about going back to our roots.

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