For 17 years now, Ritu Dalmia has been serving Italian Khana. And she is a purist.
I must have done something right. A week after I drink the best of whiskies with the brand ambassador of a Scottish single malt maker, I get a confirmation for a meeting with superchef Ritu Dalmia. At 2 pm, at her restaurant, Diva. “She said she’ll cook something for you,” says the lady who set up the meeting. And when Dalmia, the Italian speaking Indian face of good food, rustles up something, you can be sure it will be a meal you will remember for a while.
Thus it is that on a Delhi winter afternoon, I find myself nursing a glass of red wine and hearing the story of the post-liberalisation evolution of the restaurant business. Dalmia herself is a chef by accident: she started her career in the family’s marble business
|After closing MezzaLuna, Dalmia ran away to London and started an Indian restaurant there. It worked, and it gave her the confidence she needed.|
. How did she stumble onto Italian food, I ask her. “Because that is the only cuisine you can eat if you are a vegetarian travelling to Europe. I went to Italy for a month on a school trip. And I fell in love with it. Later, I started eating non-vegetarian food because I loved to cook and wanted to understand the flavours,” she says.
Stumbling Upon A Restaurant
Though she was unhappy in the marble business, Dalmia was unsure about what she really wanted to do. Until her friend Serra, a machinery supplier, advised her that, since she loved to cook and was so good at it, she should start an Italian restaurant. Dalmia set up MezzaLuna, her first eatery, in Hauz Khas village. Serra came to India and stayed for a month, helping her set up. But MezzaLuna was way ahead of its time. “We used to have patrons coming in and asking for onions and chaat masala. This was 1993—very few Indians had been exposed to other cuisines,” she says. Predictably, the restaurant bombed.
Dalmia ran away to London and started an Indian restaurant there. It worked, and it gave her the confidence she needed. “It also helped me meet Bryan Adams! But I hated living there. I hated doing the laundry and waking up in the cold rainy weather. I knew I wanted to come home from day one, but I couldn’t come back with two failures. In MezzaLuna, I would take the order, go up to the kitchen, cook, bring the food down and eat with my customers. It was great fun, but didn’t make business sense. In London, I learned about the professional and the business side of running a restaurant,” she says.
No Looking Back
She came back in 2000, and wasn’t too keen on opening another restaurant. “But I didn’t know what else to do. One evening, my best friend Gita Bhalla said, ‘you start a restaurant, I’ll partner you’. She was very drunk and that’s how Diva was born,” she says. Since the time MezzaLuna closed, the country had changed. “People had more exposure and ingredients became more easily available. At the end of the day, eating is about experience and exposure. Today you can’t mess around with your guests—they know their food so well—and it is such a pleasure. It keeps us on our toes,” she says.
In order to further educate Indians about Italian cuisine, Dalmia set about writing her book, Italian Khana. When I suggest that Italian Khana is the meeting point of Italian food and the Indian palate, she gets livid. “I am a purist,” she says. “All I have done is, I have chosen from the Italian repertoire things that can be done in India. You will never find me saying if you don’t get riccotta, use paneer.”
With the success of that (and the accompanying TV show by the same name) as well as her other outlets—Latitude in Khan Market, Café Diva in GK and the café at the Italian cultural centre—and her catering assignments, Dalmia now has her plate full. Sort of. She is now writing her second book, to be published by Hachette next year. “It doesn’t have a title, yet. But the food is modern, international. It does not follow cuisines, but my travels. So there could be a Goan prawn curry or Turkish borek or a plate of sticky noodles from a street in Bangkok. It’s for people who don’t see cooking as a chore but as a joy,” she says.
Starting a restaurant is an enduring, modern India dream. But Dalmia recommends caution. “Some should jump into the business and some shouldn’t. If you are married, you shouldn’t. The hours are long and it’s an asocial world. There is no fixed life. Also, in India the supply chain is not there, the industry is disorganised and labour is flighty. If you are a non-chef owner, your dependency on the chef is extremely high and if they leave and take away the team, you just collapse. It’s the riskiest business in the world,” she says.
Yet, it’s a high, she concedes. In her early days, she used to get job offers to work as a cook in people’s houses all the time. That, definitely, is not a possibility anymore.
The economics of the restaurant business
If a dish costs Rs 30, it should be sold for Rs 100—that’s the thumb rule. But rent, salary and wages take this 200% mark- up entirely away. Today, if you make 15% margins in the restaurant business, you are lucky. Earlier, when you were paying Rs 700 to your waiters and places were on pagdi, it was a great business—not so anymore. If you are starting a restaurant, keep your overheads very low. And don’t splurge on expensive interiors and cutlery. People need to come in for the food. You have to recover your money in the first two or three years. After six years, your lease runs out and you are at the mercy of your landlord. So, before then, you have to recover your money, make your money and establish yourself. And try to ensure money comes from the alcohol and not from the food.