Chef Akriti Malhotra speaks to us about her culinary journey, working with Ritu Dalmia, what makes AKU’s special and why she prefers savoury cooking to desserts.
Chef Akriti Malhotra is the co-founder and chef at AKU’s – The BrrGrr Co, a Delhi-based gourmet burger restaurant. After graduating in economics from Delhi University she worked briefly with E&Y. However, she knew her true passion lay in culinary arts and so she co-founded a bakery with her elder sister, called For the Love of Cake (FLOC), in Delhi. This was 2011 and since then there has been no looking back from food. While she was baking some of the most decadent cupcakes and cakes for Delhi, Akriti wanted to explore the savoury side of food.
Following her heart, she went on to join Chef Ritu Dalmia’s DIVA to learn from the legend herself. After gaining great practical knowledge and understanding in the kitchen, Chef Akriti headed to The Culinary Institute of America in New York to pursue ‘Culinary Arts’. After completing her culinary education, she went on to work at Chef Daniel Boulud’s flagship Michelin Star restaurant – Daniel – in upstate New York. This taught her how the world eats. Her plan was always to return to her hometown, so she came back and re-joined Chef Ritu at DIVA restaurants in 2015.
Chef Akriti realised there were very few restaurants that could cook great quality food and serve them quickly to patrons. She wanted to transform the concept of ‘fast food’ and bring the New York-style eating to New Delhi. She wanted to open a restaurant with fast-food service and slow-food values and believed that fresh and gourmet food could be served quickly. With the aim of wanting to casually serve good food made with real ingredients, Akriti co-founded AKU’s – The BrrGrr Co. with her brother Ankit Malhotra in 2018.
She speaks to us about her culinary journey, working with Chef Ritu Dalmia, what makes AKU’s special, and why she prefers savoury cooking to desserts. Excerpts:
TD: What inspired you to become a chef? Was it something you always wanted to do?
AM: My inspiration stemmed from numerous life events strung together, from my family’s love for and obsession with food, being around my uncle who ran a successful catering business in Lucknow, or partnering with my elder sister to run a home-based bakery by the name of “For the Love of Cake”.
In fact, I was greatly motivated to enter the culinary world after a training stint at DIVA. I think there was no stopping me once I’d gained this hands-on experience of the industry and enjoyed the adrenalin rush of working in the kitchen. It was the planning and the intricacies of being a chef that really drove me towards it.
After graduating with an economics degree and working at Ernst & Young, the natural next step would’ve been an MBA course. It’s at that juncture that I took a leap of faith to help my sister with her bakery business which gave me confidence to explore the F&B industry more closely. Several business ideas later and after a brief period of soul searching, I decided to pursue training to be a chef at the Culinary Institute of America.
TD: What was your culinary journey like over the years?
AM: After my training, I went on to stage and work at a few restaurants in New York like Restaurant Daniel, the then Michelin three star flagship restaurant of Chef Daniel Boulud. Back in India, I had a short stint at CAARA and went on to work at DIVA Restaurants and catering, as Chef Ritu Dalmia’s executive sous-chef. By 2017, the idea of AKU’S came to my mind. My brother and I launched it in January 2018 with a house full of love and support from our friends, family and well-wishers.
TD: You have worked with some culinary greats such as chef Daniel Boulud and Ritu Dalmia. What was your experience like? What did you learn from them?
AM: There’s a reason why these chefs are where they are. Good things didn’t come easy to them but they worked hard and strived for it, which is what you imbibe from working in their kitchens. Both, at their respective positions, have been institutions of learning for many and I’ve been lucky to have had the opportunity to work with Chef Daniel Boulud and Chef Ritu Dalmia.
I worked long, gruelling hours in very challenging environments and yet would continue to be stimulated. More than anything I learnt discipline, perseverance, and time management.
TD: What was your inspiration to begin AKU’S?
AM: I felt a strong desire to express my style of food! I think AKU’s – The Brrgrr Co. is a LOT of that. While I’d always wanted to open a fine-dine restaurant back then, I realised there’s a huge dearth of outlets cooking great quality food and serving it quickly to guests wanting to keep the experience casual, like myself.
I think the influence came from spending my time in New York City with barely any time on our hands to dine out while working but constantly craving good quality food and finding it nearly on every alternate block.
TD: Why burgers and not a fine dining restaurant?
AM: Manhattan has at least two to three restaurant or cafes in each block to get good quality food-to-go. Whereas when I got back to Delhi, I was limited to the QSR giants or local Indian places for a grab-and-go. I found a gap that hadn’t been tapped into. Most chefs were only interested in cooking at fine-dine restaurants (including myself) and post-work, a casual but good bite to grab was hard to find, barring our mainstream Indian cuisines.
This is from where I drew the inspiration for AKU’S fast-casual with “real ingredients” restaurant. The idea was to be the neighbourhood outlet to grab a quick bite and still know you’re eating well-sourced food, without any frills. Somehow quickly prepared food is directly equated to being fast or junk food, but with AKU’S I wanted to prove otherwise and was willing to give up (at least for the time being) the fine-dine aspect of the restaurant.
TD: What, according to you, makes AKU’S different from what the MNC’s offer?
AM: We make almost everything in-house whether it’s the patties, sauces, or the ice cream for the milkshakes. It’s always been a chef-driven approach—we always aspire to have slow food values in a fast-food format.
TD: During the lockdown you started delivering. Did the disruptions impact you severely in terms of sourcing ingredients?
AM: Yes, the beginning was very tough. Most vendors/ purveyors had shut down operations in the beginning since everyone was trying to figure out the right way to move forward and operate safely. We took around a week to gather ourselves and sort out our sourcing. We had to cut down the menu by half and train our staff to take all necessary precautions. With this, we readjusted and restarted, keeping in mind the health and safety of our customers and employees, slowly and surely.
TD: You have worked with both desserts and savoury. As a chef, what do you enjoy about the two and what do you dislike?
AM: With desserts, I love that so many permutations and combinations can be created with simple ingredients such as eggs, butter, sugar, and flour, and the satisfaction of the end result is unmatchable. What I don’t enjoy is that I have to follow a recipe to the tee and the lack of patience of a savoury cook always jeopardises a pastry recipe! Haha.
I can’t complain about savoury cooking; it’s therapeutic when you’re at it!
TD: Is there an ingredient you do not like working with?
AM: A complete no to hydrogenated fats!