Co-owners and comrades-in-arms when it comes to changing the way India dines, the experimental duo waxes eloquent on five years of Masque and what has changed in the past few years for fine dining
Half a decade ago, when concept specialist Chef Prateek Sadhu and Aditi Dugar came together to brainstorm on a dining space that could be a happy melange of their shared passion, little did they know that it would be an idea that would change the way India dined. What they did have, however, was absolute conviction in their vision of a restaurant based on wilderness-to-table. Chef Sadhu, then amongst one of the finest culinary minds in India, had worked under the crème de la crème of the food world (The French Laundry legend Chef Thomas Keller included); and Aditi, a self-taught cook (and fantastic baker) had earned her stripes with the best in the business, namely, London’s two Michelin-starred Le Gavroche and La Petite Maison. The year was 2015.
A year on and several miles travelled across India to understand local food, ingredients and culinary techniques, Masque opened. For the next few months as the duo set on the road taking Masque to the different culinary cities of India, at the base, Masque flourished. Chef Sadhu’s intuitive style and Dugar’s experience of managing fine dining soon made Masque not just an award-winning but a deserving fine-dine restaurant valued for its uniqueness and experiences.
This year as Masque turns five, the dynamic duo reminiscence about their journey, the ups and downs, the last two years—and what’s ‘new’ on the pop-up road this time. Excerpts:
Congratulations on Masque turning five. How would you describe the journey so far?
Prateek Sadhu: Thank you! It’s been quite a ride, and of course, even more of a rollercoaster this past year. Thinking about the last five years makes me feel really grateful for, and proud of, the team—without whom none of this would have been possible. That’s been the big takeaway for me: the importance of a close-knit team structure that shares a common goal and values and looks out for one another. The other has been the opportunity of gaining a better understanding of yourself, your roots, where you come from and what you value. Deciphering my idea of ‘home’ has had a huge impact on my cooking and the way I approach new dishes between year one and now.
Aditi Dugar: We’re grateful to have made it this far, and as Prateek said, building the kind of team that enables that has had a huge impact. One takeaway for me has been to stay focused on a sustained vision of what you’re aiming to create; longevity comes from perseverance. There were many times we could have taken shortcuts, but I think we both understood from the time we met that this wasn’t and couldn’t be a venture that revolved purely around finances. To have a long-term vision of what you want to build is key to developing a great brand, in any space.
Putting together a restaurant based on concept dining has always been a ballsy move in India. But having said that, Masque has been able to create a niche for itself. What, according to you, has been the key to its success?
AD: It was a risky decision for sure, and certainly not one we took lightly. I think it was crucial for us to stick to our guns and wait it out till it became more familiar to the market as a concept. We constantly worked towards bringing people in and driving home the idea of what we were trying to do.
PS: We’d debated the tasting menu format for a while before we opened, and ultimately, we made the choice that felt right to us. As Aditi said, it took patience, and I think we’ve seen a couple of things happen over the years. For one, diners are becoming more familiar with (and accepting) the concept; two, I think we’re getting altogether more adventurous with what we eat; and three, part of what’s worked for us is that we have managed to find a space—a sweet spot—where this kind of pride around Indian produce and food and what it can look like really takes centre stage.
The last two years have been bad, especially for restaurants. Have the past few months and the uncertainty, in anyway, made you rethink and rework the storyboard?
PS: Every week was something new. Our regular offerings became far more casual, comfort food. We ran Chef’s Pick menus, where each of us took turns creating set menus of the food we were really craving at the time. We launched the Tailgate, where people could come eat fresh, hot food in the safety of their cars. We celebrated our fourth anniversary by doing a collaborative delivery set menu with friends and peers like Chef Alex Sanchez (Americano), Chef Hussain Shahzad (Hunger Inc.) and Chef Gresham Fernandes (Culinary Director, Impresario) and continued collaborating with chefs around the world via our delivery menus. We even put together a Korean barbecue, complete with eco-friendly grills. Aditi ventured into so many new spaces with Sage & Saffron. Some of these will continue as we move forward, some won’t, but I do think the past year has informed the way we’re going to continue and has reiterated what’s important to us.
AD: We had to think quickly and act fast. Delivering a 10-course menu to your doorstep isn’t exactly a feasible option, though we’ll still deliver shorter ones for sure! We reopened relatively soon after the first lockdown was announced and had to pivot to a delivery-only model for the first time, that too with an entirely new menu and only a fraction of the team. Calling it hectic would be an understatement. Like Prateek said, we had to explore new spaces with Sage & Saffron too—we’re moving more digital, have opened an e-shop, ventured into many new verticals, some of which will become part of our regular offering.
How do you see the future of restaurants shaping up?
AD: Brands that are doing well in the current market are serving fast-moving, quality products. We are seeing restaurants across the world innovating in the ready-to-eat space, or pantry products, basically catering to people at home, at a time when everyone began cooking so much for themselves. I think we’ll see more of that, and more clean-eating, delivery-based meals being offered.
PS: I think restaurants are going to make a shift towards shorter, more concise menus, and as she said, we’re going to see a move towards ‘cleaner’ eating.
What makes you one of our absolute favourites is your zeal to forage and explore. How has the past year been for you in that regard?
PS: Honestly, it was frustrating, but obviously you have to have some perspective. I had the privilege of making it through a pandemic safe and healthy, and that’s more than enough. But yes—I love to travel. I’ve been constantly on the move for the last four years, and all of that just came to a crashing halt. Our supply requirements changed a bit because we were serving up menus entirely different from what we’d do for dine-in, and we knew foraging wasn’t an option anyway, so we stuck to the high-quality, more casual offerings. The first few months were tough regardless, because supplies and transport were such an issue. I will say though that in lieu of these trips, we’ve really been focusing our energy on R&D at the Masque Lab, and you’ll find the influence of that all across our dine-in menus now. All our Lab babies have had a full year to grow and get funky!
It’s heartening to see you back on the pop-up road. Between the one in ITC Gardenia Bengaluru and the one in Ladakh, give me an insight into what kinds of interesting dishes/ingredients and formats would one get to sample, know and experience?
PS: It’s great to be back on the road! We’re serving our tasting menus across all the cities we visit; most venues have either open kitchens or counters we can do service from, which I love, because it kind of breaks the barrier between you and your diners. One of my favourites from the tour menu is the Rogan Josh Sausage (pickled jackfruit for vegetarians) in an ‘everything’ Katlam Bun. It’s a spin on two of my favourite places, Kashmir and NYC. We’ve been serving this as the ‘kitchen course’, where diners come up to the counter (or cart, as in Delhi) and we assemble the dish while having the opportunity to meet and talk to each one of them.
We plan to switch up a few offerings in each city. In Bengaluru, for example, we worked in a take on Pachadi, made with gongura, and served it with thin strips of chilli-marinated malai and a gongura-pineapple sorbet. Ladakh will have a whole lot more surprises, because we’re spending the first two days foraging, after which we’ll incorporate that produce into the menu.
How does a chef like you travel? What draws you to a destination, and how do you start exploring it? Do you have a destination you love going back to, and is food one of the reasons? Is there a travel bucket list that you could share with us?
PS: I travel, as you can guess, mainly to eat, and I start exploring by doing just that, and always, always by visiting local markets. I would go back to Mexico again in a heartbeat, and while food is a huge reason, it’s also because the cultures and colours and flavours just reel you in. My current bucket list is Japan, South Korea—all of Southeast Asia, really—Mexico again, all of South America…it goes on!
Known for her columns on food anthropology, Chefs’ Retreat and wellness-based experiential tables, Madhulika Dash has also been on the food panel of Masterchef India Season 4, a guest lecturer at IHM, and is currently part of the Odisha government’s culinary council.