Meet Ritu Dalmia, the Indian celebrity chef and restaurateur, who talks to Gulf News about her love for Italian and Indian cuisines, the journey from spaghetti to biryani – how a teenage Marwari girl from Kolkata became a global culinary powerhouse.
1. You started in your Marwari family's marble business in Kolkata at a young age, then later you moved to the food industry in Italy. How did this transition occur?
Well, honestly, I'm still trying to figure out how the switch came over. There was no journey per se. It was just a jump rather than anything. It was a jump from one highway to the other. So, no journey took place. It was like boom, and honestly, it's fabulous. I loved it when I was working with marble. I started working with marble when I was 17, and I opened my first restaurant when I was 21. It gave me direction, meaning, and, in some ways, stability and the stability that I needed in my life. So there's not much of a difference in whatever you do at the end. You've got to love it, and you've got to have a passion for it. And if you have that, whether it's marble stone or khana (food), it's all the same.
2.What is your favourite comfort food?
Even today, if you ask me what my comfort food is, it's spaghetti with tomato sauce. I think it was a love affair that started when I was 10 years old. I'm 51 now and still going strong with this classic dish. When it comes to Indian comfort food, it is always curry chawal or dal chawal (lentil rice). Simplicity, as I said, is always the best.
3.What inspired you to specialise in Italian cuisine, and how do you perceive Indian flavours and cuisine?
I have been working in the restaurant industry for the past 30 years, starting from Italian cuisine to Indian. I began my career with Italian food, which has always been my first love. My first restaurant was Italian, followed by an Indian restaurant in London. Then, I eventually opened Cittamani in Milan, which was an Indian restaurant. Now, I am working with Atrangi [at Jumeirah Al Qasr], in Dubai.
Working with Indian cuisine has been a journey of self-teaching, and every day is a new learning experience. Indian food has made me work hard and has brought back my passion for cooking.
To put things into perspective, Indian food runs in my blood and is a part of my genetic makeup. Italian food, on the other hand, is something I discovered and fell in love with and eventually mastered. I was always scared of Indian food because it is much more complex than Italian food. Italian cuisine is all about simplicity and using quality ingredients, whereas Indian cuisine has a wide range of intense flavours and spices that vary from region to region. Working with Indian cuisine has been a journey of self-teaching, and every day is a new learning experience. Indian food has made me work hard and has brought back my passion for cooking. I am enjoying every moment of it.
4. What's your favourite ingredient to work with and why?
My favourite is hing (asafoetida). It has a unique flavour that stands out when added to oil, and when crushed and added to any recipe, it gives a distinct taste.
5. Why are there fewer women Michelin star chefs in India?
Women chefs have always existed, even if we don't always use the word ‘chef’ to describe them. Our grandmothers, for example, are some of the most talented and hardworking chefs we know. However, in commercial kitchens, more and more women are taking on leadership roles in recent years. I was among the few women in this industry when I started working as a chef. But today, many young women are opening their own restaurants or working in restaurants and hotels, which is fantastic. I believe more women should be in this line of work because they have a natural instinct for nurturing and cooking, and that's what hospitality is all about. Women have a unique ability to feed people with love, which comes naturally to them.
When it comes to Michelin stars, I don't think we should focus too much on them. Our business partner in Italy, Viviana, runs a fantastic restaurant called Viva, which has received one star. Many of my female chef friends in Spain, Italy, or Lebanon have Michelin stars, so it's not about lacking or having more. Food can be enjoyed at many different levels, whether it's street food, home-style cooking, or Michelin-starred cuisine. I don't think there's one particular category where women should shine. I believe they should excel across the board. For example, Indian women chefs like Garima Arora have achieved greatness, having received two Michelin stars in Bangkok.
6. How do you view Dubai as a culinary destination?
Dubai has undergone a remarkable transformation over the years, giving chefs a lot more freedom to push the boundaries of culinary innovation. People in Dubai love good food and are always on the hunt for new, and exciting dining experiences.
And when it comes to my expectations, you may not believe it, but I've never opened anything in my life with any expectations. For me, it's very simple. You've got to give it your best, and then the product speaks for itself. You can do hundreds of things and do millions of marketing campaigns. If your food is not good, you may get the people the first time; the second time, no one will come around. So my expectation is very simple: people also appreciate the love and passion we have put into our product, and if they like it, we will ensure that we keep up and stay on our toes.
Chef Ritu Dalmia also shares her favourite easy-to-make one-pot recipe: Tehri rice.
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