reportage

Molto Dalmia

How the capital’s favourite chef built a culinary empire

By Naintara Maya Oberoi | 1 August 2013

IN 1993, 22-year-old Ritu Dalmia made up her mind to open a restaurant in Delhi. She had, she considered, a knack for good cooking, and she was itching to get out of her family’s marble business. Their trips to Tuscany and Liguria to source stone and purchase equipment had infused her not with an interest in limestone, but with a love of Italian cooking and wine. Her Italian machinery supplier, Serra Turgutcan, a cook herself, suggested that Dalmia open a restaurant in India.

Despite her inexperience, everything seemed possible to the ebullient Dalmia. The restaurant she opened that October in Hauz Khas Village was called MezzaLuna. The menu was Italian, the floors limestone and slate. She filled the space with her own books, and bric-a-brac from Chor Bazaar. Her parents were bemused, but encouraging. Turgutcan flew to Delhi for the opening party. After taking a bite of Dalmia’s ravioli, she pronounced, “Ritu, this tastes like something that came out of an American can.”

“Suddenly, I realised that I thought I knew it all but I didn’t,” Dalmia told me. She began making trips back to Italy, travelling across regions, tasting and learning. She signed up for a two-week course at Case Vecchie, Anna Tasca Lanza’s world-renowned cooking school at Regaleali, the Tasca family estate in the hills southeast of Palermo. “I would dry tomatoes, pick herbs, make sheep’s-milk cheese,” Dalmia said. Lanza, the late marchesa of Mazzarino, was famous for her Sicilian cooking, which is unmistakeably Italian, but tempered by Arab and North African influences. This, the only formal training Dalmia has ever received—she possesses, she said, the useful skill of being able to recreate dishes from taste alone—laid the foundation for a cooking style characterised by simple combinations and bold flavours.

The food at MezzaLuna became genuinely Italian: pollo alla Valdostana, melanzane ripiene, stuffed timbaletti di Salina. It was, the journalist and food critic Vir Sanghvi recalled, “one of the few Italian restaurants in that era where the chef knew what al dente meant.” Dalmia would take orders, cook meals, and serve them, stopping for a coffee and a chat with diners, her natural gregariousness already moulding her restaurateur persona.

But it soon became apparent that the restaurant was going to fold. Although the food was not particularly outré, diners would still ask for macaroni and baked beans. They would send back Dalmia’s smoked salmon, pointing out that it was cold, or complain that the Parma ham was raw. Every evening, Dalmia and Radhika Khanna, who ran a neighbouring restaurant called Sukothai, would go over their books in despair. At the time, the Hauz Khas Village location precluded an alcohol license, and the import of ingredients was banned. Instead, Dalmia would smuggle extra-virgin olive oil and cheese back from Italy. (“Thirty-three types of cheese in one suitcase,” her long-time chef Jiten Rozario, who was one of her earliest hires at MezzaLuna, recalled.) “And if you look at the cost of going to Italy every month for cheese,” Dalmia said, deadpan, “it didn’t quite work.”

After two years at MezzaLuna, Dalmia, sensing there might be an opportunity to start over abroad, gave up. (“Delhi wasn’t ready for good Italian yet,” Sanghvi later wrote.) When someone offered to buy the struggling restaurant, she jumped at the chance. At the same time, she also sold off her half of a small café called Cappuccino, which had a pool table and was apparently very popular with the girls from Delhi University’s Lady Shri Ram College. But she was heartbroken by the failure of MezzaLuna, and for a time it seemed her culinary dreams might founder.

TWO DECADES LATER, Dalmia has created one of the most beloved and durable culinary brands in India. Five successful Delhi restaurants, a flourishing catering and events company, three best-selling cookbooks, and three television shows have made her not only the capital’s foremost Italian chef, but also one of the most recognisable stars of Indian fine dining. Her flagship restaurant, Diva—part of a vanguard of chef-driven stand-alone establishments that launched in the early 2000s—has helped redefine eating out in an increasingly affluent urban India. And, unlike many of its early peers, Diva, in South Delhi’s Greater Kailash neighbourhood, continues to ride high after 13 years, bolstered by loyalists who return week after week, even as the capital experiences an explosion of new restaurants. If MezzaLuna was ahead of its time, Diva, and Dalmia’s other restaurants, have been right on the money, capitalising on—and shaping—millennial Delhi’s rapidly expanding culinary horizons.

Although many chefs find consistency hard to maintain over more than a decade in the same kitchen, and many more would find themselves spread far too thin if they attempted the same feat across several restaurants, Dalmia’s outsize reputation rests comfortably on the reliable excellence of her food. All her projects are characterised by bright, crowd-pleasing dishes of the sort that critics and customers like to call “honest”, “easy”, “stylish” and “genuine”. At the same time, each of her endeavours is suffused by, and soars on, her generous personality. Whether dressed up or dressed down, each of the restaurants has an elegant conviviality; her television shows thrive on Dalmia’s unrehearsed charm; and the cookbooks invite one to share in her life—favourite meals, family recipes, and friends’ country homes. “Ritu Dalmia on her own is quite a brand,” Sabyasachi Gorai, the director of kitchens at Delhi’s Olive Bar & Kitchen, said. “Her story shows how passionate one can get about food.”

Along with taste and charisma, a canny business sense, honed first by failure, and then by international success, has allowed Dalmia to sustain her culinary empire. Following her disastrous start at MezzaLuna, she has developed an almost infallible instinct for food that not only charms the palate, but also sells. “Ritu was at the helm of the movement where creative chefs also turned into business people,” the food writer Anoothi Vishal told me. Now, with a new cookbook in stores and a new restaurant about to launch, Dalmia’s triumphant progress shows no signs of slowing down.

DALMIA GREW UP IN A MARWARI FAMILY in Calcutta and Delhi. She taught herself to cook at age nine, out of Tarla Dalal’s ubiquitous The Pleasures of Vegetarian Cooking, and the popular Pak Pranali cookbooks, written expressly for Marwari households, which offered “macaroni hotpot, and khao suey with chidwa in it”. After school, she persuaded her father to let her join the family stone and marble business. She changed her mind soon after, but was terrified of telling her parents. “My mother was very supportive, but I was shit-scared to tell my father,” she said. “First, I was ditching his business—and then I was quitting to do something low and degrading like opening a restaurant.”

While MezzaLuna was struggling, a chance assignment for the Saturday Times (a now defunct supplement of the Times of India) sent Dalmia to London, where she found a city bursting with new, internationally inflected cuisines. “I realised, my god, this is where I should be,” she recalled. She saw that the only Indian food available in London was at hole-in-the-wall curry houses or buttoned-up fine-dining restaurants. There was a niche where a hip, contemporary Indian restaurant should be. With a business partner, Andy Verma (the owner of Duke’s Place, another floundering eatery in Hauz Khas Village), Dalmia was determined to fill it.

On her return to Delhi, Dalmia decided to abandon Hauz Khas Village and her ill-fated MezzaLuna adventure. She and Verma scraped together the money for Vama, an upscale, modern Indian restaurant, at the grimy end of King’s Road, in London’s posh Chelsea district. (According to Dalmia, her share of the start-up capital for Vama came from unloading MezzaLuna and from the sale of a slate mine she owned.) Dalmia and Verma ran the business, while a rotating cast of young Indian and British chefs did the cooking.

Getting Vama off the ground was hard work, but Dalmia enjoyed it. At MezzaLuna, she had become an accomplished cook, but now she saw that there was much more to being a restaurateur than what went on the plates. “Everything I know about the restaurant business, I learnt at Vama,” she told me. “Your stakes are so high, and the overheads are so high there, that if you mess up, you’ll go under in three months.” She learnt to keep costs as low as possible, the importance of restaurant location, and how vital food critics were to the business. Six months in, after a good review in the Sunday Times by the legendary AA Gill, Vama suddenly took off. Soon, celebrities such as Maggie Smith, Martina Navratilova and Bryan Adams were dining out on Vama’s sophisticated Indian dishes.

Running Vama was a heady experience, but Dalmia hated living in London, and the restaurant’s critical acclaim didn’t immediately translate into financial success. She was running out of money, but too proud to call home and ask for help. At 24, she wanted to prove herself to her sceptical family. But she wasn’t used to fending for herself. “I was spoilt,” she said. “I grew up in a rich family, so I didn’t know what survival meant. I hired a cleaning lady, and I took taxis everywhere for two months, till I saw that I’d spent a thousand pounds on cab fares.” She wanted to return to Delhi almost as soon as she’d arrived, but “my ego wouldn’t let me. Everyone had told me I was crazy to move to London on my own to open a restaurant. So I couldn’t come back with my tail between my legs.”

Dalmia buckled down until, in 1999, Vama began to turn a profit. Then she packed her bags and flew back to Delhi. (She sold her share in the London restaurant to Verma four years later, and he ran it until it closed, in 2010.) Still smarting from her defeat in Hauz Khas Village, she was certain she didn’t want to start a restaurant again. Instead, she decided to set up a brewery in collaboration with the British beverage company Whitbread, the brewing operations of which were soon bought by Interbrew, the parent company for Heineken and Stella Artois beers. She bought land in Maharashtra, ordered equipment, and then, just before starting production, discovered she didn’t want to be an industrialist after all. “It was all the things I despised, all the reasons I left my father’s company,” she said. “So I sold it off.”

At a loss for what to do next, she went to dinner with a friend at Greater Kailash neighbourhood staple Culinaire. “Let’s face it, Ritu,” the friend said. “The only thing you know how to do is cook. So open a restaurant.” Dalmia, who was slightly drunk, agreed. The next year, she threw open the doors to Diva.

“I wanted to do it right this time,” Dalmia recalled. With an initial investment of Rs 56 lakh—her share came from profits at Vama—the restaurant started serving guests in the Greater Kailash II neighbourhood’s sleepy M-block market in 2000. It had 88 covers, and two sections: fine-dining downstairs, and casual upstairs, where you could play Scrabble or chess. There were five wines on offer, and a short European menu featuring artichokes, lamb chops, aglio e olio and crêpes. Anoothi Vishal, then at the Indian Express, was one of the first critics to review the restaurant (and to play chess in its café section). “I gave Diva a rave review—it was food that was unavailable in Delhi at that time and certainly at a standalone—so much so that my editor actually asked me whether the restaurant was as good as I had written,” Vishal said.

Diva’s food was much the same as MezzaLuna’s, but Dalmia could sense that Delhi was a different city now. The local restaurant culture was still in its early adolescence (to wit: Buzz, The Big Chill, TGIF, Imperial Garden and Punjabi by Nature) but in Bombay, Rahul and Malini Akerkar’s Indigo was already doing brisk business, and AD Singh was about to open Olive atop Pali Hill. The capital seemed ready to follow suit. Disposable incomes had soared, and the upper-middle class of the 2000s didn’t look twice at the right-hand column of the menu. They wanted not only the special-occasion pomp of five-star restaurants like Orient Express and Bukhara, but also the faux-casual, refined rustic style of places like Olive and Diva. Dalmia’s cosmopolitan new customers were well-travelled, well-informed and hungry. (“This time around, India was ready for the real thing,” the critic Vir Sanghvi later wrote about Diva.)

“Things had changed since MezzaLuna,” Dalmia said. And so had she: “I’d learnt a lot, and I wasn’t 22 anymore. At Vama I’d learnt that location was everything—and so was having a liquor license. Diva was like MezzaLuna, but with a better business model.” In 2001, Outlook ran a cover story on the new food culture Dalmia and others were propelling: “Eating Out is urban India’s most overpowering collective passion. There are more than 22,000 registered restaurants in India today; and the food service sector in the country is worth a whopping Rs 30,000 crore.” Diva, with its urbane blend of intimacy and elegance, was right on time for the party.

In 2001, in what might be termed a vote of confidence, the Italian Cultural Centre—run by the Italian Embassy—offered Dalmia the contract for its café, which she has run ever since. (She has also been awarded the Order of the Star of Italian Solidarity—now known as Order of the Star of Italy—one of the five orders of knighthood in the Italian republic.) Two years later, she opened Le Café, a collaboration with the Ravi Bajaj clothing store, in Greater Kailash I’s N-block market. After a couple of unpleasant experiments running food courts at a mall in Gurgaon and at a cinema complex in Lajpat Nagar yielded poor results, Dalmia began work on her first cookbook, Italian Khana, and an accompanying television show for NDTV, which both launched to rave reviews in summer 2008.

New projects followed in rapid succession. The following year, Dalmia tied up with the home furnishings store Good Earth, in Khan Market, to launch Latitude 28. Perched on the shop’s top floor, the playfully chic restaurant, which once had a nautical theme, now sports “Kashmir ki Kali” wallpaper, Good Earth tableware and a seaside colour scheme. Then, when Dalmia’s contract with Ravi Bajaj ended in 2010, she opened Café Diva under her own steam a few doors down from Le Café. It mimicked Diva’s distinct look, with warm wood tones, wood-and-leather-bound menus and silver salt and pepper shakers in the shape of lotus pods. (“Ritu’s got a casual sensibility, and she’s also kind of stylish,” Dalmia’s close friend Chiki Sarkar, who edited her cookbook Italian Khana, told me. “I find that most of India’s stylishness is over-styled, and it’s a bit stressful, but Ritu’s is properly easy.”) Then, in January 2012, Hachette published her second cookbook, Travelling Diva, and the first episode of its companion NDTV show aired that February. The very same month, 18 years after she sold off MezzaLuna, Dalmia launched the small trattoria Diva Piccola in Hauz Khas Village, near where her first restaurant once stood.

ON A WEDNESDAY AFTERNOON earlier this year, Dalmia, who is now 42, was at Café Diva supervising a menu trial. Tanned from a holiday in Goa, and sporting a variant of the short hairstyle she’s had for years, Dalmia wore pink tartan-print Birkenstock clogs, thick black-framed glasses, and an improbably red watch.

At her side, Rozario was prepping a persimmon-red tomato confit for one of the new appetisers, a burrata with onion-chilli marmalade. Dalmia explained to her salad team how the knot at the top of the burrata—“the choti”, she called it—must be sliced off, and showed them the spreadable half-cheese-half-cream texture inside the pouch. “Andar malai honi chahiye” (it needs to be like cream on the inside), she said.

She moved on to the next menu entrant: “We’re going to do a salmon tartare. OK, so we take a smoked salmon filet. Marinate it in salt and sugar, and leave it in the fridge for 24 hours. Then take it out, wash it, fine-chop it. A little vodka, a little Tabasco, and more salt. Lots of dill.”

There was a shuffling among the kitchen’s cold-food team. “Ma’am, what is the sugar and salt for?” someone asked.

“So that the fish drinks it in,” she explained.

“And no oil?”

“It’s already a very oily fish. OK, tell me what’s next?”

The salad contingent reiterated that the herb-crusted pumpkin salad wasn’t doing well. Dalmia was visibly downcast by this. “Yaaaar,” she said, drawing the word out reproachfully. The staff giggled. “You guys, you keep knocking down the best dishes.”

Next, Dalmia counted off ingredients for a duck sauce as she tossed them into the pan: olive oil, onion, rosemary, zest, garlic. Meat, stock, pepper, orange segments. “Okay, everyone, come forward and taste this! Can you taste the orange? Why did we put orange in?” Dalmia’s kitchen voice was part parental, part schoolmarm. “What is this orange doing in the meat pasta? Look, meat stock is very strong. We want the orange to lighten it, but not too much. It’s still a duck pasta, not an orange pasta. See? If you can understand this, bachhe, you’ll go a long way.”

At the mothership, Diva, ten minutes from the more casual Café Diva, Dalmia still brings out the big guns. Here, she bases her cooking style on what she gleaned from Tasca Lanza in Sicily, and dresses it with contemporary flourishes like barley popcorn and strawberry balsamic. The dishes are complex, and bona fide Italian: pan-roasted duck in its own jus with thyme, cocoa and orange; sole marinated in lime and peppercorn, served with peaches in browned butter; a tower of scarmoza cheese discs layered with wild mushrooms in a coffee-sherry glaze. Each winter, there is a white truffle-themed dinner party for favoured guests. The wine list is long, and the atmosphere is more refined than that of the other outlets.

Apart from Sicily, Dalmia’s major influence is London’s River Café, with its philosophy of simple cooking using excellent, often local and organic ingredients, which she strives to emulate. (While living in England, Dalmia once posed as a journalist and bluffed her way into the River Café kitchens. She was so excited that they found her out immediately.) Menus at Diva change every three months to accommodate seasonal ingredients. The food is both thoughtful and indulgent; although artfully balanced and often expensive, its charms are uncomplicated. Part of this is intrinsic to Italian cuisine, and part of it is to do with Dalmia herself. She isn’t interested in molecular gastronomy and various forms of gimmickry—“My brain just dies”—despite her kitchen staff’s pleas to experiment with it. Her food, she said, is not “poncey”.

When I asked the restaurant’s former manager Niju Varghese, who now leads the catering division, to describe Diva’s food, he looked impassive. “You should eat at some other Italian restaurants,” he told me. “And then come back to Diva. You’ll see: the flavours will always stand out.” The food writer and restaurateur Rajyasree Sen agreed: “For authentic, good-quality Italian, she’s the person to go to. There’s a consistency of quality and taste throughout.” All this is a somewhat remarkable achievement: reliable suppliers for meats and vegetables are hard to find, and then there’s weather, uncertain harvests, import duties, unsympathetic customs officials, and transport delays that can result in wine being boiled to vinegar on its way from the Bombay docks.

Dalmia’s younger restaurants have taken this culinary spirit in new directions. While the Italian Cultural Centre café relies heavily on traditional trattoria offerings—some recipes are contributions from the centre’s members—Latitude 28 and Café Diva both offer a more approachable (and, compared to Diva, somewhat more affordable) way of eating, with small plates, big plates, pizza, panini and desserts inspired by food from around the world. The selection—cafreal, bratwurst, ras-aamlet—seems capricious, but is drawn from Dalmia’s own travels. (“Latitude is very salad-centric, light, fresh food, and there I like to showcase home cooks like Prima Kurien and Mrs Kidwai,” Dalmia said. “Café Diva is all the food I like to eat myself: poshto, seafood chowder, vindalho, fish and chips.”) She instinctively understood that, like her, her globe-trotting, Masterchef-watching customers like to eat in a haphazard, pick-and-mix way. Each dish draws on a separate cuisine—“I don’t understand fusion,” she said—but a meal can easily zigzag between Turkey and Goa, Vietnam and Germany.

Dalmia also insists on the kitchen and front-of-house staff tasting what their restaurant is serving; one of her biggest challenges is cultivating a palate for the unfamiliar flavours of her menus among her staff, most of whom have no training in the food business. Tasting briefings are therefore serious business. “We always had a one-hour session where we talked about the new menu,” Varghese said. “And there’s a test at the end of the briefing. She wants you to know as much as she does. We learnt as much as she did along the way, because she was moving forward and we had to keep up, going forward with her.”

The international approach of Latitude 28 and Café Diva is Dalmia’s most commercially viable proposition yet. It’s a distant, more sophisticated relation of the dreaded “multicuisine” that plagued Indian cities in the 1990s. (Even so, it’s not for Diva: Rozario looked appalled at the suggestion of fusion food in his kitchen. “All the international flavours, all the playing around, that’s for Hauz Khas, or GK-I,” he said firmly. “Not Diva.”) It has coincided perfectly with the moment when Delhi, having taken Italian food to its bosom, is waking up to pho, sashimi and artisanal sausage.

Dalmia’s au courant food is complemented by her extraordinary warmth as a host. When present at one of the outlets, she takes a lap of the dining room, going from table to table like an old-school innkeep. Guests speak of her attentiveness; she knows many of her customers by name or face, remembers what they like and asks about their children or friends. Regulars often get off-the-menu dishes depending on what’s in season. As for fussy eaters and children, she is kind and persuasive. (“You don’t see anything you want to eat? Shall I make you something?”) There is nothing particularly intimidating on any of her menus—no tripe or trotters—and she is deaf to clients who want green chillies or chicken added to their risotto, but she will nudge a nervous diner into trying an unobjectionable ravioli or pizza verde. The two things she says most frequently are “Have you eaten?” and “What do you want to eat?”

Her managers mimic this ease. Dalmia hires people who, like herself, know what they’re talking about, and appear genuinely interested in you while doing it. Diva managers are full of suggestions and opinions, and they like to stop and chat. They ask how you like the new goat cheese roulade; they offer to make your pizza a half-and-half; they urge you to try the sangria; and they send round complimentary crostini to solo diners. “Ritu’s style of functioning is to highlight the personality of the person running the place,” said the dapper Varghese, whom the critic Sanghvi once described as “the single most under-recognised superstar in the country’s restaurant scene”. “She wants you to know as much as she does, but she always gives you a free hand.”

Having found and perfected her formula, Dalmia now works mostly to maintain her own standards, especially across cuisines. Your meal may be good, spectacular, all right or passable, but it is very unlikely that it’ll be bad. Her colleagues in the industry often commend her for being “consistent”, “reliable” and “generous”. “If I’m eating out, the only place besides Olive that I’d take friends is Diva—or these days, Café Diva,” Sabyasachi Gorai, the Olive director of kitchens, said. “Ritu knows what works on a menu, and what will be popular, which is a great skill for a chef.” “She is one of the most forthright people and honest chefs that I know,” the food writer Anoothi Vishal said. “Her food is never fiddly, yet she’s not afraid to experiment. And ask her about any dish, she will promptly tell you how to do it easily at home. That’s the hallmark of an instinctive chef—the best types.”

“As a chef, Ritu has a very new mentality,” said Manish Mehrotra, the chef at the acclaimed Delhi restaurant Indian Accent, which is known for its inventive, modern Indian cuisine. “Earlier, Indian chefs were all very insecure, so they never taught their juniors anything. They hid things. That’s why Indian cuisine was never documented properly. There was so much insecurity. When I was training, in several high-end Indian restaurants, the younger chefs weren’t even allowed near the meats that were being marinated.”

The secret to Diva’s levels of consistency, he told me, lay in Dalmia’s approach to mentoring her staff. “Training is all-important,” he said. “You have to be able to teach people, otherwise you can never progress and move on to other things yourself. The test of a restaurant is whether it runs as smoothly and the food is as good when the chef isn’t there. After a certain stage in your career, you don’t necessarily have to be cooking every meal every day. You’ve already proved yourself.”

THESE DAYS, Dalmia is constantly on the move between restaurants and meetings. Her own breakfast is a bowl of porridge. Lunch, taken at whatever restaurant she happens to be in, is an egg-white omelette, grilled fish, or a salad. Dinner is cereal with very cold milk. (“When it’s late, and you’ve just come out of the kitchen, and you’re hot and sweaty, actual food makes you sick.”)

“I will never open a restaurant in a mall,” Dalmia said as we drove past Select Citywalk Mall earlier this year. “And never in Gurgaon. And never in another city. I would have loved to open a restaurant in Goa, actually, but it’s not feasible. I need to be able to visit all my restaurants every day—or to be more practical, at least two or three every day. If I can’t be there every day, I won’t know what’s going on, who’s there, who the regulars are.”

That week, Dalmia was reworking the menus at both Café Diva and Diva Piccola, which she does every quarter. The “dogs” (menu items low in popularity and very low in profits) and “puzzles” (low popularity, high on profits) were to be dismissed or adapted. The aim was to rework them into “stars”—high-profit high sellers. Parma ham with melon was a puzzle, angel-hair pasta wasn’t doing well, and the herb-crusted pumpkin salad was doomed. “All the things I love most are the things that never sell,” she said ruefully, as she looked over the last quarter’s sales figures back in her office.

The restaurant business is notoriously high-risk and not for the faint of heart. Commercial rents are exorbitant, and overheads are high, while profits are often elusive. Seemingly dozens of expensive licences are required in order to operate a restaurant in India, and it’s generally necessary to pay bribes to acquire them. On top of a liquor license, which costs Rs 4.5–10 lakh annually, restaurant owners often have to hand out one-time inducements of up to Rs 7 lakh. (Dalmia and I discussed licences, but she didn’t mention any bribes.) Meanwhile, the balance between food costs and sales is always threatening to tip over. Unreliable suppliers, import duties and transport delays can all endanger your profits. And even with all the boxes checked, some restaurants fail. It’s essential to project revenues, anticipate sales, buy food accordingly, and pare down waste.

Pricing at the Diva eateries is fairly standard for fine-dining establishments in Delhi. The café-style outlets begin at Rs 280 for small plates, and mains run up to Rs 600. The members-only, reduced-rate Italian Cultural Centre offers panini for Rs 180, and main courses climb up to Rs 590. Meanwhile, at Diva, the menu ranges from Rs 460 (salads and starters) to Rs 410–1100 (pastas and main courses). You can sometimes find similar items at different Dalmia restaurants, priced differently (angel-hair pasta with burnt garlic, parsley and chilli: Rs 360 at Cafe Diva, Rs 480 at Diva). “The difference is between café models and the fine-dining model,” Dalmia told me. “Also wherever we have a rent advantage, we pass it on to our clients.”

Food costs across the outlets average about 42 percent of the menu price, an uncharacteristically high figure for the industry. (The ideal is said to be about 30–32 percent.) But Dalmia has always been known for her premium ingredients. “I don’t spend half an hour doing a plate, and I don’t have very complicated technical recipes,” she said. “But I really don’t compromise on my ingredients.” Rozario agreed. “No one else has style like Ritu ma’am,” he said fondly. “Things have to be done right, no compromise.” Where other establishments swap pomace for extra-virgin olive oil, and use lower-grade grana padano cheese in place of parmesan, Rozario told me, “Ritu ma’am can’t even bear the name of grana padano.”

The wine list at Diva expresses a similar commitment to quality and value. The eight-page-long list features over 400 labels, and there are usually 15–20 available by the glass. Unlike hotels, stand-alone restaurants don’t get duty-free benefits, but Dalmia has made a decade-long concerted effort to provide her customers with the tipple they crave at cost price or near-cost price. A 2012 Hindustan Times survey found that a bottle of South African Pinotage Nederburg 2009 (Rs 1,500 in the market), for instance, sold for Rs 4,000 at Le Cirque, Rs 3,200 at Orient Express, and Rs 2,800 at Diva.

But there is nothing reckless about Dalmia, who works hard to be able to maintain this happy open-handedness. She is a meticulous businesswoman, vigilant about cost-efficiency, expenditures and revenues. The restaurants recently went into the black, and the parent company, Riga Foods, which Dalmia co-owns with a business partner, Gita Bhalla, is targeting Rs 1.5 crore in profit in the current financial year; its annual turnover in the previous year was Rs 16.5 crore. As the catering division has developed into a full-fledged operation over the last three or four years, Dalmia’s calendar has filled up with private dinners, catering events, wedding consultations, cooking demonstrations, and appearances as brand ambassador for home and kitchenware companies such as Fisher & Paykel. But it’s not just Dalmia—Diva itself has become a name to conjure with. “The Diva brand was initially only about Ritu, because she has such a distinct personality,” Anoothi Vishal said. “But now I think it’s moved beyond the chef, which is a good thing for the business.”

The bedrock of Diva’s success, however, continues to be Dalmia’s commitment to the ethos of her restaurants. Every Monday, she sits down to read the comment cards that diners at all five of her restaurants have left behind the previous week. “Here’s a very genuine complaint,” she said, sifting through the pile in her subterranean office next to Diva on a recent Monday. “Someone’s written that the restaurant charged them Rs 75 for extra jalapeños on their pizza. For extra Parma ham, yes, but we shouldn’t be charging for bloody jalapeños!” Not all problems are fixable, or worth fixing, of course; one customer was upset that a four-person window table couldn’t be made to accommodate six diners. (The window tables are a different size from the other tables.) “The customer is not always right,” Dalmia remarked. “You have to have dignity of labour. If my boys don’t have their own dignity, they’ll just be arse-lickers.”

AT A PHOTO SHOOT IN FEBRUARY for her new cookbook, Diva Green, Dalmia hummed along to her iPod (“Standing In The Way of Control”, by The Gossip) as she stood at a stainless steel range, pretending to stir Thai noodles. “Smile, look happy,” directed photographer Anshika Varma. Dalmia’s hammy response was immediate. “Oh, look how happy I am cooking,” she sang. “Look, everyone, here’s your lunch: overcooked rubbery noodles, no chilli, no soya! Delicious!”

“Ritu loves the camera,” Varma said as she took a few test shots. “She loves to play up to it. She is a natural, and she knows it. The idea of being photographed makes her happy.” Later, Varma and Hachette editor Poulomi Chatterjee reviewed the day’s shots. “She works on instinct,” Varma added. When they met in 2008 as part of a photo shoot for a city magazine, Dalmia was so happy to meet a young woman photographer that she invited the 23-year-old to do a photoshoot for Diva. “Wouldn’t you like to see my portfolio first?” Varma asked. Dalmia waved her away: “No, I just know you’ll be fine.”

At the Diva Green shoot, Dalmia, who was still energetic after two hours of smiling for the camera, pretending to eat, pretending to cook, leaning nonchalantly against fridges and perching atop counters, began pondering the question of lunch for everyone on set. She revived the forlorn noodles with peppers, constructed a beetroot salad, and, beaming, served it up. “Can’t have you all going mad with hunger!” she said.

Diva Green, a collection of 80-odd vegetarian recipes, organised by ingredient—pumpkin, potato, beetroot and carrot, eggplant—is Dalmia’s third cookbook in five years. Dalmia’s family is strictly vegetarian—though she would often eat meat on the sly—and she said the new book was for her mother: “She wasn’t very excited about my earlier books, and didn’t really open them, saying, ‘Oh, it’s all about meat.’ So now she has no option but to buy many, many copies and say, ‘Look, my daughter did this for me.’” Later, Dalmia mentioned that she herself had once been a vegetarian for six years, and insisted that it was possible to cook meat without tasting it. “Food is about feeling, so you can sense and you can tell when it’s wrong, even without tasting it,” she told me. “But then I said no, it’s not happening. I would like to be a vegetarian, but I have to be honest to my profession.”

Dalmia’s first book, Italian Khana, reflected her talent for rendering Italian food accessible to an Indian readership, while still retaining its authenticity. Chiki Sarkar, who was then the editor-in-chief of Random House India, suggested the project because she wanted to know how to create good Italian food using Indian ingredients. Sarkar’s friends also suggested a bilingual version. “They said, hey man, we don’t cook, but our maids do. So will you please do a Hindi and English version?” Sarkar told me. Italian Khana was an instant success, though the bilingual version, released as a set of four mini books, never took off in quite the same way. “The translation was, well, literal,” Dalmia said. “For instance, the pasta puttanesca turned into ‘vaishya ka pasta’ [prostitute pasta], which made no sense to anyone.”

The recipes in Italian Khana were user-friendly: they were short on ingredients, and substitution wasn’t a deal-breaker either. Use walnuts if you can’t get pine nuts, Dalmia’s unflappable voice directed, but never almonds in the pesto. Each dish was introduced by a story. (“Mrs Rossi, who used to work at the Italian Embassy in New Delhi, gave me this recipe.”) Travelling Diva, her second cookbook, was even more excursive, with references to Steel Magnolias, Mark Twain, and Mrs Singh’s Cooking School in the 1950s. Nods to famous friends, grandmothers, and holiday reminiscences are part of a cookbook writer’s standard bag of tricks, but here they felt unaccountably genuine.

The books’ photos were also unusual for cookbooks; they show Dalmia serving lunch al fresco, forks slicing into red velvet cake, and up-close-and-greasy shots of chicken Marengo. This is not particularly useful for anyone trying to follow the recipes, but it makes you feel invited to the party, to Dalmia’s kitchen, to the bonhomie backstage.

The congeniality extended to her television franchises as well. On the Italian Khana and Travelling Diva shows, Dalmia travelled across Italy and Europe, eating regional specialties and poking around in trattorias, chip shops and Austrian jam factories. On screen, she was disarming and enthusiastic, knowledgeable but eager to learn, and generous with her analogies. (“This is basically like a puri, cooked in lard.”) She was good at decoding, simplifying and making the unfamiliar feel comforting. The voiceovers were delivered rather carefully, but her natural exuberance seeped through. “That looks revolting!” she said when faced with a puce-coloured pasty at Borough Market. “Sorry, I lost my interest in you,” she once told Scottish chef Tom Kitchin, adding, just a beat too late, “because the taste took over everything else.”

Not content to rest on her laurels as a restaurateur, Dalmia is also about to open a sixth restaurant, in Defence Colony. Diva Kitsch will serve what she calls “modern oriental”—miles away from Diva’s determinedly Italian fare. Perhaps the natural culmination of Café Diva and Latitude 28’s sallies into East Asian cuisines, this will be, she said, “a playground to hone and better my skills at Asian food”.

Italy still holds her heart, though. In Florence for business meetings one weekend in February, Dalmia was animated and sunny in her Ugg boots, despite the chill. There was the suggestion of a holiday in her manner, as if she had managed to sneak away from her sous-chefs, her managers, her catering jobs, her photo shoots and her punishing restaurant-to-restaurant routine.

To chocolatier Andrea Bianchini of La Bottega on the Via Gioberti, Dalmia spoke colloquial Italian, learnt on the fly. (“I’m not doing too badly, am I?” she crowed.) At lunch, on the Viale Don Minzoni, she was in feeding mode. “The thing you must in eat in Florence is fagioli,” she told me. “Or crostini con lardo. And bistecca! Someone must get a bistecca.” In the end, neither of us could stomach the mountainous steak at lunchtime. We had tagliata—sliced rare beef with rocket and gorgonzola—grilled salt cod, a basket of sour, unsalted Tuscan bread, grilled zucchini flowers stuffed with sage and veal, and a platter of liver pâté, lardo, prosciutto, and greens.

Afterwards, she rejected tiramisu—“the crappiest dessert in the world”—in favour of a traditional torta della nonna, an old-fashioned “grandma’s cake” with ricotta and pinenuts. (Tiramisu was “inspired by the English trifle,” she said, annoyed at this lapse in judgement by the Venetians. “The original Venetian tiramisu was just the sponge, the cats’ tongues, dipped in vin santo. And then they saw the English trifle and got so excited they decided to add mascarpone and fuck it up full time.”) A diabetic, she doesn’t often indulge, but the vacation mood was upon her. “Torta della nonna is my favourite dessert,” she said. “Italians don’t know how to make dessert. I love this country, but the best desserts are from—I hate to admit it—France.”

When we joined up in the evening, after her meetings, Dalmia was buoyant. “Let’s have a drink! Prosecco?” (Prosecco crops up frequently in conversations with Dalmia.) “I know a great place on the rooftop of the Westin—” she began, then changed her mind. “But I know another place before that!”

We marched off down the street, into a grimy hole-in-the-wall sandwich shop. The owner greeted Dalmia with enthusiasm, and began to toast some bread on a griddle. “I like this place,” said Dalmia, “but she keeps making me insanely spicy sandwiches because I’m Indian and she thinks I’m starved for spice here. Unfortunately, the first time I ate one, I nearly died.” Our prosecco came with two semolina flatbread pockets loaded up with Parma ham, melting mozzarella, and eye-watering harissa. Dalmia didn’t bother protesting. “Mangia!” she said.

Over our snack, Dalmia reminisced about her adventures in Italy. “The very first time I came here, I felt right at home. I might have been an Italian in a past life. It’s a country of home cooks—you’ll never get a bad meal in someone’s home here. And I learnt everything I know from eating with people here.”

In the middle of her reflections, she interrupted herself: “Time to move? There’s an amazing view of the city from this rooftop.” She led me, like a triumphant tour guide, out onto the terrace of the glass-walled bar of the Westin, to look at Florence spread out below us. “Isn’t this incredible? I still love Italy so much. Look at this city! It’s so poetic.”

“I WAS SO EMOTIONAL ABOUT MEZZALUNA, Dalmia had told me back in Delhi, as we drove towards Hauz Khas Village. She dangled her arm out of the window, smoking meditatively. (She has recently started smoking again, after quitting seven years ago.) “I just couldn’t get myself to go to Hauz Khas for a long time,” she said. “Then this place came up for rent, and I thought, maybe it’s a sign that I should do a full circle.”

Diva Piccola is just a lane away from where Dalmia once cooked, in the kitchen at MezzaLuna. The restaurant is a year old, but has not yet managed to match the success of Café Diva or Latitude 28. “I must admit I don’t like Hauz Khas very much at the moment,” she remarked. “It’s filthy, and there’s no infrastructure. People love the place, and there is a charm to it—it could be something so special, but it’s not because it’s all makeshift.” After a pause, she added, “But then, I didn’t open here as a commercial venture. I just thought that because my first restaurant was here, it was time to come back.” However symbolic the location, whether Piccola thrives alongside its siblings or not, Diva and its owner are now embedded in the Delhi landscape. There will be no second rout.

Coming out of the kitchen after a quick chat with her chefs—“No, chicken cannot be a special! This is a bloody Italian restaurant”—Dalmia was on her iPhone, first to her gelato supplier, then to a catering client, and, finally, to a friend having a dinner party the following week. “Shall I cook?” she asked. “Do you want me to cook? I’ll do the cooking, okay?”

IN 1993, 22-year-old Ritu Dalmia made up her mind to open a restaurant in Delhi. She had, she considered, a knack for good cooking, and she was itching to get out of her family’s marble business. Their trips to Tuscany and Liguria to source stone and purchase equipment had infused her not with an interest in limestone, but with a love of Italian cooking and wine. Her Italian machinery supplier, Serra Turgutcan, a cook herself, suggested that Dalmia open a restaurant in India.

Despite her inexperience, everything seemed possible to the ebullient Dalmia. The restaurant she opened that October in Hauz Khas Village was called MezzaLuna. The menu was Italian, the floors limestone and slate. She filled the space with her own books, and bric-a-brac from Chor Bazaar. Her parents were bemused, but encouraging. Turgutcan flew to Delhi for the opening party. After taking a bite of Dalmia’s ravioli, she pronounced, “Ritu, this tastes like something that came out of an American can.”

“Suddenly, I realised that I thought I knew it all but I didn’t,” Dalmia told me. She began making trips back to Italy, travelling across regions, tasting and learning. She signed up for a two-week course at Case Vecchie, Anna Tasca Lanza’s world-renowned cooking school at Regaleali, the Tasca family estate in the hills southeast of Palermo. “I would dry tomatoes, pick herbs, make sheep’s-milk cheese,” Dalmia said. Lanza, the late marchesa of Mazzarino, was famous for her Sicilian cooking, which is unmistakeably Italian, but tempered by Arab and North African influences. This, the only formal training Dalmia has ever received—she possesses, she said, the useful skill of being able to recreate dishes from taste alone—laid the foundation for a cooking style characterised by simple combinations and bold flavours.

The food at MezzaLuna became genuinely Italian: pollo alla Valdostana, melanzane ripiene, stuffed timbaletti di Salina. It was, the journalist and food critic Vir Sanghvi recalled, “one of the few Italian restaurants in that era where the chef knew what al dente meant.” Dalmia would take orders, cook meals, and serve them, stopping for a coffee and a chat with diners, her natural gregariousness already moulding her restaurateur persona.

But it soon became apparent that the restaurant was going to fold. Although the food was not particularly outré, diners would still ask for macaroni and baked beans. They would send back Dalmia’s smoked salmon, pointing out that it was cold, or complain that the Parma ham was raw. Every evening, Dalmia and Radhika Khanna, who ran a neighbouring restaurant called Sukothai, would go over their books in despair. At the time, the Hauz Khas Village location precluded an alcohol license, and the import of ingredients was banned. Instead, Dalmia would smuggle extra-virgin olive oil and cheese back from Italy. (“Thirty-three types of cheese in one suitcase,” her long-time chef Jiten Rozario, who was one of her earliest hires at MezzaLuna, recalled.) “And if you look at the cost of going to Italy every month for cheese,” Dalmia said, deadpan, “it didn’t quite work.”

After two years at MezzaLuna, Dalmia, sensing there might be an opportunity to start over abroad, gave up. (“Delhi wasn’t ready for good Italian yet,” Sanghvi later wrote.) When someone offered to buy the struggling restaurant, she jumped at the chance. At the same time, she also sold off her half of a small café called Cappuccino, which had a pool table and was apparently very popular with the girls from Delhi University’s Lady Shri Ram College. But she was heartbroken by the failure of MezzaLuna, and for a time it seemed her culinary dreams might founder.

TWO DECADES LATER, Dalmia has created one of the most beloved and durable culinary brands in India. Five successful Delhi restaurants, a flourishing catering and events company, three best-selling cookbooks, and three television shows have made her not only the capital’s foremost Italian chef, but also one of the most recognisable stars of Indian fine dining. Her flagship restaurant, Diva—part of a vanguard of chef-driven stand-alone establishments that launched in the early 2000s—has helped redefine eating out in an increasingly affluent urban India. And, unlike many of its early peers, Diva, in South Delhi’s Greater Kailash neighbourhood, continues to ride high after 13 years, bolstered by loyalists who return week after week, even as the capital experiences an explosion of new restaurants. If MezzaLuna was ahead of its time, Diva, and Dalmia’s other restaurants, have been right on the money, capitalising on—and shaping—millennial Delhi’s rapidly expanding culinary horizons.

Although many chefs find consistency hard to maintain over more than a decade in the same kitchen, and many more would find themselves spread far too thin if they attempted the same feat across several restaurants, Dalmia’s outsize reputation rests comfortably on the reliable excellence of her food. All her projects are characterised by bright, crowd-pleasing dishes of the sort that critics and customers like to call “honest”, “easy”, “stylish” and “genuine”. At the same time, each of her endeavours is suffused by, and soars on, her generous personality. Whether dressed up or dressed down, each of the restaurants has an elegant conviviality; her television shows thrive on Dalmia’s unrehearsed charm; and the cookbooks invite one to share in her life—favourite meals, family recipes, and friends’ country homes. “Ritu Dalmia on her own is quite a brand,” Sabyasachi Gorai, the director of kitchens at Delhi’s Olive Bar & Kitchen, said. “Her story shows how passionate one can get about food.”

Along with taste and charisma, a canny business sense, honed first by failure, and then by international success, has allowed Dalmia to sustain her culinary empire. Following her disastrous start at MezzaLuna, she has developed an almost infallible instinct for food that not only charms the palate, but also sells. “Ritu was at the helm of the movement where creative chefs also turned into business people,” the food writer Anoothi Vishal told me. Now, with a new cookbook in stores and a new restaurant about to launch, Dalmia’s triumphant progress shows no signs of slowing down.

DALMIA GREW UP IN A MARWARI FAMILY in Calcutta and Delhi. She taught herself to cook at age nine, out of Tarla Dalal’s ubiquitous The Pleasures of Vegetarian Cooking, and the popular Pak Pranali cookbooks, written expressly for Marwari households, which offered “macaroni hotpot, and khao suey with chidwa in it”. After school, she persuaded her father to let her join the family stone and marble business. She changed her mind soon after, but was terrified of telling her parents. “My mother was very supportive, but I was shit-scared to tell my father,” she said. “First, I was ditching his business—and then I was quitting to do something low and degrading like opening a restaurant.”

While MezzaLuna was struggling, a chance assignment for the Saturday Times (a now defunct supplement of the Times of India) sent Dalmia to London, where she found a city bursting with new, internationally inflected cuisines. “I realised, my god, this is where I should be,” she recalled. She saw that the only Indian food available in London was at hole-in-the-wall curry houses or buttoned-up fine-dining restaurants. There was a niche where a hip, contemporary Indian restaurant should be. With a business partner, Andy Verma (the owner of Duke’s Place, another floundering eatery in Hauz Khas Village), Dalmia was determined to fill it.

On her return to Delhi, Dalmia decided to abandon Hauz Khas Village and her ill-fated MezzaLuna adventure. She and Verma scraped together the money for Vama, an upscale, modern Indian restaurant, at the grimy end of King’s Road, in London’s posh Chelsea district. (According to Dalmia, her share of the start-up capital for Vama came from unloading MezzaLuna and from the sale of a slate mine she owned.) Dalmia and Verma ran the business, while a rotating cast of young Indian and British chefs did the cooking.

Getting Vama off the ground was hard work, but Dalmia enjoyed it. At MezzaLuna, she had become an accomplished cook, but now she saw that there was much more to being a restaurateur than what went on the plates. “Everything I know about the restaurant business, I learnt at Vama,” she told me. “Your stakes are so high, and the overheads are so high there, that if you mess up, you’ll go under in three months.” She learnt to keep costs as low as possible, the importance of restaurant location, and how vital food critics were to the business. Six months in, after a good review in the Sunday Times by the legendary AA Gill, Vama suddenly took off. Soon, celebrities such as Maggie Smith, Martina Navratilova and Bryan Adams were dining out on Vama’s sophisticated Indian dishes.

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READER'S COMMENTS

9 thoughts on “Molto Dalmia”

@Divya and @RK:
Spot on, I agree. Caravan: please take note. I expected more (and better) from you. This is NOT to discount Dalmia; she has surely done quite a bit in the restaurant business. It’s not easy to take such a risk in the cagey Indian “eating” business. All that said, why the reluctance to bring it to a wider demographic and geographies? Franchising is not such a bad idea. Admitted, it’s not a mature model in India and harder still to manage quality, but who’s going to throw the first stone? If not people like Dalmia (if the story of her gumption and adventure is true), who will? Two things need to be managed smartly are (1) production management/prep (galley/kitchen) and (2) the culture of consumption (the tougher education of the public). How many people in India can do this? Based on my limited knowledge of the industry in India, none. India is still in the colonial, if not feudal, mode where food industry is concerned. Nothing wrong with haute cuisine but if someone can stir up the pot in the 2nd line of cities – or even 3rd – there is an enormous potential for creative juices to flow across the country (pardon the corny metaphor) and also to preserve traditional cuisines. Imagine if Dalmia took road trips to the back country (instead of Maremma) and Caravan married EPW!

Is this supposed to be an article or a love letter ? I thought journalism was supposed to be (somewhat) objective. Enough with the drooling already !
Are the author and Dalmia friends ?

There is a difference between a magazine profile of a person and a paen to the person. The tone and content of this article place it firmly in the latter category. There are ways of writing an appreciative, respectful article without making it seem like wild exultation and praise which makes the credibility and intentions of the journalism seem suspect. The writer- and more importantly the editors at The Caravan- should know better.

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