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The chef is a diva



Last month, I sat down with Ritu Dalmia and tried to work out when I had first eaten her food. The answer surprised us both. It was way back in 1996 (when the original Hauz Khas village was still hot) at a now forgotten restaurant called MezzaLuna.

I had never heard of Ritu Dalmia then (frankly, nobody else had either) but somebody mentioned that a great new Italian restaurant had opened in Hauz Khas. In those days, there was no standalone Italian restaurant of consequence in India and even the expensive hotel places were just pasta-pizza places with very high prices. So the idea of an authentic Italian restaurant – which is what people said MezzaLuna was – struck me as intriguing.

Nevertheless, I was sceptical when I went. My spirits were not lifted by the menu which was full of complicated dishes that I had never seen before in India, with little notes from the chef: “I was on the beautiful Amalfi coast when I first had this wonderful seafood dish and I wanted so hard to recreate it at my restaurant….” (I am making up the exact quote but believe me, the menu was full of this kind of too-much-information tosh from beginning to end.)

My doubts faded when I tried the food. This was real Italian food, focusing on clean flavours and high quality ingredients. This was the sort of Italian restaurant that you rarely found outside of Italy in the 1990s, something like London’s River Café.

I never got to meet the verbose chef-patron through I went back again and again. And then, one day the restaurant closed. The chef disappeared.

Then, around three years later, she resurfaced as the chef-owner of a new Italian restaurant in Greater Kailash II called Diva. This time, I asked to speak to her because the food was so good. Once again, it was real Italian food of the kind you did not see in Asia in that era.

A young but super-confident woman chef turned up to say hello. I discovered she remembered me vaguely from MezzaLuna and I asked what had happened to her in the interim.

She had closed MezzaLuna, she said, because the Delhi crowd was not ready for it. She had taken off for London, where she had opened an Indian restaurant called Vama, which she eventually sold to her partners (like MezzaLuna, Vama was also ahead of its time) and had returned to Delhi to once again pursue her dream of opening an authentic Italian restaurant. This time around, she believed, Delhi was ready for the real thing.

Intrigued by her ambition and confidence, I asked her where she had worked before. The answer was nowhere; MezzaLuna had been her first cooking gig.

Bit by bit, the story tumbled out. Ritu had been born into a family of well-off marble dealers in Calcutta. She had joined her father’s business, had done well but had objected to being treated like a kid.

So she had broken away to do something on her own. She had no cooking experience. She had never been to Catering College. She had taught herself to cook and, when she was in London for the marble business, she had talked her way into brief stints (rarely longer than a week) at such places as the River Café (so I had been right about the influence in the food at MezzaLuna!) by claiming to be a journalist who was doing features on what it was like to work in restaurant kitchens. (She even had cards printed which read Ritu Dalmia – Food Journalist.)

She had the advantage of coming from a wealthy background – her family travelled through Europe extensively when she was growing up and had eaten at all the best restaurants. But just because you like something it doesn’t mean you know how to cook it. So it had been hit and miss and trial and error.

Unlike MezzaLuna, Diva took off almost immediately. I became a regular and so did most of my friends. We were all fed up of hotel restaurants and wanted something that felt more real. At Diva, not only was the food good but there was a sophistication and warmth to the hospitality.

Ritu experimented with all sorts of things. She built a pizza oven and served Delhi’s best pizzas. At a time when wine was yet to take off in India, she built an enoteca and served Italian wines at pretty much her cost price. (The owners of Tignanello should give her an award. She single-handedly popularised the wine among Delhi’s smart set, long before it became known as The Tig, the ‘rich lady’ wine of choice.)

Every autumn, she contacted white truffle suppliers she knew in Alba and got the best truffles, which she shaved liberally over her pastas and her pizza bianco for a fraction of what hotels would charge for a single shaving of substandard truffles.

We had our run-ins, of course. I always told her that while she was brilliant with pasta, her meat cooking was not great, a (probably unfair) criticism that left her bristling. Whenever I ordered the hot soufflé of the day, it was always chocolate and I accused her of not knowing how to make any other soufflé.

But it was good natured joshing, which we continued on camera when she appeared in an episode of A Matter of Taste, my Discovery Travel and Living show. I wrote about her often but frankly, most people thought I was overstating her significance because in that era (the early 2000s) chefs at standalones were never given much importance or respect either by the media or even by the guests.

But Ritu was unstoppable. She got her own show on NDTV and went on to do two or three seasons, working for peanuts because she enjoyed telling people about the world of food. (There were no food bloggers in those days; India had yet to go food mad.

At a time when wine was yet to take off in India, Ritu built an enoteca and served Italian wines at pretty much her cost price

The Italian embassy discovered her. They were so thrilled to find authentic Italian food in Delhi that they got Ritu to cater all their events. Then she opened a café at the Italian Cultural Centre, which she still runs and where she serves India’s best pizzas.

Next came the private caterings. These led, naturally, to the big weddings. As rich Indians started hosting weddings and parties in Italy, they put Ritu in charge of the food. She had every three star Italian chef on speed dial so when millionaires hired Ritu, they knew that the best chefs in Italy would join her in cooking the food at their family weddings.

And then, there were her other restaurants, some of which worked and some of which did not. Of the Diva offspring, my favourite is still Café Diva, one of the nicest casual restaurants in Delhi.

I watched her triumphant progress with pride and astonishment. I had not realised how much India would change in the decade to come and how everything Ritu pioneered – from good wine, to truffles, to handmade pasta, to hot soufflés, to high quality, Italian-style pizzas to casual but warm hospitality to food shows on TV – would become part of the Indian scene.

In recent years, Ritu has risen even further. Her friends always knew that she was gay but she decided to come out and become part of the challenge to Section 377. (She and her fellow petitioners won a well-deserved victory.) She took on a new partner, the billionaire Analjit Singh, who bought out Ritu’s existing partner, acquired some of her shares and now owns 51 per cent of her company.

Ritu went back to Indian food for the first time since Vama and opened Cittamani in Milan a year ago. That was where we met for dinner last month and the restaurant was heaving with stylish Italians (there were only two tables of Indians). Cittamani’s success has led Ritu to plan a second restaurant in Milan though this one will have more street food.

When I think back to the chutzpah it must have taken an untrained chef, in her early 20s, to open MezzaLuna all those years ago and see how successful Ritu is today, I can’t help but admire her skill and tenacity.

This is a woman who does not bother to hide her sexual orientation, who will not compromise on the authenticity of her food, who will open new restaurants in new countries and will do it all without depending on any man.

You could call Ritu Dalmia’s success a feminist victory. Or you could just call it a gender-neutral triumph of courage and skill.

Whatever you call it, there is just so much to admire in what she has achieved.

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