After hosting a series of collaborative dinners — with Chef Andoni Luis Aduriz of the two Michelin star Mugaritz restaurants from Basque Country in Spain; and Chef Gaggan Anand of the two Michelin-starred Gaggan — ITC Hotels is back with another pop-up called Culinary Stories, this time with Prateek Sadhu, chef and co-owner of Masque in Bombay.
ITC Hotels’ Culinary Stories focuses on bringing out the essence and experience of culture and ethos of a region through its food and celebrates food maestros and their unforgettable creations. t2 chatted with Prateek whose Masque turns five in September, on his multi-city culinary tour with ITC Hotels beginning with ITC Gardenia, Bengaluru, followed by ITC Grand Chola, Chennai, and ITC Royal Bengal on September 3-4.
Tell us about the pop-up...
The whole idea is to celebrate five years of Masque. This tour for us is a celebratory tour where we are covering Delhi, Bangalore, Chennai, Calcutta, and we finish the leg in Ladakh.
What made you say yes to Culinary Stories by ITC Hotels?
ITC with outlets like Bukhara and Avartana, we all know is about good food. And we have come together and are doing something very special. There will be an elaborate 10-course meal. The whole idea is to showcase what we have done in terms of texture and flavours. There will be a touch and influence of Bengal.
You are known to draw inspiration from local ingredients and food. How well do you know about Bengal food?
Last time we were in Calcutta, we had some brilliant meals. I remember the street food we had… I am forgetting the places... New Market... Vardaan... the kind of phuchkas and the jhaal muri.... Sometimes when you are eating something you feel it’s simple but if you look deeply there’s so much into it.
You opened Masque in 2016. What was your food philosophy?
The idea was always to showcase Indian food in a very different way. We wanted to break a lot of stereotypes in terms of what people think about Indian food... in the West how people perceive Indian food and also domestically. A lot of energy and research went into it. We were drawing inspiration not from any particular region but from all over... in terms of ingredients, flavours, technique. I think that was the whole ethos of Masque.
At the same time we were concentrating our energies in delivering that kind of experience. So when you talk about having no menus, having a lot of surprises, it adds to the experience. When you are dining at a place like Masque, there is so much energy we concentrate on making that experience memorable.
Masque was named No. 32 on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list of 2021, only the second Indian restaurant after Indian Accent to achieve this feat. How does it feel?
This was not the goal. As a team we have spent so much time on research and development, I think our focus was to really create a world-class experience. We have been blessed and fortunate that these awards have come our way which we are very grateful about but I think the goal is to really to concentrate on researching more about Indian food and creating those experience. But yes, awards are important. They really push you to achieve those experiences.
What are the biggest misconceptions about Indian food?
There are a lot of misconceptions and I feel Indian food should not be boxed. Indian food, what we know today, is a result of constant evolution. So these misconceptions will always be there but as chefs, restaurateurs and hoteliers, our job is to really push hard and break stereotypes.
How would you define modern Indian food?
Talking about modern Indian food, there are so many restaurants that are incredible and inspiring. Look at the kind of food that they are doing. Focusing on regionality.... I think it is very important... look at the food in the ’70s vis-a-vis ’80s, ’90s and now. If you see the restaurants that were opening in ’90s or ’2000s, they heavily focused on items like Chicken Curry, Malai Tikka in the menu... the regular things. But look at the restaurants that are drawing inspiration from regional food. The conversation around Indian food has suddenly changed. Right now the conversation is so amazing and I think as a person, as a chef, we are so lucky to be in these kind of conversations. When I’m saying Indian food is changing, the foundation will remain the same. We are only building on the foundation. We are not recreating something. We are not having conversations about different kinds of naan. We are talking about bread from Ladakh. At the same time, we are talking about food from a small Dalit community, which was never the case and that is what modern Indian cuisine is for me.
You are known to bring together various regions in your cuisine, how do you get the formula correct every time?
Honestly, there is no formula. There is no thumb rule. It is all about the research that we put in, day in and day out, in creating flavours and in understanding India and its ingredients. When we are trying to create a dish also, we are drawing inspiration from many things. At the same time when we are trying to do that, we want to be truly authentic. Our food is Indian, by definition. We use Indian ingredients, flavours and techniques. There is a sense of familiarity when we are eating Indian food. For example, in Bangalore or Chennai, we bring uncooked rasam as an accompaniment drink. So when someone drinks it, they will say yeh toh rasam hai, even though it is uncooked. We want to arrive at the same flavours but take a different route for it. So there’s no formula or thumb rule. We have only just scratched the surface. For us also, there is so much to learn. So much to dive deep into.
What would you say is the future of Indian food?
It is bright. This is the best time. Look at the conversations that are happening right now. I am not shunning away any dish or concept. We are talking about Butter Chicken and a small dish from a certain community that is made with pork blood at the same time. They are both truly Indian.
You had mentioned in one of your posts about the need to focus on plant-based food. Do you think in India, with a varied meat-eating population, this would be easy?
I feel we really need to understand how India eats. If you take a region from Kashmir, where I am from, meat-eating region, hum lamb ka intestine se leke dimaag tak kha jaate hain. But if you understand how Indians consume meat, it is mostly as an accompaniment. Like when we are eating at home, we will have dal, sabzi, like in Kashmir we will have haak, and some meat. India has always been plant-forward. In the West, it is a new phenomenon, because they will have veggies along with meat as the main course. Meat is a primary source of protein for them. But in India, for a non- vegetarian home also, meat would be there sometimes but not every day because your source of protein is in abundance.
For a niche restaurant like Masque, did you feel the pinch when the pandemic hit?
We felt not only the pinch, but the punch! And it was the case not just with us, but every restaurant when the lockdown happened. Everyone started figuring out what we need to do in order to survive. A restaurant like ours, we did everything, like in 15 days we were a delivery restaurant. We were serving Rogan Josh, burgers, kombucha, breads, etc, anything to survive. So we did chef-picked menus which were curated. We did something like eating in your car. It was survival mode for standalone restaurants and the worst phase any restaurant can ever be in.
One of the biggest trends of 2020 was cloud kitchens. Do you think it poses a threat to the entire experience of dining out?
No, not at all. People don’t go out just to eat food. Please understand why we go to a restaurant. Yes, the food is a big draw but you go to a restaurant to feel special and for other things. It is more mental also sometimes and those experiences are here to stay. The experience that Masque gives or what a roadside pav bhaji-wala will give, that will always remain there.
What is the biggest advantage/disadvantage of being a chef-owner?
I can list 10,000 advantages but I feel sometimes as creative people we are always in the zone where creating and developing things gives us a high. But there is very little time for yourself also and that is a disadvantage. You miss out spending time with your parents, family, siblings and you need to be really passionate about what you are doing.
Since your restaurant has completed five years, what would you say are the five highs?
Many highs (smiles). First high is that we have managed to survive for five years with the unique concept that we have. Second, to a certain extent, we managed to create a niche for ourselves. Till 2016, people would say that Masque is a very ambitious concept with no menus, only tasting menus... was very challenging but in these five years we have managed to create a gap for a restaurant like this.
Third, look at the conversation we have been having around Indian food. Masque is a very small restaurant and it has a very well-knit team and I think as a leader when you look back at your team and look at each member, you see them so invested. And for me that is the biggest high because everybody has taken ground and that is something which is very powerful for a restaurant and that is something that I never take for granted.
More about the pop-up
What: Culinary Stories with chef Prateek Sadhu
Where: ITC Royal Bengal
When: September 3-4
Pocket pinch: Rs 5,500-plus per guest for a 10-course menu
Call: 033 44464646 for reservations. Limited seats.