Chef Ritu Dalmia was one of the first to awaken Indian epicureans to Italian cuisine with her restaurant DIVA in 2000. But things have not always been rosy for this ‘untrained’ chef. In a candid chat, Dalmia talks about failures, new initiatives and travel. By Adila Matra
1. You have had quite a tumultuous journey with DIVA. Tell us about it.
People say I have been quite successful. But I have also had many failures. I’ve learned that if a restaurant does not make money in the first year, you have to shut it down. DIVA Italian [launched in 2000] worked well, but with DIVA Kitsch, we went wrong with the location—there were a lot of issues with permits as it was in a residential area. Ultimately, we closed it down. But I consider every failed restaurant a college degree.
2. How has travel impacted your cooking?
Every idea that I have gotten for a new dish has been from my travels. I am not a formally educated chef, so travelling has been my education. Before we opened the Asian restaurant DIVA Spiced, I travelled extensively across Southeast Asia for four years. The menu at Spiced was a result of my travels through China, Vietnam, Singapore, and Myanmar.
3. Tell us about DIVA Casa Pantry. What inspired you to start it?
The country went into lockdown in March 2020, and by May, we knew that it was going to be a long haul. We made a tough decision to shut down restaurants where there was no rent relief. People were beginning to cook more, so my restaurant in Italy began rolling out DIY kits that became very popular. We emulated that in India. Soon, we began getting requests for our sauces and dressing, and that is when Casa Pantry came in. The idea was to give our signature ingredients that don’t have much of a shelf life, in small batches. These help you make a pizza or pasta easily at home.
4. What is the most obscure place or food you have discovered?
Once, in Hanoi, I was served cold rolls with a crispy filling, which turned out to be quite delicious until we got to know they were rat ears. Another time, I went to a small Italian village called Aulla, where I tasted pani gaci. It’s bread cooked in the heat of terracotta tiles, and it was outstanding.
5. What is on your travel bucket list for 2021?
I would be happy to just get on a flight and go anywhere, really. But if I had to choose, it would be Ethiopia.