CHEF POWER: TALKING FOOD WITH RADHIKA, ANAHITA, MEGHA AND MITHALI
They are the brains and the brawn behind some of the city’s most popular eateries. Whether it’s the salad at Fig and Maple, the vada pav at Soda Bottle Opener Wala, the spicy chicken at Lavaash By Saby or the salted caramel and Cointreau chocolate bars at Bombaykery - Radhika Khandelwal, Anahita Dhondy, Megha Kohli and Mithali Sahani have one thing in common: their creations in the kitchen are unforgettable. We got to talking with these pathbreakers and ‘anomalies’ in the competitive food industry about their journey, the challenges they have faced, and the comradeship they deeply cherish.
1. So, how did it all start?
RK: Well, I started Ivy and Bean in 2013. I had just come back from Melbourne and I knew I wanted to branch out on my own. I could see there was a gap in the market as far as a café was concerned, and I wanted to give Delhi something that it didn’t have. With Fig and Maple, it was very different. My guests were so happy with the menu at Ivy and Bean that the scope of growing as a chef had stopped there, and I was itching to grow. It took me two years to conceptualize Fig and Maple because I really wanted to do something in the ‘know your farmer’ space. It was the biggest risk I could have taken and I didn’t know if it was going to pay off at the time. Thankfully it did, and I’m happy that I was one of the first people in the industry to kick start the local and seasonal produce trend.
MK: It actually started in 2013 when Chef Saby told me to research an Armenian concept. In 2015, we managed to get the current location for Lavaash by Saby, which was originally supposed to be a pizzeria and an Italian restaurant, but we decided against it, since it was right next to Olive Bar and Kitchen in Mehrauli. That’s when I remembered that I had this Armenian concept. I showed it to Chef Saby, and that was that.
AD: I had just come back from London in 2013 and I was looking for a job here in India. So I spoke to Chef Saby, the ex-Director of Kitchens at Olive Bar and Kitchen in Mehrauli and I just told him that I wanted to work in the kitchen for a couple of months. That’s when he told me that they were looking at a new concept, a Bombay-Irani café, and needed someone to manage it. He was so excited to meet me because he hadn’t met someone who knew Parsi cooking. He called me the next day for trials and in three days, I was on board. It happened so fast, I was 23-years-old and I was running Soda Bottle Opener Wala.
MS: I moved to Delhi three years ago and noticed that there was a dearth of good bakeries. Sure, there were lots of talented bakers, but no one was offering a complete package of a good product and a good delivery service, and I wanted to start something that would provide all of that.
Can you describe the typical clientele at your restaurant or bakery?
RK: A Fig and Maple regular is probably the guy sitting alone in his pajamas eating chicken waffles or the girl reading a book or working on a laptop, eating a salad. They know what they want, they know when to come in, they know they can spend the day here, and you just know when you see them. They’re the hipsters, the entrepreneurs, and the believers.
MK: We get a mixed clientele, but mostly its people who like to experiment with their food and at the same time enjoy comfort food.
AD: It varies from city to city, but in Delhi, most of our customers are people who have lived in Mumbai and miss the street food there. But, we do get a lot of Parsi customers and expats who love the twist that we give to Indian food.
MS: We attract a varied audience, but our most loyal customers are teenagers who love their cupcakes and macarons.
What has been the hardest part of running your own kitchen?
RK: Labour was a nightmare. Sourcing was a nightmare. I actually thought that I’d never be able to open my own restaurant. You’re constantly taken for a ride and vendors don’t meet their promises. When I went sourcing for plates, the guys wouldn’t even talk to me, they wouldn’t acknowledge my presence, and it was humiliating.
MK: Honestly, the hardest part for me is handling civic authorities. Suddenly, someone from the government will land up at your restaurant and tell you that tandoors are illegal. And you need to handle these problems on a day-to-day basis. Managing rude and demanding guests is also a challenge. I get really upset when someone talks to my staff rudely.
AD: The uncertainty of the business creates anxiety. When I started, I was really scared and intimidated, but it’s the learning and education that helps you power through. It is essential to have the self-confidence to interact with guests throughout the day.
MS: As a girl, starting my own bakery in Delhi was very tough. Vendors wouldn’t take me seriously and assumed I was a small-time home baker. I was lucky that I had a male partner who took care of this side of the business. It’s a real struggle for female chefs.
There’s always been the assumption that men rule the food industry? What do you think? Has that changed?
RK: A lot needs to change. People are always looking for the man behind my brand. They’re looking for the man who tossed up Fig and Maple or Ivy and Bean. The fact is that they can keep looking, because I am the woman behind both those brands.
MK: It’s changing, but we still have a long way to go. A lot of chefs I know are still not open to hiring a female chef because they assume she’ll get married and leave or won’t be able to put in the hours and manage physical stress. But, female chefs in the industry are challenging these assumptions and inspiring more women everyday. Even now, we’re subjected to snide comments about how we’re just the face of our restaurants, and how men, in fact, do the cooking in our kitchen. Would anyone ask a male chef if he did the cooking or not? It’s frustrating. We’re chefs, what do you think we do?
AD: It’s changing rapidly, and all of us are contributing to the change in our own way. We’re encouraging more and more women to join the industry. I love working with men, they’re dedicated and great skilled workers, but I think women can multitask much better than men.
MS: There are such fabulous female chefs these days. And you can see the change in the mindset in kitchens. Women aren’t been considered weak, and they’re being taken more seriously, so the change is happening.
There’s so much competition in this industry. How do you stay relevant?
RK: At the end of the day, the USP of a restaurant is its food. If you cannot bring back a guest for your food, then they will not come back any way.
MK: We keep reinventing. We have three seasonal menu changes and daily special menus that are not related to the cuisine of the restaurant, and we promote ourselves a lot on social media. I personally take time out in the day to talk about our recipes and ingredients because people now associate restaurants with the chef. So, I put Lavaash out there as much as I can.
AD: You have to keep innovating and reinventing yourself. At Soda Bottle Opener Wala, we have tippy tippy taps on tables, we have interesting décor, we have staff with disabilities, and so we’re learning everyday. That’s the only way to stay ahead.
MS: Being a bakery, you have to cater to all age groups and we address that very well. In order to stay relevant and current, I think using good quality ingredients is key as well as keeping your price points in check. And while a part of your menu must remain constant, it’s important to keep adding new things to the menu as well.
Is there comradeship amongst the female chefs?
RK: I feel like there aren’t enough female chefs. There are just a handful of us, which is why it’s easier for us to maintain a friendship. I certainly hope that younger chefs will come out and take more initiative to ensure this bond is shared.
MK: Yes, for sure. People constantly ask us if we have ego issues and competition, but honestly, we all get along like a house on fire. I’ve known Anahita for years and Radhika and I are best friends. At the end of the day, you just know you have to stand by each other and constantly support each other.
AD: Yes, definitely. Whether it’s talking about trends or recipes or vendors, we all try to help each other out and keep each other in the loop. It’s important.
MS: Absolutely. I think it’s great to have a healthy friendship in the industry and all of us try to help each other as much as we can.
What’s your go-to style? Do you think ANOMALY fits the profile?
RK: Of course! I gravitate towards relaxed silhouettes and cottons. As chefs, spending most of our days in uncomfortable environments, we look for comfortable clothes. I’m very partial towards white, so I was happy to see that ANOMALY carries a lot of white separates.
MK: Comfort matters a lot to me and I like indigenous brands. In fact, the clothes I wore today and even ANOMALY’s other pieces are completely my style.
AD: It’s very easy, very comfort-driven. I basically wear clothes for an hour in a day because as soon as I get to work, I change into my chef’s coat. I love ANOMALY’s clothes. They’re subtle yet well defined, and that’s what makes them stand out. Like the pants I wore today, I know I’m going to wear them so much because they’re so cool.
MS: My style is very easy and relaxed and ANOMALY’s silhouettes are completely in sync with my style. Comfort is key because it’s so hot in the kitchen that you need to wear something breezy and light, and I love that ANOMALY has pieces like that.
Thanks, Radhika, Anahita, Megha and Mithali for sharing your inspiring journey with us!
Style and Concept: Aishwarya Dravid