Food: Ripping off the Masque

Published on Sep 17, 2022 02:20 AM IST

A food journalist spends a day at one of Asia’s finest restaurants in Mumbai. Here are her thoughts.

Chef Totlani introduces Sonal Ved to the rest of the team during a pre-serving briefing (Shyamali Patel)
Chef Totlani introduces Sonal Ved to the rest of the team during a pre-serving briefing (Shyamali Patel)
BySonal Ved

Who really can take credit for any restaurant? I ask myself as I am greeted by Aditi and Aditya Dugar, the owners of Masque, the restaurant where I am interning today. It’s a fair question to ask considering Masque’s former head chef (and current HT Brunch columnist) Prateek Sadhu recently quit, handing over everything from his Panda merch to an ageing morel miso to his protégé Varun Totlani, a graduate from Culinary Institute of America, New York, and a part of Sadhu’s team for the last six years.

Totlani is as bright as the notes of a cinnamon in a Campari, a young chef who can tell between Kansas and Texas-style barbecue. He follows everyone from Tootsie Tomanetz to Meherwan Irani and one similarity between Sadhu and him—besides the fact that they both look at Indian cuisine via a non-linear lens—is that they are on top of every piece of gossip in the food world. For example, I learn about the love life of a pastry chef with stories that are way juicier than her vegan mango pie, and about another chef who is dating Demi Moore.

Chef Varun Totlani in the kitchen
Chef Varun Totlani in the kitchen

First mover

This is the first time a journalist has been invited to the Masque kitchen to work with the team. The last time I tried something like this, it did not go very well. It was for The Bombay Canteen and the then-head chef Thomas Zacharias asked me to wear a hair net and clogs. I never showed up for the shift and ended up working for Vogue, instead.

But today is different. I am here before the rest of the team arrives at 9 am and start my day inside a 2.8° celsius cabinet known as the “walk-in”. It’s not a Balenciaga-filled one like Kim K’s, but a tamatar, truffles and chives-loaded one that chef Totlani insists every intern must get around.

“Sift through the produce and put it on labelled trays,” he tells me and the two others, who are doing a summer stint before they go back to culinary schools in Switzerland and France. While their on-point Instagram feed had me expecting to work with hisalu and bedu berries, I got to wrap mint and sage leaves in a tissue roll and pull forward old lemons and push back new ones, “So the bartenders pick up the dated stash first,” says chef Jash Arora, my work-buddy for the day. I have to take mini-breaks from this walk-in because it’s as cold and as dark as Narnia in here.

Mirchi vada chaat being served as the staff meal of the day
Mirchi vada chaat being served as the staff meal of the day

Totlani practised his chops for 10 years to lead the number 21 restaurant on Asia’s 50 Best list, and his interests are as much in the kitchen as they are in winning awards and schmoozing with international chefs, another commonality between him and Sadhu.

Masque is wrapping up for a summer break, an uncommon practice in the hospitality industry which is notorious for glorifying the burnout culture. The Dugars insist they do this so the team can come back with ideas so fresh, they’d put flowers at Chelsea in Bloom to shame. Forgive my analogy, all my friends are spending summer in London, while I am frying achappam shells at precisely 150° celsius.

Charred chillies being stuffed with a spiced potato mixture
Charred chillies being stuffed with a spiced potato mixture

Totlani has put me in charge of the second course. “Once, a guest cooked murungakkai vatha kuzhambu for us, telling me how in his community, deseeding a drumstick for someone is a sign of love. The course is inspired by that episode,” he says.

It requires me to diligently separate the seeds from inside a drumstick, keeping aside the marrow and throwing away the fibrous husk. To make the outer shell, chef Shauri Londe shares a recipe that calls for weighing rice flour and tapioca starch first. The outer tart shell is inspired by a Thai rose cookie that somewhere meets Kerala achappam to create a Tamil end product.

Totlani’s menu is also inspired by flavours of Uttarakhand and Maharashtra, a much-needed break from Sadhu’s Kashmiri hangover. A Peddar Road boy who doesn’t rely only on his grandmother or mom’s recipes to validate food’s authenticity, Totlani spends a lot of time meeting producers and home chefs. His skill is supreme, but knowledge can sometimes be half-baked. In a recent Instagram caption, he’d confused Karnataka cuisine for Kerala food.

Sonal scraping off steamed drumstick flesh for one of the courses
Sonal scraping off steamed drumstick flesh for one of the courses

Looking for a snack

Today, Totlani has trusted me with staff snacks and I choose a regional Indian dish from Rajasthan: the mirchi vada chaat.

Chefs Aniket Pokale and Murli Nayak help me bring my A-game with prep. After all, I’ll be cooking for a few of the brightest chefs in the country. Sous chef Shiv Mandrwal slits and chars the Bhavnagari mirchis even though my recipe does not call for it. “Just trust me,” he says in a Simon Leviev way, from behind a pink cap with a pineapple emoji stitched on it.

Food logos, motivational quotes and a wall full of keepsakes are everywhere. Sadhu’s mascot—Panda graffiti—even today overlooks the kitchen like Yashvardhan and Nandini Raichand in Rahul’s home in K3G. Chef Londe has a cactus brooch, “Which means I’m in charge of the nagphani course,” she tells me. Masque is one of the the first restaurants to serve cactus. “Also known as nopal in Mexico, here we pickle it and serve it with compressed cucumber, marinated chillies and a green apple-coriander broth,” she explains.

The finished mirchi vada chaat
The finished mirchi vada chaat

Part(y)ing notes

At 6 pm, once we have finished dinner prep and eaten an early dinner, the team gathers for a briefing. It starts with guest relations executive Ishaan Chitnis telling us how many covers are coming tonight. About 45 people will eat the tart course made by my rubber-gloved hands. These meetings end with an odd rule where one person has to pick a word for the day and the rest of the team has to scream it on top of their lungs. Today was my chance and I obviously picked the tongue twister that “murungakkai” is. “We do this to keep motivation high,” Totlani says.

Apart from a week-long break and screaming words out loud, what else is the millennial chef doing differently? “Simple things like people can bring their own playlists to work, which range from Diljit Dosanjh to Katy Perry. And the fact that one can wear sneakers in the kitchen rather than formal kitchen clogs,” he says. Thinking about you, chef Thomas Zacharias.

For me, the chefs world is now divided into team Gabriel (of Emily in Paris) or team Carmy (of The Bear). Totlani sure falls in the second category. For one’s a good-looking charmer who does little cooking, and the second is hardworking, calculative and obsessed with Noma. As for my question about who takes credit for a restaurant? He says, “It’s my whole team so make sure you give them credit in your piece.” As Sydney would say, “yes, chef”.

Sonal Ved is a Mumbai-based lifestyle editor. She has written two New York-times accredited food books, Whose Samosa Is It Anyway? and Tiffin.

From HT Brunch, September 17, 2022

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