Taking a couple of hours off from what we’re certain would have otherwise been a demanding Monday afternoon, four beautiful women walk into The Quorum, an upscale private members’ club in Mumbai’s Lower Parel district, the location for our shoot today — Amrita Raichand (former model and actor turned celebrity chef); Gauri Devidayal (Co-Founder, Food Matters Group); Shilarna Vaze (chef at Gaia Gourmet catering, cookbook author, TV host and content creator); and Aditi Dugar (Founder-Director, Masque and Sage & Saffron of Urban Gourmet India; Chief Brand Advisor, retail and lifestyle, Araku Coffee; Manager and Curator, Seesaw).
At first glance, one would assume they have perhaps stopped by for a leisurely lunch. But these are no ordinary women... Each, in their own right, has shaped Mumbai’s food space in ways unseen, making way for an elevated yet robust kind of eating that’s accelerated India’s culinary terrain on new and exciting courses. After a quick catch up and laughs among themselves, and completing a fun shoot, they’re ready to sit down and get candid in our tête-à-tête.
HELLO!: Tell us about the journey that’s led you to where you are today...
Amrita Raichand: I’ve been cooking since I was eight! After I got married, I travelled a lot with my wonderful husband Rahul, which gave me great exposure to different cultures and cuisines. After our son Agastya was born, and I started weaning him off breast milk, I wanted to be in control of everything I fed him; this is when I started experimenting with exciting food options for him. I wanted my child to thoroughly enjoy his mealtimes and provide him with dishes that were nutritious and appealing. That’s when I got offered the show Mummy Ka Magic on TV. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect; the show went on to win many awards, and that’s when I said to myself, ‘This is it, my true calling!’ I’ve also given two TEDx Talks — one explaining the child-food equation and the second about 10 life lessons, each learnt at every important stage of my life. I also have a YouTube channel, Amrita Raichand, ‘Chef And Beyond’.
Gauri Devidayal: I ventured into the food space a little unintentionally back in 2009-2010. My husband, Jay, had the crazy idea to open a restaurant, so I decided to take a year- long sabbatical from my accountant profession and tag along for the ride. It’s ended up being a 12-year-long sabbatical, but I guess I found my true calling. (Smiles)
Aditi Dugar: My career began in finance; it wasn’t until I had my second child that I decided to take some time off. Little did I know what it’d lead to! My mom has always been an excellent cook, and it was during this time that I began helping her with the small- scale catering requests — not just in the kitchen, but also with tablescapes, presentation and décor. I realised there was a dearth in the space for events with that kind of finesse... And that was how my catering company, Sage & Saffron, came about in 2012. Four years later, Masque opened its doors. In 2021, Araku Café opened in Bengaluru, and Seesaw opened in Mumbai; we operate their kitchens. Each business filled a gap in the market. It’s been quite a learning curve, learning the value of building a strong team and ways to block out the noise. I think I’ve created a space for myself that combines the things I’m most interested in, in the capacity I wanted to do them.
Shilarna Vaze: I studied at Le Cordon Bleu in 2004 after graduating from St Xavier’s. I’ve been in the business ever since. I worked at standalone restaurants in Goa after I returned from Paris and set up my first restaurant, Gaia, with my then boyfriend and now husband Christophe, by the time I was 28! We then launched Gaia Gourmet, one of the first gourmet catering companies in Mumbai. Post pandemic, we are living between Mumbai and Goa again, so life has come a full circle!
H!: How has the food landscape changed in India in recent years? How do you think you contributed to it?
AR: We’ve been made to believe that food can either by sinful (delightfully tasty) or healthy (tasteless and boring). This concept is even more prevalent where children are concerned. Very often, they are either being indulged with junk food as a treat or being punished through unappetising yet so-called healthy food at home. When I started in the food space, children’s palates were never really given the respect it deserved, and I had taken a vow to change that. In my career as a chef, I’ve created a lot of recipes that are both sumptuous and super healthy; my primary aim has always been to help children and adults develop a constructive, productive equation with food. My motto is, ‘Healthy is not boring.’
GD: The food scene in India has been bursting with new ideas and incredible talent over the past few years. Careers in the culinary world have a whole new respect, which has led to many more people venturing into F&B and a growing middle class that’s eating out more and wants a quality product. What’s always driven me and Jay is to take risks and take on the challenge of introducing the city to something new. We did that successfully with The Table as well as Magazine St. Kitchen. Both spaces introduced new dining concepts, such as community-style dining, sharing-style menu, small and large plates, farm-to-table ingredient- driven menus and the idea of a culinary playground, to name a few.
AD: In the past five years, we’ve seen the focus on diverse Indian food grow rapidly. Indian produce and ingredients are taking up more of the spotlight, and people are more conscientious of where their food comes from. We, at Masque, have helped contribute to breaking stereotypes about what Indian food can be, highlighting regional dishes and ingredients as well as the sheer diversity of said ingredients, and that Indian food can be both casual and as ‘fine-dine’ as any other cuisine.
SV: What Chris and I brought to the catering world was a kind of vibrance and fun that just wasn’t there before. We loved to chat with our clients about their travels and experiences and dream food. We were often asked to join the party, as well! I think we really did pioneer the small, eclectic, gourmet setup that’s now mushroomed everywhere, with the chef as the focus.
H!: Gauri and Aditi, congrats on your restaurants’ entries to ‘Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants’ this year; The Table at 83 and Masque at 21 (making it the best restaurant in India). You also had The Living Room at Masque at 73 on the ‘Asia’s 50 Best Bars’ list. How does it feel?
GD: Thank you! It’s an incredible feeling to continue getting recognition of this kind in the twelfth year of our operations. It’s been exactly the boost the team (at The Table) needed after a tough two years.
AD: It’s a bit surreal to be on the extended list (with The Living Room at Masque) at just around six months old. It’s a testament to our bar team — Ankush Gamre, Wilston Carvalho and Raviraj Shetty. They are the talents behind the cocktail programme. What’s truly encouraging is the number of Indian entries on the list this year... A real coming of age for the Indian bar scene.
H!: How did you bounce back from the effects of the pandemic and lockdown restrictions?
AR: The pandemic was tough for everyone. Without my team around and having to do everything virtually, I learnt to record my videos on my own and upload them on Google Drive (I had no clue what that was till the lockdown!) for my team to edit them. Also, to keep my social media family in high spirits, I started doing many live shows like ‘Bites and Beyond’ and ‘Mere Ghar Ka Khana’.
GD: It affected us as much as anyone else in this industry. But fortunately, for various reasons, we were able to get up and running soon; that’s what kept us going. From trying to meet payroll every month, to figuring things out with our landlords, to managing an open line of communication with our team members — this was a test like no other. Our stakeholders across the board, including the amazing support from guests, stood by us, which helped us get through this and come out on the other side.
AD: We know how hard the pandemic hit the F&B industry, with little systemic support. We only served 10-course tasting menus and had never offered delivery before. What was not a pressure point? At this point, we figured that just like us, people were looking for comfort. We put together a delivery menu of the kinds of foods we wanted to eat at the time. On weekends, we ran ‘Chef’s Pick’ menus, with one team member picking a cuisine. ‘Milestones with Masque’ gave diners the option of a five-course tasting menu delivered home for special occasions. On our fourth anniversary, while still in lockdown, we continued our tradition of collaborative dinners, this time with other Mumbai-based chefs, and put together an epic delivery tasting menu. Our Tailgates, which we ran drive-through style, opened every Sunday to a packed parking lot for six months. In tandem with different a la carte price points, more casual dining options, a wider delivery radius and aggregator apps, we were able to tap into a wider market base.
SV: We were hit quite badly, being a small business. We were doing any work that came our way, from Zoom birthday boxes to catering for even two people. We learnt that keeping your overheads low and taking care of your team were the two most important things. We are super proud to have come out of it intact.
H!: Tell us about the projects you are working on currently.
AR: I recently wrapped up a show for Sony TV, where I celebrated food from different regions with my own special twist to them. I’m currently the brand ambassador of Spanish Olives and VKC Nuts, in the capacity of a lifestyle chef who believes in healthy, wholesome eating and living! Also, my new business venture of selling super sumptuous, healthy cookies is about to be launched.
GD: We’ve got our hands full with seven brands now, so nothing new in the pipeline other than possibly reaching a wider audience with our existing offering.
AD: Without saying too much, baking breads and casual Thai street food!
SV: I’m finally at the end of recipe testing for my second cookbook (this one’s called Baby Knows Best; the previous one was Party Like A Star). Our catering company is finally going great again after a tumultuous two years. I work with numerous brands and create recipes and content on Instagram as well as create a lot of my own content, with a focus on heirloom recipes and kids’ food because of my daughter, Zanskar.
H!: In your expert opinions, what do you think makes food so powerful?
AR: Food brings back memories; that’s probably why when asked about our favourite dishes, most of us talk about what we grew up eating. What our mothers, grandmothers and, in some cases, dads cooked. Food is a powerful expression of emotions; not only does it take you back in time, reconnecting you with your past, it also helps bring people together to build new relationships, be it business, love or friendship.
GD: Food is not just about what you eat — it’s about the hospitality experience, the ambience, the company... All of these factors contribute to making a memory around food, that if done well, is unforgettable and will keep you coming back for more.
AD: It’s nourishment in every sense. It’s a vehicle for connection and community. It can unite and divide. It permeates through every part of society, whether for better or worse. Food presents us with opportunities to educate ourselves, to learn about each other, our cultures and heritage.
SV: It’s actually an emotion we are tapping into, which is why people have such strong opinions on it. It’s also a powerful statement to make when you support small businesses, small suppliers, and care where your food is coming from.
Photography: Ashima Mehra; Creative Direction: Avantikka Kilachand; Fashion Editor: Sonam Poladia; Junior Stylist: Anushree Sardesai; Hair & Makeup: Nisha Chandnani & Mishthi Rajani For Amrita Raichand; Sandhya Aggarwal For Aditi Dugar; Pinkie Thakur For Gauri Devidayal; Shivani Goel For Shilarna Vaze; Location Courtesy: The Quorum, Mumbai
This story has been adapted for the website from a story that was originally published in Hello! India’s September 2022 issue. Get your hands on the latest issue right here!