Panchali Mahendra and Aditi Dugar© HelloIndia

Meet The Women Who Are Changing The World, One Restaurant At A Time

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Priya Pathiyan

Breaking the glass ceiling in most organisations is an accomplishment. Shattering it in a male-dominated industry like food and beverage is reserved for a select few. These hospitality hotshots have made their mark with personal drive, charisma, creativity, initiative, innovation and one more ingredient—terrific teams. They share their journey, inspiration and the integral role their chefs play with hello!

Panchali Mahendra

Panchali Mahendra with Chef Adwait©HelloIndia

In November 2008, when terrorists attacked several spots across South Mumbai, the world stopped to commiserate. Those who survived after witnessing the carnage first-hand suffered long after the terror unfolded. A young Panchali Mahendra was working at The Oberoi, Mumbai, at the time that the gunmen stormed the hotel, threatening guests and employees and shooting indiscriminately. The atmosphere of abject terror and the sights were what the worst nightmares are made of. “It took a toll on my mental health. After trying to continue there for six months, I decided I had to move away and took up a job in Gurugram,” she admits.

But, Panchali, a sturdy sportswoman with Bihari blood, who had grown up in Hyderabad and Lucknow, was made of sterner stuff. As a day scholar at La Martiniere College, Lucknow, she had played basketball for India, ran relay races at the national level and participated in table tennis at the state level. Additionally, she showcased her skills in high jumps, javelin and triple jumps. Now, she dug deep, channelling that inner determination into her career.

Be it the terrorist attacks or setbacks on the personal front when she moved to Dubai in 2012, Panchali treated each hurdle as a stepping stone which helped her achieve greater heights. Her strength comes from strong family ties. She fondly speaks of her late parents — her father, a real estate professional, and her mother, an eminent educationist specialising in counselling and admissions. Smilingly, she mentions her husband of nine years, an ex-US Military sniper now training the UAE armed forces.

In a two-decade career, Panchali oversaw almost 70 restaurants across diverse regions. As the President of Atelier House Hospitality (AHH), she now manages 11 highly successful restaurants, with plans to double that number this year. Her boutique restaurant group based out of Dubai is a subsidiary of US-based Altamarea Group and owns and operates a portfolio of award-winning restaurants and food service concepts. The names 11 Woodfire, Mohalla and RSVP top everyone’s hotlist, earning recognition on the World’s 50 Best list and in the Michelin guide. Panchali’s Inja restaurant in New Delhi was one of the most talked-about launches last year and is known for its innovative Japan-meets-India concept. “By the end of 2024, I plan to have almost 20 restaurants globally,” says the dynamo, who has recently secured a prestigious project within Saudi Arabia’s Neom development.

While 11 Woodfire in Dubai’s Jumeirah earned its first Michelin star in the UAE Guide last year, it is Mohalla that will debut in New York in 2024. The Indian street food riff and the friendly, neighborhood eatery concept have proven highly scalable, gaining popularity even in Riyadh.

Chef Adwait Anantwar, heading the kitchens at both Mohalla and Inja, has been working alongside Panchali for several years. He says, “As a chef, it’s important that people I work with or for share the same passion for the food, concept and thought process, and Panchali has that sense. Even today, there are days when she steps in to help out, as she believes in ‘dignity of labour’.”

Chef Adwait©HelloIndia

Chef Adwait first met Panchali in February 2018 during food trials for the Head Chef position at Mohalla. “Fun fact, I did the food trials thinking I would be the Sous Chef for Mohalla, as I had very little experience, but she decided to offer me the position as Head Chef. It was AHH’s first outpost and things could have gone horribly wrong, but she did what her heart said. Huge respect for that, which also speaks a lot about her character,” he says.

There’s a mutual respect that both clearly share. “I would be lying if I said we don’t have any differences. She is very particular about the aesthetics, and when I started out, I pretty much had no say on what we could use in the restaurant. But over a period of time, she has developed that trust.” Panchali adds, “Adwait came on when he was 24 and has been with us for a few years. All chefs are emotional about their work, being creative people. The only areas where we may have had discussions is the profit and loss versus the creative part. Chefs don’t care about P&L, but as the owner, I need to know if a dish is making money or not,” she shares.

A gold medalist from IHM Aurangabad and the University of Huddersfield in the UK, Panchali holds a postgraduate degree in hospitality from the Oberoi Centre of Learning and Development. Despite rigorous training, how does she balance her demanding entrepreneurial career with a fulfilling personal life?

“It is difficult to separate the personal and professional life while working 17-18 hours a day non-stop,” she admits, but adds with a smile, “The good thing is that I love my job, so it keeps me motivated and engaged.”

She believes it’s important to take breaks, clear your mind and engage in activities you love. “I always make sure I give time to family. I love long chats and long walks with my husband. Travel, even for two or three days, helps me to relax. Sniper, my Husky, is my biggest stress buster!” she shares. Engaging in hobbies like sketching, charcoal painting, Bharatnatyam (she’s a trained dancer), table tennis, and cooking for family and friends on weekends helps her destress.

This healthy work-life balance while being available to mentor her team and empower other women on the path to success have given her the wings to soar as high as she has.

Aditi Dugar

Aditi Dugar©HelloIndia

For most women, being heavily pregnant and ordered a month of bedrest before the due date would be challenging enough. However, Aditi Dugar found herself also preparing for the birth of her other baby—Masque—in her last trimester. “It was constant nerves and my health took precedence. My husband, Aditya was a huge strength and our kitchen team was already in place, which helped. It wasn’t hiccup-free; it required a lot of balancing, hard work and long nights, but we got there!” she recalls.

As Founder & Director, Masque & Urban Gourmet India Pvt Ltd, Aditi helms what has been hailed as India’s best restaurant ever since it opened in Mumbai in 2016. From receiving every Indian award to making it to the list in Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants three years in a row, Masque’s brilliance has been universally lauded. Dynamic Dugar also runs a bespoke catering company called Sage & Saffron, a popular bakery called TwentySeven Bakehouse, the kitchen at Seesaw Café in association with the Reliance Group, and is brand advisor to ARAKU Café, the sustainable coffee chain based out of Bengaluru.

For someone who graduated with a Master of Commerce degree, completed two levels of the Chartered Financial Analyst course, and spent several years working in private equity at Collins Stewart and UK-based Crest Ventures, the turn towards the culinary scene may seem surprising. But Aditi came from a family of passionate cooks and a food-forward mindset, especially her maternal grandparents, who were extremely particular about ingredients and precision. This gave her the right grounding to become a good baker, an interest she indulged as a teen. And it was food creation that soon became a focal point of her travels, then and post-marriage, when she would write to various restaurants so she could work there briefly while visiting, slowly building up her culinary repertoire.

After taking a break from the world of finance when her first child was born, Aditi launched Sage & Saffron from her home kitchen in 2012. She also gained invaluable experience at the two-Michelin starred Le Gavroche and La Petite Maison in London, as well as Zuma and Tsunami. Her culinary journey extended to Thailand, where she trained with a street food vendor and secured a stage at Bangkok’s Bo.Lan. Aditi spent a lot of time travelling across India as well, setting up supply chains with farmers and local producers… research and development that she thought was necessary.

Aditi Dugar with Chef Varun©HelloIndia

This was Masque. It’s tasting menu-only, fine-dining approach, using locally sourced ingredients, was rather radical and well received in a city where ‘Indian food’ in an upmarket restaurant had hitherto been largely associated with large bowls of unforgivable pseudo-Punjabi and messed up-Mughlai gravies. While Chef Prateek Sadhu headed the kitchen then, Chef Varun Totlani had joined the team just a few days before the launch in a starting position as commis chef. Today, he is the one who stands with Aditi at the helm, a guiding light for the team.

According to Aditi, the transition between chefs felt “fairly seamless”. “Nothing was rushed and it helped that Varun was already a core member of the kitchen. It was a bit nervous in the way that change usually is, but it is also inevitable; we’ll always be proud of the teams that contributed to every part of Masque’s journey.”

Chef Varun elaborates, “Earlier, I helped her out with the catering business, so we got some opportunities to chat. It helped that I live close to her home. But once I was appointed as head chef, our dynamic changed. Before, it was more casual, now we get into much more detail. We can chat for hours about every thing at work, our lives, what’s going on in the food world…”

Chef Varun©HelloIndia

When asked to describe their work dynamic, Chef Varun says, “Both of us complement each other very well, because we are different. I have a clear picture of how I see the food and the direction for Masque as well as the operations aspect, which are my forte. Hers is aesthetics, the vibe, and everything that I might not look into because my concentration is somewhere else.” She smiles, “Yes, we play off each other’s strengths well and always make it a point to hear one another out, whether we agree or not.”

Having professional relationships with people who have your back is key, says Aditi, when asked how she juggles so many different ventures so successfully. “I invest a lot of that time into building strong teams — you need a strong foundation to manage all these moving parts. I do feel like I’m a high-energy individual and thrive on being on the go, and I work very hard at what I do. I love the feeling of conceptualising new ideas and actually seeing them come to life.” This is evident in the beautiful collaborations and pop-ups that she has been designing of late, the most recent one being the exquisite Masque at Nahargarh in Ranthambhore, co-curated by Abhimanyu Alsisar. Even a two-day event like that can take 10 months to plan, with a lot of brainstorming involving the team.

How does she ensure her mental and emotional well-being in such a high-pressure environment? While her deep appreciation for art and design tie into her work aesthetic as well and give her happiness, her best way to take a break is to blow off some steam physically. She says, “I’m highly enthusiastic about sports. Whether it’s enjoying the outdoors, engaging in racket sports, or hitting the slopes for skiing, I find joy in staying active.” She prioritises spending quality time with her kids, husband, family and friends. “Embracing an adventurous lifestyle, I’m always up for spontaneous plans or the next exciting journey. Additionally, as a spiritual person, I value quiet moments for activities like reading, practicing yoga, or participating in a sport to maintain balance and peace within myself,” she shares.

Refreshed and ready for more, Aditi has achieved a lot, but there’s still much more ahead for her. Although her vision for Masque, as a celebration of India and its produce, remains steadfast, she also has plans to take it global. She confides, “From here, we want to create experiences that also move beyond the restaurant walls; our journey with food will keep digging deeper… I feel like we’ve only just scratched the surface.”

Photos: Vinod Aggarwal (Panchali & Adwait), Shivangi Kulkarni (Aditi & Varun)

This interview has been adapted for the web from our February 2024 issue. Grab your copy here.