Super chef, leading restaurateur and TV show host, Ritu Dalmia has managed to master it all and yet she still strives to satisfy her insatiable appetite for endless gastronomic innovations.
The chef, who has received laurels for cooking scrumptious Italian meals, has never undergone any professional training. Her passion and love for food was obvious even at the tender age of nine and since then there has been no looking back.
She fell in love with Italian cuisine during her frequent visits to Italy, while supporting her family’s marble business. While her heart drew her to Italy, her mind understood that the endgame was all about being a successful restaurateur.
To give her dreams shape, she opened her first restaurant – Mezzaluna – in Delhi, which was, in her words, ‘a wonderful disaster’. She had to shut it down within three years of setting up shop. She then picked up the pieces and went to London where she opened a second restaurant, but her heart never left India.
In 2000, she came back and opened DIVA which became an instant hit. The rest, as they say, is history. Since then there has been no looking back. Dalmia set about setting up one successful restaurant after another, under the banner Riga Foods, in India’s capital.
Over the years, she has added many more feathers in her cap – a thriving catering business, a cookery show host and a cookbook author, she does it all with equal ease.
In an exclusive tête-à-tête with Indiaretailing Bureau’s Charu Lamba, Chef Ritu Dalmia opens up on the major learnings she has had in her journey from chef to restropreneur…
Take us through your culinary journey so far. What have been the major milestones, and how have they shaped your career?
My interest in Italian food began with a school trip to Italy when I was 10 years old. I then joined my father’s marble business and from the age of 16, traveled extensively in Italy – that is when I fell in love with Italian Food. I don’t necessarily look at my journey in milestones – just some great memories. I have enjoyed traveling and discovering things along the way. I love being in the restaurants and over the last few years, catering around the world has been a brand new adventure with lots to do.
Elaborate on the business model of Riga Foods.
Our business model is very, very simple – to keep our guests happy. If you keep guests happy with consistently good food and service – that is the first ingredient to a feasible business model. Apart from that, in India restaurants have the burden of very high real estate. So one has to think that through.
How many restaurants are you operating currently and what is their market positioning?
We have six restaurants in Delhi. As different as they are, our market positioning has been using quality ingredients, ensuring consistency and personalised service. At DIVA we like to treat our guests as though they are visiting our home. The same filters down in all our training.
What is your strategy for engaging customers?
We don’t have a strategy – that sounds almost calculating. Our philosophy has and has always been very simple – use quality ingredients, pair them with quality and personalised service and engage with the customer. The other thing that is very, very important is to listen to customers. They give you the best feedback.
Which particular cuisines do you focus on and how have you seen them evolve over the years?
My first love is Italian food. My travels have taken me to far flung places and to places not discovered before. These experiences have found a place in what we do at the restaurants and in the events I curate for catering.
Also, it’s joyful to feed guests who know good food – it makes what we do more rewarding. At the cafes for instance, I very often incorporate a recipe of a dish I have fallen in love with during one of my travels.
A recent example at DIVA Italian is something I’m incorporating from a little village in Italy called Vallesaccarda at a restaurant called Antichi Oasis Sapori I tried a Burratta Praline and we incorporated at DIVA Italian and did our own version with Ricotta, Burratta and Goat Cheese.
As far as evolution goes, a lot more is available today in terms of produce and ingredients. This is a huge step forward. When I opened DIVA in 2001 for instance, it used to be a scramble for cheese and olive oils.
What have been your major learning as a chef-cum-restropreneur? Do you see your role evolving further in the future?
When it comes to food I wear many hats. It’s not always a chef’s cap. There are so many different aspects to running a restaurant. Some things are more enjoyable than others but all are intrinsically important.
What are the challenges of working as a top chef and how do you keep ahead of the curve?
The clientele is evolving and so are their palettes The customer is now well traveled, has great knowledge about the food she/he eats and would like to experience. The chefs also have to keep up and recreate experiences, be ahead of the trend and constantly innovate to meet these expectations.
When I opened the doors of DIVA Italian, people would complain about how the truffles smelled – it’s a highly acquired taste and the smell is a unique characteristic. Today, truffle based dishes are ordered well in advance.
What makes your restaurants different from other cuisine-specific eateries in Delhi?
I think it’s all about passion. My passion for food is what translates on the menu and then on the plate. I also change the menu at all the restaurants every three months, ensuring that my patrons are never bored and there is a new offering waiting for them in my restaurants every time they visit.
While curating a menu what are the considerations that you keep in mind?
I like to constantly innovate when it comes to the menus at my restaurant. Any of the restaurant offerings will always comprise of the classic dishes for the traditional clientele but will also have a few offerings that appeal to those who have an adventurous palette.
Being a successful chef necessitates in-depth knowledge on ingredients, flavours and tastes. Tell us how you have acquired these insights over the course of your career.
A lot of this knowledge comes from experience – in my case it is almost 25 years of dedication. But it all stems from your passion and I have been pursuing that dream for as long as I remember.
What are some innovative F&B ideas that you have implemented in the past year?
Very often the customers educate us as well, through their preferences of food. At Café DIVA’s – at Greater Kailash1 and Sangam Courtyard, RK Puram – we offer a super healthy Pizza base made with millet flour.
Food, presentation, or ambience? Which is more important? Or are all three equally important? How have you woven these elements and others in your restaurant business?
All the restaurants have their individual USP’s and thereby their own personality. So it would only make sense to mirror that personality in every element – the décor and the plating mirror, the ingredients and the offerings.
DIVA Spiced, with its modern Asian menu, has quirky wallpaper and a colourful aesthetic that encapsulates the essence of the restaurant persona. Café DIVA’s are more fun and casual, with clean lines and café seating. DIVA Italian being a fine dining restaurant has formal table settings, ambient lighting, with a spotlight on the wine cellar.
Are the lines increasingly blurring between fine dining and newer formats such as Smart Casual and Casual?
This is a matter of perspective, however, we have a very clear distinction between the two.
What suggestions/advice would you give to young entrepreneurs who have foodservice on their minds?
Get into this business only if you are passionate about it, not because it’s fashionable and the trendy thing to do. This profession requires very long hours and a lot of hard work.