Restaurateur Aditi Dugar Reveals Her Secret Recipe For Success
The male-dominated F&B industry has recently witnessed a surge of women coming over to the top. Heading this change has been restaurateur Aditi Dugar, the brilliant mind behind Mumbai's acclaimed Masque restaurant, honoured as India's Best Restaurant on Asia's 50 Best Restaurants list for 2023.
A trailblazer and the first Indian female restaurateur on this prestigious list, Dugar has reshaped dining experiences by putting India's culinary heritage on the global food map. In addition, she has also given life to popular names in India's food scene, like TwentySeven Bakehouse, ARAKU, Seesaw and Circle 69. In an exclusive interview with Outlook Traveller, Dugar shares her journey, what it takes to be a leader, and her favourite destinations for a food trail.
How did your passion for food develop, and what led you to become a restaurateur?
I grew up in a family of enthusiastic cooks and eaters. My mum and grandmother were both avid—and excellent—cooks, and through them, we were exposed both to our own traditional foods and cuisines from around the world. While I was still working in finance, my mother used to do smaller home caterings at friends’ requests, and when I eventually took a break from work after having kids, I began helping her out with those. I’d focus on the décor and tablescapes, so we were offering guests an end-to-end catering solution, fully plated and ready to serve. That gradually laid the foundations for Sage & Saffron, our boutique catering service launched in 2012. Amid this, I also wanted to hone my own cooking, staged at a few restaurants, and spent some time with a street food vendor in Bangkok. Then came Masque, TwentySeven Bakehouse, ARAKU, Seesaw and Circle 69! Over time, it became clearer that this was the space that felt right to me and for me.
The F&B industry has often been regarded as a male-dominated industry. What challenges have you had to overcome throughout your journey?
There was often an overarching sense of dismissiveness, and there was a lot of naysaying when we started—all working under the assumption that I didn’t know what I was doing. People seem less inclined to take you or your ideas seriously. That said, I recognise that I come from a place of privilege, and I didn’t have it as bad as many do.
What spurred your interest in exploring India’s lesser-known and unique cooking traditions?
Somewhere along the way of all these travels and staging, I began to realize that there were no fine dining restaurants in India that were cooking Indian food, with Indian produce, with the same kind of pride you’d find in a San Sebastian or Scandinavia—and that was the idea that sparked off Masque. We wanted to put up a restaurant that spotlighted Indian produce and worked with local producers. The food might not be traditionally Indian, but it was very much rooted here. There was so much we learnt on our R&D trips, things we’d never heard of before or didn’t know existed within India that we wanted to highlight.
There’s been a growing interest in returning to our traditional ways of cooking and ingredients particular to us. What do you think is the reason behind it?
There’s been a renewed pride and interest in regional Indian cuisines and our culinary heritage—the same way it’s happened around so many pockets of the world, and rightfully so—for both cooks and consumers. I think it’s happened in tandem with the development of modern Indian food because it’s necessary to understand how it took root in the first place. Cuisines developed out of necessity, seasonality, and cultural influence. It’s a learning to go back and understand how that came to be, especially in a world where borders are increasingly blurred, and urban pockets don’t have those same constraints.
Do you think there’s been a shift in inclusivity in the F&B industry with regard to women?
I think efforts are being made, and we should hope that it’s not just posturing. I will say I’m seeing more women in professional kitchens than ever, which is heartening—it’s an area we ourselves have consciously worked to keep improving—as well as behind the bar and front of the house. I see the shift happening, but unfortunately, kitchens have been an exceptionally difficult workspace for women, enough to dissuade many from pursuing this career, and major work is still needed to change the paradigm.
Masque has secured many prestigious recognitions, from being featured in Asia’s Best 50 Restaurants List to being recognised by the Relais & Chateaux collection. How do you keep setting new standards for yourself while keeping the original essence intact?
The team has a collective mindset of striving to be better every day than the last. Our goals aren’t awards or recognition—though they are motivating elements along the way—but to give our guests the best experience we can, day after day, and to keep innovating, challenging ourselves, and always keep learning. It’s the same reason we feel our values align with an organisation like Relais & Chateaux because every member strives to uphold these qualities. And so we’re constantly setting new standards for ourselves while remaining loyal to our original ethos: celebrating India.
You often go foraging to find unique ingredients with your team. What’s been your most memorable experience?
One of my most memorable foraging experiences occurred during a seaweed harvesting expedition in Goa. This research trip was guided by marine conservationist Gabriella D’Cruz from The Good Ocean. Navigating the tides and uncovering a plethora of edible seaweed species was a thrilling adventure and opened my eyes to a world I knew nothing about— we were literally tasting seven different seaweed species 10 feet off a beach in Goa.
If you could pick your top 3 destinations for a food trail, what would those be and why?
Japan, for a vibrant food scene that seamlessly blends tradition and innovation; Rajasthan, which offers a depth of cuisine, heritage and cooking techniques; and Bangkok, for its explosive fusion of flavours, diverse regional dishes, and a plethora of street food and curries that reflect the essence of Thai cuisine.