Image: Mexy Xavier; Light painting: Neha Mithbawkar & Sagar Neve
Niyati Rao | 28
Head chef, Ekaa; co-founder Ekaa and KMC
Sagar Neve | 29
Co-founder, Ekaa and KMC
Four months into her internship at the renowned Copenhagen restaurant Noma, Niyati Rao, 28, was forced to return to Mumbai due to the pandemic in 2020.
The idea to launch a concept restaurant with a focus on ingredients was born when Rao, a fine dining chef who previously worked at Taj hotel’s Zodiac Grill and Wasabi by Morimoto, reconnected with an old colleague, Sagar Neve, 29, during the lockdown.
Rao reflected on her time at Noma, particularly a night when she was making the team dinner with spices so aromatic that the aroma made its way to the dining room and guests, she was told, were unable to smell the food being served.
“That’s when I realised how powerful Indian ingredients are and how unique their usage is,” she says. “When you focus on ingredients, there are so many combinations and techniques that can be applied to the same ingredients to get hundreds, thousands, or millions of different results.”
Rao came up with the concept for Ekaa, a restaurant built not on any particular cuisine, but on food interpreted and inspired by people, cultures and ingredients as complex and diverse as India. The timing of the launch was risky, but conviction in the concept helped Rao power through, even when investors backed out at the last minute after the wheels were already in motion. “Sometimes, your confidence just stems from need. I needed money. I had a great a concept in mind. All we had to do is try,” she says.Also read: Anna Ben: A star is born
Ekaa opened its doors in December 2021 with an initial investment of ₹2.8 crore from investors and is now seeing an annual profit of about ₹49 lakh.
Six months ago, the co-founders of Ekaa launched KMC, what Rao describes as an inclusive community space that can be used to converse or hold exhibitions while enjoying creative comfort food. View the full list of Forbes India 30 Under 30 2023 here
Both Ekaa and KMC, situated in the same building at Fort, Mumbai, are conceptual spaces brought to life in unique ways. Rao believes that she has a “social responsibility” related to how people perceive food, and how their tastes evolve. She says that 20 or 30 years down the line people will tweak one condiment she has made in 10,000 different ways, “and then it will be socially accepted”.
Shilpa Laxmi Narayan, co-founder and CEO, Juno Clinic, Ekaa’s first investor, describes Rao as a visionary who is meticulous, passionate, good with numbers and a good listener. “She puts in a lot of time facilitating training for her people, which means she loves doing that for herself,” Narayan says. “This drive to achieve and scale up, and know no boundary, is working for her.”
(This story appears in the 10 February, 2023 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)