Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Aditi Dugar: Cooking up a storm

The accidental entrepreneur's fine-dining space Masque, in Mumbai, has been voted as India's No 1 restaurant thrice over; this year, it debuted on the World's 50 Best Restaurants list at No 78

Published: May 29, 2024 01:20:56 PM IST
Updated: May 30, 2024 10:18:00 AM IST

Aditi Dugar: Cooking up a storm Aditi Dugar is the founder of Masque, a restaurant in Mumbai that has skyrocketed to the ranks of Asia's Top 50 Restaurants. Image: Bajirao Pawar for Forbes India

For a year since 2016, when Aditi Dugar launched Masque, a fine-dining restaurant in Mumbai’s Mahalaxmi area, her father-in-law wouldn’t come in to dine. Dugar was born into a Jain family and married into another, where tradition mandated a strictly vegetarian diet. While the 41-year-old adhered to it (and still does), her restaurant served a robust non-vegetarian menu that would often include zany elements like rabbit and ant, and Dugar Sr registered his disapproval by staying away. “Our families took some convincing but now they’re our proudest patrons,” says Dugar. “My father-in-law dines here often and brings every guest who comes to visit him in Mumbai.”

In many ways, Masque’s eight-year journey is symptomatic of Dugar’s—of bucking the trend. Among the first restaurants in Mumbai to offer a tasting menu—a multi-course fare of bite-sized portions—it first stirred global conversation in 2020, when it was named as the ‘One To Watch’ in Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list. The very next year, it took a Himalayan leap, debuting on the list at No 32 as India’s second-best restaurant after Indian Accent (at No 18).

For three consecutive years thereafter, Masque has upstaged Indian Accent to be voted as India’s best restaurant in Asia’s 50 Best list. But its biggest headline-grabbing feat came a few days ago, when it made it to the extended World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. At No 78, Masque is the only Indian restaurant to have made it to the list, along with Indian Accent (at No 89). This despite a change of guard, as head chef Prateek Sadhu—he had been with the restaurant since inception, and parted ways in 2022—made way for former commis Varun Totlani. Masque’s 10-course degustation menu, priced at Rs 5,200 plus taxes per person, has been cited by Asia’s 50 Best as “one of India’s most forward-thinking fine-dining restaurants” and that “shows off the wealth of India’s produce”—forging a melange of, say, cacao and gondhoraj, or strawberry and ponkh.    

Through its journey, Masque has also collaborated with award-winning global chefs, like Matt Orlando of Copenhagen’s Amass and Daniel Humm, the pathbreaking owner and chef of Eleven Madison Park. Says Humm, whose restaurant in New York is frequented by the high society: “Aditi has created a gem of a restaurant in Mumbai. I’ve visited Masque multiple times, and each time it’s evolved and gotten better and better. It’s a testament to her leadership, competitiveness and pushing the boundaries.”

Meanwhile, Urban Gourmet India Pvt Ltd (UGIPL), its parent company—which houses Masque as the flagship property, experimental space Masque Lab, Dugar’s boutique catering company Sage & Saffron, bakery TwentySeven Bakehouse, Circle Sixty Nine, a 32-seater bistro at a private arts and culture space (a shared IP along with Sangita Kathiawada)—has nearly quadrupled revenues from Rs 5.16 crore in FY18 to Rs 19.63 crore in FY23, and registered profits for two years running, closing FY23 at Rs 1.21 crore (according to financial database Tofler). A new addition to the Masque universe is a bar that’s coming up soon in the same mill complex—“it’s under wraps now, but all I can tell you is it’s my husband Aditya’s baby”, she says.

If her list of engagements was not enough, Dugar also heads operations for Seesaw Cafe that’s owned by Reliance Retail and oversees the brand for Araku Coffee India. “I’m a hustler, a workaholic,” she confesses.

Aditi Dugar: Cooking up a storm

The Accidental Entrepreneur

Dugar’s go-getter attitude afforded her a smorgasbord of experiences through her teens. During her summer holidays in London, where her mother’s extended family lived, she temped with In Water, a floral company that worked with the likes of Cartier and Sotheby’s, and, at 16, staged in the kitchen of Michel Roux Jr of Le Gavroche, a now-shuttered Michelin-starred restaurant.

It helped that Dugar was a people’s person. “In junior school, I had once voluntarily given out my phone number to the entire class,” she guffaws. Through her travels during her growing up years, she would make her way into restaurant kitchens, chat with pastry chefs, what have you, even though she never really set out to be an F&B entrepreneur. While food was always part of the conversation in the joint family that she grew up in, and the one she married into, she applied for an MBA after completing her CFA level 2. “The year I got accepted, I was pregnant with our first child. I deferred my application, and then was pregnant with our second the following year. I put my career in finance on pause and became a full-time tiger mom for four years,” she says.

Masque, too, was somewhat an accidental restaurant, as the space inside Mumbai’s Laxmi Mills was initially earmarked for Sage & Saffron, her catering venture that started informally from her mum’s home just after she had her second kid. At that time, her mother, a cook par excellence, used to run classes for the South Mumbai swish set. “As good a cook as she was, her set-up was not up to scratch,” says Dugar. “While helping her out, I realised I was great at packaging and marketing—I could do a quick floral setup to add some pop to the class. That became the seed for Sage & Saffron.” Over time, she started innovating on her mother’s dishes to widen her catering repertoire and also visited the patrons’ homes to help them set up the table.

What started organically blew up in two years. “I suddenly saw myself catering at Tina Ambani’s wedding anniversary,” says Dugar. “This was just word of mouth since there was no Instagram back then.” The venture, though, was still unstructured, and she would put together a patchwork of teams every time an order would come in.

On one such assignment, she met Akshat, a student from Mumbai’s Sophia College, and hired him to work in the services team for a posh wedding dinner she was catering to. “He became the first permanent employee of UGIPL and is still with us,” says Dugar. “He now heads Sage & Saffron.”

Through her catering assignments, Dugar met a British home chef with an expat clientele, who offered her a collaboration. It was the first time she saw the clash of the cultures at home as both her parents and in-laws objected to her working shoulder to shoulder with a non-veg chef. “It didn’t initially go very well with the families, but my husband Aditya stood behind me like a rock,” says Dugar.

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“I’ve never used the word no for her,” says Aditya when asked what gave him the gumption to back her. “If you give the right tools to the creative and if you give them the freedom, it’s bound to be successful.” He would often partner Dugar in her morning trips to the vegetables and flower market, hunting down students of catering colleges to work at gigs and then returning home to prep for the day’s menu. “I’ve seen her grow the business from doing two people at Rs 1,200 a plate to 300 people at up to Rs 15,000 a plate from within our home,” he says.

Dugar got along with the British chef like a house on fire, and the two rented a 4,000 sq ft space in Laxmi Mills to be their central commissary for their catering, christened Sage & Saffron and registered in 2013. But, within three months, she had to return to the UK with a health problem, and Dugar was stuck with a space and without a plan of action. 

Aditi Dugar: Cooking up a storm

Course Correction

The idea for Masque came fortuitously to Dugar when she was on a family holiday to San Sebastian, Spain, which opened her eyes to the world of luxury hospitality. “I came back convinced I wanted to do something in the fine-dining space in India,” she says. “I also remembered some of my catering clients would ask me if I could replicate a dish from New York’s Per Se or the dessert table at Alinea in Chicago. It told me there was a market gap waiting to be addressed.” A friend connected her to Sadhu, a Culinary Institute of America alumnus who had stints in acclaimed institutions like Rene Redzepi’s Noma. “He started attending some of my caterings, we began to exchange notes, and just like that, over a few coffee meetings, Masque was born,” says Dugar. She started with an initial investment of Rs 8 crore and Aditya as the partner, and the restaurant still remains self-funded.    

Dugar and Sadhu never conceived Masque to be an Indian restaurant, but an experiential dining space putting Indian ingredients in the forefront. Says Totlani, the current head chef: “I never wanted to cook Indian food when I was growing up, but Masque taught me a lot about India and ingredients I never knew existed—sea buckthorn in Ladakh, fiddle head ferns in Uttarakhand. When I joined as a commis chef in 2016, I learnt to take pride in Indian ingredients.”  

Sadhu invoked his Kashmiri descent as he would frequently go on foraging trips in the Himalayas. Dugar, too, crisscrossed the country in search of quality produce, while Aditya held fort doing the back-end for the restaurant in the early days—and even during the launch, when Dugar delivered her third child (“I went into preterm labour due to stress,” she laughs). The duo’s travels showed up in the menu with ingredients like sea buckthorn, a berry from the hills, and artisanal chocolate from Mason & Co in Puducherry.

The resultant dish would be a chocolate mousse with a sea buckthorn sorbet on it, high-brow in nomenclature and taste, but without a distinct Indian reference. “2018 onwards, we were at the intersection of two currents—the top 1 percent clientele was bringing in a global audience, signifying Masque as a restaurant where you go to for a special meal, but local diners were confused about what kind of cuisine we served. We were a misfit in terms of positioning. When international guests would come, they would be floored by the experience, but would also say ‘wish the meal was more Indian’. We knew we had to rework our strategy.”

It was also a period when Indian food was forcing its way into the front and centre. Restaurants like Indian Accent had already won plaudits globally, while those like The Bombay Canteen, with its playful, innovative nuance to local produce and food, became conversation-starters. With an eye on course correction, Dugar and Sadhu set up the Masque Lab in February 2020, just a month before the Covid-induced lockdown began, in the backyard of the restaurant, where they experimented with age-old Indian techniques like pickling and fermenting to extract more out of an ingredient outside its season. And the sea buckthorn came full circle, transitioning into something more Indian, infused into the paani to accompany a beetroot puri, in a portmanteau of Indian and innovative flavours.  

And then Covid struck, helping them, serendipitously, validate their conviction. Through the pandemic-induced closure, Masque came down from its culinary high horse, flipping burgers, folding tacos, and organising socially distanced tailgate parties, what have you.

“Masque had never thought it had to be in a box, but Covid made us think of meals in a box,” says Dugar. “And the meals had to become more wholesome now because they had to travel well.”

Of course, the pandemic hit business as Urban Gourmet suffered losses of Rs 1.39 crore in FY21, but Dugar calls Covid a great learning as it spread the Masque brand beyond its niche clientele, with orders pouring in from geographies like Karjat and Pune. “Covid gave us clarity,” she says. “When we reopened, we had re-examined the ways in which our food was rooted in India.”

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Seamless change

But the aftermath of Covid wasn’t as smooth as it sounds. In 2022, Sadhu, who had handheld the restaurant to its pole position, left. “We had different visions for what we each wanted to do next, and so we amicably decided to go our own ways,” she says.  

Did she have jitters about the transition, especially with letting go of the familiar? “I am a mother of three boys. I never get fazed,” she laughs.  

That the change has been seamless is evident from Masque’s grand debut on the World’s 50 Best list this year, and its ability to retain its No 1 rank as the country’s best restaurant for two years under Totlani. He insists he didn’t make any radical changes to the goal or the concept as the restaurant stuck to its ingredient-first philosophy; only his upbringing in Mumbai, as opposed to Sadhu’s in North India, influenced the menu. “Mumbai is a melting pot of cultures… I’ve had every kind of food, from South Indian to Punjabi to Maharashtrian to Marwari, all available at my doorstep,” he says. His frequent childhood trips to the South Indian belt in Matunga, for instance, inspired him to serve pasta with rasam.    

“Aditi isn’t really from the industry, so, along with her, we’ve all had to evolve and stay flexible,” adds Totlani. “I’ve never referred to her as a boss till now, since she doesn’t make you feel that way. All conversations are open and it’s not like she wants to have the final word. She gives us direction and she has helped us build relationships, like with Daniel Humm.” The team at Masque first met Humm in 2018 and, ever since, Dugar has meticulously stayed in touch with him, travelling with him on foraging trips in India.

Says Humm, who went plant-based after reopening his restaurant post-pandemic: “For me, it was interesting because Aditi is vegetarian, so I loved going around India with her and seeing it through her lens. She lives and breathes our industry.”

Dugar’s eye for detail and her ability to blend in with the storytelling are highlighted by Manoj Kumar, co-founder and director, Araku Originals and the CEO of the Naandi Foundation. The foundation has, through regenerative agriculture—a process of farming that restores soil fertility and the general health of the ecosystem—alleviated the lives of coffee-growers in the Araku Valley. The coffee is now retailed through Araku Coffee India, a brand that has also opened cafes in cities like Bengaluru and Mumbai. And Dugar is in charge of operations for the restaurants, overseeing everything from the menu to the retail strategy.

“Araku is a uniquely ethical brand where all the food is produced through regenerative, organic agriculture and needs a unique positioning. Aditi has a terrific sense of what the right communication is for city consumers, especially in metros,” says Kumar.

“We have a situation, where every single produce we get from the farmers is traceable. When she put this place together, she ensured that the story of every item is similarly told,” adds Kumar. “For example, if you look at the napkins, she took pains to locate it to the blind school in Worli, where these napkins are made. What I’m trying to emphasise is the detail to ensure that the brand story is complete, so the customer understands this is a truly ethical brand.”

For Dugar, roles as diverse as handling Araku and presenting her blueprint to an elite board—that comprises the likes of Mahindra Group Chairman Anand Mahindra, Infosys co-founder Kris Gopalakrishnan, Satish Reddy of Dr Reddy’s Laboratories and Soma Enterprises Chairman Rajendra Prasad Maganti—has tweaked the way she wants to run a business.  “It made me realise the difference between building a company and running a brand,” she says. “I needed to bring in wealth creation for the employees to turn Urban Gourmet into a legacy brand.” The company has now introduced ESOPS for employees, new incentives, and health and life insurance.

While Urban Gourmet remains a zero-debt, self-funded company, Dugar is willing to partner with the right investor to scale up. Masque is doing 70-80 covers every night, about 60 percent of which are local diners. Aditya, who is now investing a lot more time in the F&B business, wants the bakery to grow to five outlets in Mumbai, where it has only one. Masque, of course, isn’t a concept that can be replicated frequently but if the right opportunity arises, they are willing to explore options of taking it global.  

Dugar, meanwhile, has come a long way from the time some of the top restaurateurs advised her not to waste money on Masque. Little did they know that toeing the line has never been her thing.