BY SOURISH BHATTACHARYYA
It’s International Women’s Day on Sunday and by a pleasant coincidence I am writing about Ritu Dalmia’s newest venture, Diva Spiced, which has opened where the popular yet shortlived Chez Nini was the talk of the town till its chef-owner, Nira Kehar, shut shop abruptly towards the end of 2014.
Nira’s surprising exit makes Ritu’s story that much more relevant to a day when we celebrate the successes of women in an unashamedly patriarchal society. Ritu could have been happily ensconced in her family’s stone business after she decided to start working immediately upon leaving school.
Instead, she used the opportunity to study cooking during her many visits to Italy, the nerve centre of the international stone business, and after selling slate to Australia for home roofs, she ventured into a territory where no one in her conservative Marwari business family had ever trodden before. Ritu became the chef-owner of a restaurant named Mezza Luna at Hauz Khas Village (after running a café where The Big Chill opened later in Greater Kailash-I) at a time when Arundhati Roy was an aerobics instructor in a neighbourhood gym. Ritu was not only earning by the sweat of her brow and, horror of horrors, eating meats and fish, but also earning a living like only a handful of other women in the early 1990s dared to do.
In those days, pioneering women chefs such as Veena Arora (The Imperial), Madhu Krishnan (ITC), Nita Nagaraj (Taj and then Jaypee) and Manisha Bhasin (ITC) used to be talked about in respectful tones because they were the first to storm what was then a male bastion run mainly by semi-literate but talented men who wouldn’t be caught dead sharing their culinary secrets with the world’s better half. The rumour mills were rife with stories of how the early women chefs would stun the male greying eminences of the five-star kitchens where they worked by lighting up a cigarette or using an occasional four-letter word.
Ritu was indeed an oddity in that age, for she chose to be a chef and determinedly stayed one, despite the failure of Mezza Luna, whose most loyal guest was the late Madhavrao Scindia. After Mezza Luna, Ritu opened Diva Italian (the year was 2000), which catapulted her into the league of celebrities, and she evolved into a cookery show anchor, best-selling cookbook writer and operator of the Italian Cultural Centre cafeteria (a task rarely given to a non-Italian). She did have her failures, like her early forays into malls much before they became money magnets, but she also opened the successful Café Diva at the N-Block Market, Greater Kailash-I, and Latitude 28 at Khan Market, and is now a most sought-after wedding caterer, her roll of clients teeming with names synonymous with multi-million-dollar shindigs.
Ritu’s unusual story makes Diva Spiced seem very much a part of her life’s jigsaw. When she opened Diva Kitsch above socialite-businesswoman Priya Sachdev’s Defence Colony fashion store a couple of years back, her critics wondered what mastery she could claim over East Asian cuisine to make such a bold move. The menu at Diva Kitsch, which was inspired by Dalmia’s travels and came with creative quirks that only a gifted chef could get away with, proved her critics wrong. She was of course helped in no small measure by her talented understudy, Shivanjali Shankar, who’s incidentally from the family that owns Adarsh Stores on Janpath – the haunt of seekers of the latest Western music cassettes in the days when online downloads would have seemed like the stuff of science fiction.
Diva Kitsch was struggling to survive at a location unfit for a restaurant, so Ritu cut her losses and moved to a more hospitable location. With interiors playfully designed by her sister, Anita Dalmia, and an all-day Asian tapas menu supplemented by heart-warming meals in a bowl and nouvelle creations such as fried zucchini flowers stuffed with tofu and feta, miso-marinated salmon with soba noodles, and the classic Eton Mess served with a lemongrass twist. Diva Spiced will keep the spirit of Chez Nini alive.
What: Diva Spiced
Where: 79-80, Meharchand Market (Ground & First Floor), Opp. Lodi Colony
When: 11:00 a.m. to 11:30 p.m.
Dial: (011) 49051837
AVG MEAL FOR TWO (MINUS ALCOHOL):
Rs 2,200 + VAT, Service Tax and Service Charge. The restaurant doesn’t have an excise licence yet.
This review first appeared in Mail Today on March 6, 2015. Copyright: Mail Today Newspapers.