“Never change.” This piece of advice may seem basic, but for Aditi Dugar, it’s been her guiding star on the route to becoming a driving force in India’s culinary transformation. Dugar’s journey in the world of food started just 12 years ago, but her path was leading her there all along.
Dugar is the founder of Masque, a restaurant in Mumbai that has skyrocketed to the ranks of Asia’s Top 50 Restaurants. For Aditi, Masque is more than just a dining establishment; it’s a hub of creativity, a celebration of local ingredients, and a canvas for culinary storytelling.
Her culinary portfolio also encompasses other successful ventures such as the upscale catering service Sage and Saffron, Mumbai’s TwentySeven Bakehouse and SEESAW Cafe, and the Araku Cafe, nestled in Bangalore.
We caught up with Dugar, and got a chance to explore the beginnings of her incredible culinary career.
The makings of a perfectionist
Dugar’s earliest memory of falling in love with food can be traced back to her maternal grandparents’ home in Bandra, Mumbai.
Her grandfather’s passion for food and watching her grandmother create magic in the kitchen introduced Dugar to the world of food. “I would look forward to being whisked off to our grandparents’ home every Friday, right after school. The rest of the weekend would revolve around all things food,” she recalls. “Even then, my nana was so particular about making everything from scratch. We had a cowshed in our home in Mumbai, that’s how seriously he would take it, and that on some level filtered down to me, and I think influenced the core of Masque.”
Dugar also credits her grandmother for being the perfectionist she is today – “I used to be in awe of how she’d cut a slab of katli into equal diamonds without ever having to use a rule. I think on some level that awe transformed into my want to perfect everything I try my hand at.”
Aditi Dugar – A hopeless chef on a quest for perfection
Aditi admits to never being interested in cooking. It was baking that caught her fancy as a teenager. But when she decided to try her hand at it, the masterpiece eventually turned into a treat for her grandparents’ cows.
“The perfectionist in me was having none of that,” says Dugar. And just like that, all the free time Dugar had, was spent going through towers of recipe books, and TV time meant watching cooking shows.
Dugar’s want to perfect baking accompanied her on travels across the world too. She would write to the best restaurants in the city she was visiting, hoping to get work in their kitchens for a few days.
“I remember writing 10 to 15 e-mails to Le Gavroche’s Chef Michel Roux Jr. until he responded to my request, and let me work in the kitchen for two weeks when I visited London. I don’t know if it was my persistence or him thinking I was completely crazy that got me the stint,” she candidly laughs.
This soon became regular practice, Dugar’s love for food followed her on her travels, but in terms of career, Dugar decided to go down a different route – finance.
But life had other plans in store for her.
Aditi Dugar – A mother on a quest for perfection
“After marriage, I’d gotten through business school, and that’s when I found out I was pregnant so I had to defer my application. And then I got pregnant again, so I decided to take some time off and be a full-time mother,” says Dugar.
Though her role changed, Dugar’s perfectionism stayed put. And it was the want to perfect her role as a mother that helped Dugar rekindle her love for food. “On trips, I was very particular about preparing food for them from scratch, and spending time doing that reignited my passion for food. I started reaching out to restaurants again, and while travelling would bag any opportunity I got to work in professional kitchens,” explains Dugar.
From La Petite Maison in London to a course on perfecting Asian street food – Dugar began rebuilding her skill set, one destination at a time.
Aditi Dugar – A daughter on a quest for perfection
A few years down the line, Dugar found herself attending one of her mother’s cooking classes, and while she was extremely proud of her mother’s skill, it was the way the class was structured that got her thinking.
“The perfectionist in me took over. I helped my mother professionalise the set-up, and structure of the class. I even conducted a few classes for her, and the response was great,” she recalls.
It was during one of these classes, that Dugar was approached by a participant to cater a private dinner. It was Dugar’s approach to cooking, aesthetics, and of course, the food she made that caught the participant’s eye. “My mother was hesitant, but I agreed immediately, I always love a challenge.”
After catering the event Dugar began spotting a gap in the market – “There were barely a handful of people, who were doing luxury vegetarian cuisine.”
Dugar started with catering a dinner party of 10, but soon the number grew. It was while heading the kitchen for a large-scale event that Dugar crossed paths with Flora Hillary, who at that time used to run the Green Hill kitchen. Little did the both of them know that they were soon going to become partners and co-founders of Sage & Saffron, a catering venture with a name that is a nod to Dugar and Hillary’s roots – India and the UK.
“We decided that I would take charge of vegetarian food, while she would handle the non-vegetarian bits,” explains Dugar.
The response to Sage & Saffron was overwhelming, and Dugar and Hillary decided to rent out a place for their commissary kitchen. Soon after, Hillary, owing to illness, had to leave the country.
“Suddenly I had this huge space, with no idea what to do with it,” recalls Dugar. “But the kitchen was already being constructed, and I was not trained nor wanted to venture into cooking non-vegetarian food myself. That’s when, once again, the perfectionist in me took charge, and I decided to go on a hunt for a chef, who could help me bring the vision to life,” she adds.
That’s when she heard about a young chef in Udaipur. The young chef was Prateek Sadhu, who later went on to become the executive chef at Masque (Sadhu parted ways with Masque in 2022, the restaurant is currently helmed by Chef Varun Totlani).
Together, Dugar and Sadhu travelled across India, initially with the intent of connecting with farmers. The first trip they went on was to Himachal. They travelled nine hours to Rampur to meet vendors and better acquaint themselves with the region’s offerings, and that’s when inspiration struck – “It was when we stumbled upon the Himachali treasure trove of unexplored ingredients, the exciting flavours and cooking techniques of the region that it hit us – this was an idea for a full-fledged restaurant, waiting to be executed.” And that’s how Masque was born!
Dugar’s journey has been the result of a couple of things – persistence, being at the right place at the right time, some happy coincidences, unwavering love for food, but most of all her passion to be the best at what she does.
Click here to watch our exclusive interview with Aditi Dugar