“It’s the peak of my career,” says Varun Totlani. The 30-year-old is Masque’s new head chef after Prateek Sadhu left the groundbreaking restaurant. Totlani seemed more nervous about the interview – his first – than his role at the helm of one of Asia’s top restaurants. For him, there is no room for self-doubt; he’s been part of the team since the start at the impressionable age of 24. Masque’s ingredient-driven, team-driven and forward-thinking philosophy is in its DNA. His voice is promising.
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This week, Masque released the first menu with Totlani leading the team. True to its regionally-inspired approach, there’s dessert with papad aam served with wine sorbet and Murungakkai Marrow – a dish borrowed from Tamil Nadu’s Murungakkai Kuzhambu made from drumstick marrow. Totlani had tasted the dish when Masque’s team was in Chennai for a food tour. They were invited to someone’s house who cooked traditional dishes from Tanjore. One of them was Murungakkai Kuzhambu embellished with sweet, spicy and sour flavors made from drumstick pulp. Their warm host said that when someone removed the chewy fibers from the drumstick and only served the pulp, it was a way of pampering the guest. The story stayed with Totlani and he wants to bring that experience of being pampered with food into the new menu.
“I’ve always had contact with food,” says Totlani, who has a large tattoo of a chef’s knife on his forearm. Growing up in the 90s, he watched cooking shows starring Sanjeev Kapoor and Nigella Lawson, while persuading his mother to recreate the food he saw on TV. The first full meal he prepared was on firewood for his friends, in sixth standard, at a boarding school with the help of his teachers. “Everyone loved it,” he beams.
After school, he interned at the Intercontinental Hotel at Marine Drive in Mumbai, and while in college, he joined Olive for a few months. “I was kicked out of college for missing too many classes because of work,” he recalls. But nothing stood in the way of his quest for cooking. The barbecue-loving chef went on to take a course at the Culinary Academy of India in Hyderabad and then moved to Mecca to undergo chef training, Culinary Institute of America (CIA).
But there was a problem. At the CIA, there was hands-on exposure to the vast world of ingredients, from cheeses to potatoes. “I thought it was all great, but they weren’t available at home,” he shares. When Totlani joined Masque, there was a similar experience. Workshops were held to introduce the team to ingredients from various parts of India. “It was a completely eye-opening experience because 90% of the time at the CIA where I thought ‘this is great, but it’s not available to me’, is finally available to me.”
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Totlani is ready to discover new dishes and regional foods to bring to Masque’s tasting menus: “While we inform our customers about what the country has to offer, the ultimate goal is to serve good tasty dishes and their bring an experience.” In fact, their regular customers have started bringing them ingredients from their travels and sending lunch boxes from home that open up new avenues for experiencing regional Indian cuisine.
While answering a question about the one dish that signifies happiness, Totlani who loves pav bhaaji, a good bun and sigdi kebabs cannot choose one. He has a philosophical answer: “The dishes are good. But it’s more about the people and the experience — enjoying a roll with friends after a long night of partying or treating your parents to a fine dining restaurant — that elevates the food and makes you happy.