– Chef Prateek
The highlight of the style of cooking here at Masque for me were that it allowed the ingredients to take centre stage, limiting the number of ingredients per dish to a barely a few in most cases. The highlight of the style of cooking here at Masque for me were that it allowed the ingredients to take centre stage, limiting the number of ingredients per dish to a barely a few in most cases.
It was refreshing to see that any treatment in form of cooking done to these locally sourced and foraged ingredientsbythe chefs at Masque was only to amplify their beautiful original natural flavour rather than to camouflage it. In a city where everyone is doing so much in the restaurant industry, it takes courage to do so little with your ingredients and yet demonstrate technique and know –how. However a peek into in career till date made his approach self explanatory to me, I could immediately see where the courage came from to do so little and yet make a statement.
Growing up in Kashmir,Prateek spent much of his time at his aunt’s farm, hanging around the kitchen watching his mother and her cook the ingredients growing outside their home. Originally geared towards an education and career in engineering, a happy twist of fate landed him at a hotel management college instead, followed by a stint as Chef de Partie with the Taj group. The years after that were spent at the Culinary Institute of America; two gold medals from The American Culinary Federation later, he took on the stagiaire circuit, working his way from Alinea to Le Bernardin to The French Laundry. Ask him and Sadhu will still name Thomas Keller – the brain behind The French Laundry and Per Se, amongst others – as the single largest influence on his own cooking.
Swapping out North America for the culinary expanses of Europe, Sadhu joined the team at Noma. Here, with therenowned Rene Redzepi at the helm, is where he began studying the nuances of Nordic cuisine and its philosophies – or, as he puts it, “how to cook from the region and harness the soil.” Taking this with him, he later moved back to New York to The Pierre Hotel.
Opportunity moved him back to India, where he can be credited as one of the forces behind Le Cirque in Bangalore. However, according to Prateek, cooking here again was disillusioning: the food lacked focus on seasonality and locality.
A chance encounter with AditiDugaropened the avenue to conversation and later, a trip to Mumbai to discuss the possibility of a new venture. The pair spent the next two years traveling across the country, speaking with farmers and discovering the produce on offer – fiddlehead ferns, rhododendron and rye from up north; cheese from a niche producer in Andhra Pradesh; chocolate from Pondicherry and pork from just outside Mangalore. A trip to Rajasthan turned up some of the best olive oil he’d seen in the country, produced locally; a two-day trip to Nubra Valley yielded sea buckthorn berries foraged in the wild.
Masque opened its doors in September 2016, the first restaurant in the city in a long time to offer only tasting menus, scrapping the option of a la carte altogether and effectively leaving diners at the mercy of the chefs. The menu on its own doesn’t offer much of an explanation, simply naming the key ingredients in each dish. This is intentional. Masque doesn’t classify its food as any cuisine in particular, preferring instead to simply remain “ingredient-driven”.
Since its inception, the focus of Masque has been to showcase the integrity of Indian ingredients. Why look beyond our borders for produce when there is such abundance within? Being entirely dependent on what is sent to the kitchen by farmers and purveyors, dishes change every few days; the entire menu is overhauled within 15-20 days. And at the start of this year, Masque scrapped printed menus entirely – come in, name your allergies or dietary restrictions, and let the kitchen take care of the rest. A chef steps out with each course to explain what’s on your plate; this level of interaction with diners also makes for a more relaxed fine-dining experience, opening a dialogue with the people cooking your food. Dishesare surprising, unusual, and often not what you’d expect; a snowy cloud cracks open to reveal fresh tomatoes from the farm, tasting like one itself; dessert begins with a lolly of palm jaggery and black rice ice cream coated in black rice crispiesand goldleaf. The experience of dining at Masque is one underlined with luxury, but the objective shines clearly throughout: to cook responsibly and let the ingredients sing, all the while, quite simply, plating up some really good food.
We asked Chef Prateek to list out a few locally sourced ingredients from different parts of the country that he uses in his menu and how. Here’s the list with his ideas along with a collection of images we took from the farm and his travels.
Kafal or Kaphal
Another tiny, red, pitted berry I brought back from Uttarakhand; its flavour is somewhat a cross between mulberries and blackberries and a little tangy. Called bayberries in English, these grow in hilly regions up north during May-June and are particularly popular in Nepal. At Masque, we’ve created jujube candies out of the berry and serve them as a petits fours.
Also known as the Himalayan raspberry, hisalu is a little orange berry that resembles, well, a raspberry. It’s sweet to the taste and rarely harvested in large quantities, because the life span of the berry once plucked is incredibly short and it deteriorates rapidly once off its bush. I brought these back from my last trip to Uttarakhand; we’re serving it as a broth paired with cow’s milk mozzarella and a berry vinaigrette.
This is easily one of my favourite ingredients we’ve used at the restaurant so far. Sea buckthorn is a tiny, bright orange berry that grows in the Himalayan belt. It’s not easy to move in the market, which is why you won’t find many farmers growing it for retail, and why we foraged it ourselves last year. On its own, it’s extremely tart, almost like an explosion of vitamin C in your mouth; we juiced and sweetened it before turning it into an iced lolly with a center of black pepper mousse – an upgraded version of the orange popsicles of my childhood!
While travelling and researching before setting up the restaurant, we met an Italian Saibaba devotee based in Puttaparthi who also happens to make some of the best cheese we’ve had in this country! We source all kinds from him – provolone, burrata, feta and more, but the most unusual is caciocavallo. It’s a stretched cheese that can be made of either cow or sheep’s milk, soft but with a bit of sharpness to it. It’s easily one of the most popular dishes on our lunch menu, served as a brûléed custard topped with fig jam and nuts with sourdough crisps on the side.
Perhaps one of the most versatile ingredientswe use that features on nearly every menuwe’ve created so far, our chocolate comesfrom a small company in Pondicherry thatuses organic, locally sourced beans. Thechocolate is truly bean-to-bar, meaningthey are responsible for the entire chocolatemakingprocess, right from sourcing beans toroasting, grinding, tempering and molding,and the difference will become abundantlyclear when you taste the final product. We’veused it in a rich, 75% chocolate mousse,as a burnt chocolate shell served with bothalmond milk and black sesame ice creams,and in a savoury mole with chili peppers.
An ingredient we featured on our opening menu which I’m very excited to use again! Fiddleheads are the coiled fronds of a young fern and grow across the northern regions of the country. They’re not widely commercially harvested, so we foraged ours, though they are very popular across households in the region, where they’re most often pickled. We used them similarly, creating a pickled fiddlehead raviolo served with a light saffron sauce. I’m hoping to use the fresh fern itself later this year.
In the literary world, an ‘Ode’ is best explained as a form of poetry, one that is lyrical in nature and not lengthy or a lyrical stanza written by a poet in praise for a person or an abstract idea. As I went through a multiple course degustation menu at Masque. I couldn’t help but find the analogy between a poet’s ode and Chef Prateek’s ode to the farmers in his menu. The dishes were truly a form of poetry of ingredients, not just all lyrical and rhyming with one another but also not complex, allowing the ingredients to be praised in their full glory.