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From Madh to flower

ByMalavika Sangghvi
Feb 25, 2024 07:20 AM IST

Chef Niyati Rao's culinary journey from Madh Island to Copenhagen culminates in Ekaa, Mumbai's fine dining gem. Unconventional, ingredient-first, and globally acclaimed.

Mumbai:

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Spanish churro with a north-eastern Tingmo and pork mince, served with fermented ragi crisp and a podi-dusted baked pumpkin.

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A faux toast of potato cake, topped with cornflakes and a house-made ice cream.

Pork belly and cabbage served with lightly sauteed cluster beans and butter toast.

And the wonder of it is that all these gastronomic marvels are being served not in Copenhagen or Paris, but in a restaurant in Mumbai’s busy Fort area; and that their origins lay in Madh Island!

Madh Island, that sliver of sandy embankments at Mumbai’s northern tip between the Arabian Sea and the Malad creek, which lingers in the far reaches of the city’s consciousness, accessible to it via creeks and ferries and marshlands.

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Chef Niyati Rao’s childhood was spent in Madh island, because her musician father wanted to live far from traffic noises where he could hear the sea. Besides his day job as a pianist for a successful Bollywood composer, it was here that he would compose tunes that would enchant listeners across the world at the Buddhabar. Rao recalls hearing him practice for 8-hour stretches. “That’s why I can tell a Mozart concerto from a Beethoven,” she smiles.

Into this home, along with the smell of the ocean would blow all kinds of influences and knowledge. Her pharmacist mother, a voracious reader, instilled in her children a love for books. Niyati recalls that when she was six and had accompanied her father on a music gig to London, he had taught her how to appreciate sushi. But not until she had mastered how to use chopsticks. “It was always tough love,” she smiles.

How could it not have been tough? The family’s foundations were predicated on the twin pillars of hard work and happenstance. Her grandfather used to sell chikoos on trains as a young boy, until he was aided by a do-gooder who introduced him to the world of Bollywood music – a profession he passed on to his son, Niyati’s dad. The going had been good until his premature death, instilling in Niyati and her mother and younger brother a tremendous work ethic and will to excel.

It didn’t help that Niyati’s school life had been traumatic, exacerbated by her dyslexia. It was a time when the condition was still not understood by educationists. “My mum realised it, when I used to tell her how I would see numbers fly in maths class,” she says. It was at this time that she had an epiphany. “Once a year, we’d have a major crab cook-out during the rainy season, when the crabs were particularly sweet and delicious, and we’d order baskets of them from the local market; the whole family would get together for their preparation. “That day had been a particularly difficult one in class,” she recalls. “But when I came home to the happy bustle and tasted the delicious crab curry, I forgot all my trauma. That’s when I realised that food has the power to make people happy,” she says, smiling.

What followed were three years of college until she could realise her dream of entering Mumbai’s catering college, where her burning ambition made her put in many extra hours.

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That upon graduation, she was selected by the epitome of hospitality, the Taj group, and that too to work at the jewel in the group’s crown – its flagship Taj Palace at Apollo Bunder, was just one more strand in a story that comes across as one of magic realism.

Now she was ensconced at the Zodiac Grill, as a management trainee catering to the country’s most discerning clientele under the guidance of the legendary chef Hemant Oberoi, even as she would take a ferry, a bus and a train commuting back and forth to Madh.

Her stint at Zodiac Grill was followed by an even more serendipitous gig for the budding Japanophile: as chef de partie at wasabi by Morimoto, the ground-breaking Japanese fine dining eatery at the Taj.

It was all going swimmingly well until she realised she had hit a plateau. It was time to spread her wings and soar.

Her sense of adventurism coupled with her mother’s unstinting support led her to work at an experimental stand-alone restaurant in Goa. The change was drastic, but she loved it – going off on her little scooter to the market early morning and deciding the week’s menu based on what ingredients she found there. “It was highly creative and educative,” she says, her eyes sparkling with the sea-salt memories. A chance encounter here with an appreciative couple inspired her to seek even greater heights. “They encouraged me to apply to the best international restaurants in the world for further training,” she says.

The list had included the iconic Noma, René Redzepi’s three-star Michelin eatery in Copenhagen. Her questionnaire, which included unconventional queries about her preferences between sky- and sea-diving and given her broad sense of reading and exposure, she was accepted.

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It was in Copenhagen that Niyati embraced Redzepi’s visionary approach to avant garde ingredient-led, high concept dining. Here, she had another epiphany. “Every week, each intern had to take on the cooking for the other trainees. One day, when I was making a simple dish, the aroma from the pot was so powerful that it pervaded the entire neighbourhood,” she narrates. “All I’d put in were basic Indian spices like hing and mustard, but it had stopped everyone in their tracks. I realised then how potent Indian cooking really is.”

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The pandemic upended many lives and plans and Niyati’s was one among them. Her Copenhagen stint was cut short because of Corona virus and she found herself back home once more – this time with a head full of international aspirations and experiences, but jobless. But even this, along with a serious medical emergency that called for a six-hour surgery, did not dampen her spirits.

Along with her mother, she began home catering. “We cooked delicious comfort foods for people in our neighbourhood, reeling under isolation and fear,” she says. “Frankies, spaghetti Bolognaise – whatever ingredients we could find that day.”

It was at this time that her former catering college batchmate Sagar Neve, who was a serial restaurateur, contacted her with the idea of a collaboration. Niyati shared her learnings and dreams, even the most radical ones, and Neve seemed not only to understand but to like them. Over the next few months, the duo came up with the concept of what is now Ekaa – a cuisine-agnostic, ingredient-first, fine dining eatery that celebrates locally sourced ingredients. They shot off emails and cold-called every potential investor they knew. Fortunately for them, some saw the potential.

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Ekaa opened its doors to rave reviews and much acclaim in December 2021. Gourmets and critics hailed it as one of the finest in its category. Since then, its renown has gained further momentum, winning it a ranking on the world ‘s best restaurant list and a slew of prestigious local recognitions and awards.

This Valentine’s Day, both Niyati and Sagar (who got married recently) were back at their restaurant, serving up bold and playful delicacies like lamb marrow with apple, chestnut and charred vegetables and Barramundi with fennel coconut and lapsi, to their appreciative customers.

Their wildly ambitious, path-breaking plan had paid off.

And to think that it all began in Madh island, because of a home made crab curry…

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