Women Mean Business: I am not good at business plans - Ritu Dalmia

The gender divide is fast dissipating in every sphere of business. There are several women business leaders today, leading from the front and inspiring an entire generation of young women to take up the mantle of leadership. 

English Business News Channel BTVi - Business Television India has endeavoured to bring women thought leaders under one platform, celebrating their success stories, thereby motivating the millennial with their show, ‘Women Mean Business’. The second season of the show went on air on June 17, 2017 and airs every Saturday @ 8pm on the channel. The guests on the show this season will range from Media baron to Renowned Restaurateur, from award winning Gemologist and Jewellery Designer to Globally acclaimed artist. 

Ritu Dalmia is an Indian celebrity chef and restaurateur. She is the chef and co-owner of the popular Italian restaurant, Diva, in Delhi, which was established in 2000, with co-founder Gita Bhalla under partnership firm Riga Food. Other restaurants of company are Latitude 28 and Cafe Diva. 

She also started hosting a TV cookery show, ‘Italian Khana’, for NDTV Good Times for three seasons, and published her first cookbook by the same name in 2009.  

You have just returned from Milan, what have you been up to?
We are opening a restaurant there and we thought it’s high time Italians learn how to eat Italian food made my way. I am very excited and for years it has been a mindset for me that I will not open anywhere except Delhi, because I want to be there at every restaurant myself. 

One may call it lucky or unlucky that my team is very good and they are with us since a long time. There are people taking care of the restaurant so I had nothing to do. 

I have been going to Italy since I was 10 years old and for a long time I thought Italians can’t eat anything else except their mamma’s pasta. It is still true in most of the parts, but Milan as a city has changed so much. When you go there, you get better Japanese than you would get in London. It’s a city which is evolving very quickly. I thought it’s high time because Italians have a mindset in terms of Indian food. It is using Indian recipes with Italians ethos. 

I am not bastardising the recipes, but I am playing with it. I am in my mid 40’s now and every time you need to sharpen your brain, you need to learn a new language. For me a new language is learning a new style of cooking. When I was 40, I did Diva spiced, which was Asian food. I am known for Italian food and so I taught myself a new cuisine. We worked with modern Asian and now it’s time to go back to my roots and play. 

How and when do you know that you need to relearn?
When the kitchen is no longer fun and I am looking at the food turned out perfectly and I don’t have a rule to play. When there is nothing for me to do, then I teach myself something new so that I can teach that further. 

My father taught me that money, manpower and machinery is what you need for a business. Banks lend you money, machinery can be bought and so it is the manpower – the people – who make or break the business. I feel very lucky as I have an amazing team of people; Diva is what it is because of the people. 

What is the Diva team all about?
The Diva team started with 11 people and I never hired an educated chef in my kitchen and one of those people who started with chopping vegetables is the head chef of our Italian embassy restaurant. That says a lot for someone who can’t read or write, but cooks better pasta than most Romans do. Today, there are nearly 200 people. 

When I started, there were no women in the kitchen. Today, my entire top management is women, including all my head chefs. It’s funny how sometimes we sit for a team meeting with all the women and the boys are quiet and scared! 

Cooking is considered to be a gender-based role...
Women in general are also homemakers, and this is a job which is 15 hours a day and 7 days a week. When everyone else is partying on a New Year’s eve, you are working your butt off. There are a lot of women who get into the kitchen, but there are very few who can endure it to a point because it is like a curve. When I started, I had so much work in the kitchen, but now when people ask me who cooks in the kitchen when you are not cooking, I say it’s the same people who are cooking when I am there. After a time you don’t need to spend 15 hours in the kitchen, but unfortunately most of the women don’t reach that stage. 

Women have to be really strong and determined to make sure to put a balance in your family, your home, and your job. We have a few women who have cut that mark. The woman who will to be running the restaurant in Milan is our Head Chef in Delhi. 

How did this whole thing with Italy start?
I went to a school called CJM in New Delhi, which is a Missionary school. When I was 10 years old, there was the 100th anniversary of convents all around the world. The nuns at my school wanted the principal to go to Rome to attend this festival, but such schools in those days used have a monthly fees of Rs 30 and they did not have any money to travel. They decided to do a school trip of 80 to 90 kids. My parents obviously didn’t want to let me go alone because I was just 10, but I created a scene and they relented. In Rome, I had a blast. I ate a spaghetti pomodoro every night, while all the other kids were starving for Indian food. The day we were coming back I hid in the bathroom at the airport, hoping they would miss me out and leave me behind! I think my love for Italian food started there. 

In my teens, I started travelling to Italy for the marble business. But instead of the marble business, in a few years I fell in love and learnt how to cook. When I had a little bit of money in my pocket, I went ahead with my life in my own hands. 

What was your family’s reaction when you put your ambition of being a cook in front of them?
My father was so upset with me not only because I was opening a restaurant, but serving non-vegetarian food and picking up plates, which he considered to be a menial job at that time, were the concerns. It was not easy, but my mom was very supportive and I was financially independent. At the end of the day, I realised that if you are financially independent, a lot of pressure goes away. Today, my dad is super proud, he is a weekly client at Diva and even collects all newspaper clippings about me, my work and my restaurants. 

How do you navigate in today’s competitive environment?
Since, I am not bright in many things, especially marketing, I believe that facts come and go, but at the end of the day what you really need is honest food with good ingredients which doesn’t intimidate you, and after finishing the food there should be smile and a feeling of satisfaction. I am a purist and for some reason it has worked for me. Going forward, I don’t want to change this because I am doing this for the pure pleasure, even though the money works. 

Tell us something about the risks and brushes of failure that you came across.
In 1993, I started Mezza Luna in Hauz Khas Village, which worked for three years. The restaurant was started too early after the liberation. During that period, we had sets of regular guests, but I was losing money since there were no ingredients available, import duties and wine licences were a nightmare. After three years, the restaurant was sold out because it didn’t work. I was so attached to it that from 1993 to 2012 I never went back to Hauz Khas Village. There should be an emotional detachment from restaurants when they don’t work or they don’t make money. 

How much time you need to realise that the restaurant is not profitable?
Mezza Luna was the perfect example with time span of three years, but now it’s very simple – if a restaurant doesn’t work, I will shut it down within one year, because whatever investments you put in a restaurant, there is no resale value for it. Although, people have appreciated me for so many successful restaurants, but at the same time I have had equal amount of failures as well. We opened our Asian Spice Restaurant in Defence Colony under the name of Diva Cage, which was a nice place, but the Delhi mindset was not prepared for that, so after six months we changed the location and came into Meharchand Market and the same restaurant which wasn’t working in Defence Colony is now running superbly in Meharchand Market. 

How do you decide upon a location for the penetration of new restaurants?
It’s all about guts, because restaurants are all about locations and for me, Milan is just my guts. I don’t do business plans, because I am not good at it. 

How have things changed now which is not easier?
There are a lot of things which are still difficult, because the supply chain is not very well defined. For instance, earlier to get organic Basil was a coup, but now there are so many organic suppliers and very good importers of Italian food. As we are going forward, we are trying to use as much locally produced ingredients as possible rather than importing them. It’s is the best time to invest in this business, because food is always the best time to come in. When World War 2 happened, the only two industries that survived were Beer and Restaurants. It’s much easier to be in the food business than it was in 1993. 

Tell us something about what irritates you as a chef.
One of the things that I hate is shortcuts, since food is all about detailing and what annoys me in the office is that the salad leaf is not as crisp as it should be and that my chef has missed it – that drives me crazy. Every time I keep on learning something new is because food is my language. 


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