When Ekaa opened its doors in a quaint lane of Fort, everyone was talking. Everyone was there. After all, it’s not too often (especially in today’s times) that a restaurant, boldly stepping up the dining game with a cuisine-agnostic, chef-interpreted agenda, gets you to try local flavours that evoke a sense of nostalgia, but are fresh, and new. I walk in to peek into an open kitchen and see this young chef hustling, and I am intrigued to see the magic she creates.

And magic it is. Rao is the quiet, humble, buried-head-into-work kind of a chef, but strike a conversation with her about her kitchen, and she’s assertive, articulate, and unique in her perspective. That’s primarily what led to her coming up with Ekaa as well. 

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“My vision was clear  — I wanted to highlight all the ingredients from the Indian subcontinent first, see what I can do with them, the different ways I can serve them in, mixing and mingling them with different ingredients. And then I wanted to mingle them with global flavours and ingredients. I don’t want to serve different versions of dishes or elements that already exist. The chefs that do that are doing a wonderful job, giving some traditional dishes a very new avatar. But I want to try something else. If I have cauliflower, what can I do with it? Let’s research. Maybe we can come up with something absolutely new in terms of an entire dish. And maybe 30 years from now, somebody would mix and match, and come up with their own version of it. But creating that baseline, creating that blueprint is extremely important to me,” she explains. 

Rao has focused on Research & Development (R&D) during her hospitality training and is bringing her vision to the plates of her guests, which is what a chef-interpreted menu essentially does. “Every mind is unique, just like every ingredient is. You can give 10 designers the same piece of cloth, and they would all come up with different pieces of it. It’s just like that,” she adds.

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There’s exactly that kind of thought that has gone into her menu — if you look at the tapas or the à la carte menu, it simply states an ingredient, and then a quick few words on what else goes with that ingredient. I pick eggplant, which comes with a fermented chili marinade, some pomegranate salsa, and lime. All you think of is an eggplant, and what you get is truly a genius, as the fleshy eggplant is balanced with some not-too-spicy covering and a hint of fresh tart. Okay, I get what you mean, I tell Rao.

Rao continues, “I think this is the time for interpreted cuisine. Somebody back in the day was told to make something of atta, which led to the puri of the pani puri, and the puri of aloo puri. Every chef is inspired by their childhood, by their travels, by their experiences. I have worked in French and Japanese kitchens. You can see differences in chefs’ food, in the nuances, in the way they use the equipment. I might use chopsticks for frying, but someone else might use a different tool. Those little things splattered all over your food are all a part of your final dish.”

But surely implementing an ingredient-first approach comes with its own challenges. This is Rao’s first restaurant as head chef, and that too in a country that has a different cuisine in every lane. “The challenge is you have to have something for everyone. From dietary requirements to habits to sentiments of different communities, you have to make sure you’re catering to them all. The second-most important thing is you have to make your food in a way that guests can relate to when it comes to the taste profile but still haven’t had the dish before because it didn’t exist. Asians, Indians especially, have a complex palate. You can’t give them monochromatic flavours,” she says.

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Can you take her word for it? Pretty much. At such a young age, she has worked for some of the most respected kitchens in the world. From training at the Taj Group of Hotels, Rao went on to work at The Zodiac Grill, followed by Wasabi by Morimoto, then to A Reverie. And then Rao had the stint that every budding chef dreams of — she went to Noma, Copenhagen — the world’s best restaurant. Coming back to India and bringing her experience to create Ekaa was the next natural step.

“The first thing that actually made me do partially well in all the places that I’ve worked at is having a very open outlook. Professionally, I began with Zodiac Grill. I was 20, and they were using very expensive ingredients, like caviar. And I don’t think any 20-year-old was actually getting a chance to handle that. When you’re entrusted with that kind of responsibility and you can handle it, they entrust you to come up with things for the menu. I think that puts everything in perspective for me. My main forte, even today, remains conceptualisation and R&D. But that only happened because of Zodiac Grill,” she recalls.

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“With Wasabi,” she continues, “I learnt how you respect your ingredients, how much freshness matters. I think nobody does it as well as the Japanese. They would get fresh fish within 24 hours from Japan. Then I was at A Reverie, which is one of the rare places that gives young chefs the chance to go all crazy. They made us experiment, and constantly experiment. We came up with new things. The clientele in Goa is very diverse. You learn to cater to a much wider audience, and that’s very important for chefs,” Rao narrates.

Noma, for Rao, was a game-changer. “I learnt how to make the kitchen so systematised that everyone’s on autopilot. You can keep a very open kitchen, and make guests trust you with your hygiene standards and everything. That confidence can only come if you’re very systematised, and there’s a functional flow. Noma also taught me how to first give your local ingredients a shot. I will share an example of this pumpkin. They took a pumpkin, marinated and sous-vided it in marigold oil, and served it with fresh pickled quinces, and a rosehip dressing. It was the seventh or the sixth course on the menu. Denmark may have good produce, but the kind of diversity that India has in terms of climatic conditions, kind of stuff you get here in markets, we could do magic,” she says, eyes twinkling. 

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This learning to take a local ingredient and experiment with it is visible through various dishes on Rao’s menu, but a particular one catches my eye. On the tapas menu is Sweet Morning, a ‘faux’ toast, topped with cereal, honey, and ice cream. I bite into this French toast-tasting piece of bread, only to be told later that it’s not bread at all. In fact, that ‘toast’ has been made using the humble potato. Blown.

As a child with dyslexia, Rao had an inclination towards creative arts, but fell in love with food at a very young age. “Standing with your mum in the kitchen, going to your granny’s, travelling with your family makes you eat different things from different countries — I fell in love with food. And I felt like it must be such a superpower to make people feel a certain way with food. I guess I kind of wanted that,” she responds.

As the conversation leans towards fine dining and its perception, Rao shrugs, and explains that this idea of fine dining due to global influence — intimidating. difficult to comprehend what’s on your plate — is not what it is. “I did think of my 80-year-old grandmother when I was curating the menu. She came two days ago, she is this simple Gujarati vegetarian lady. If she would like to try more out of it and she’s going to accept this, that means she’s eating the new version of fine dine without realising it. That’s what food needs to do. It shouldn’t make you feel small; it should make you feel happier,” she explains.

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But as an audience, are we understanding this approach, to experience food in the form that a chef wants us to? “Honestly, I think we’re as ready as ever could be. We have everything at our disposal, we have brilliant chefs. And now we have a well-travelled, well-exposed audience as well. I did, for a minute, think if people would like this approach, but well, we’re always sold out for tasting,” she adds. Rightly so — the food at her restaurant makes you feel you’re familiar with the ingredients, but not like you have to prove a point as to how educated you are about food when you eat it.

At present, the chef’s sole focus is her restaurant, but if we talk about a future, she is always going to do experiential conceptual restaurants, Rao says, proving that new generation chefs like her are determined to challenge and change things for the better with every sip and bite.

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KNOWING NIYATI RAO

A meal that you can have every day and not be bored of?

I think fish curry-rice.

A cuisine you wish to research and learn someday?

Korean

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The most underrated ingredient, according to you?

Root vegetables.

The most overrated Ingredient?

Truffle

A country that has impressed you with this local food?

Japan