“I’m not very fond of interviews,” says Marut Sikka good-naturedly, as we finally manage to catch hold of the reticent gent. A Chemistry Honours graduate, Sikka went on to become a food consultant, found Indus Culinary catering, authored books, hosted TV shows, and set up award-winning restaurants, and created meals for the likes of President Obama, President Clinton, and PM Manmohan Singh. Then it is only befitting when he tells you, “After being in the food industry for 22 years now, it’s all just instant chemistry!” We latch on to some hot cocoa and get talking about Magique, Delhi Club House, and everything in-between, with the ever-humble gent.
An army brat, Sikka’s love for all things culinary germinated from two facts, “Both my grandmothers were fantastic cooks, so I grew up eating very good food,” and the other being, “I travelled the length and breadth of the country with my army dad, and that’s how my taste buds got massively exposed.” In no time the food enthusiast was ready to become a food consultant, “When I passed out of college and thought about what I should do, the answer was very clear in my head. Till that time food was just a hobby, but then it became a profession,” as he shares.
From consulting restaurants and hotels to becoming an F&B mogul in the capital, Sikka has come a long way. Be it Magique, Keya, Kainoosh, or Delhi Club House, the man never fails to present a fresh concept with each of his ventures. What thought, we ask, goes behind the making of establishments that leave footprints in patrons’ memories even long after closing, “There is an aspect of creativity and I don’t want it to ever die down. The purpose is to evolve, there’s growth happening all the time, everywhere around you. Adaptation and change is constant and it’s the only process that’ll keep you a step ahead.” In an industry that thrives on reruns of successful formulas, Marut shares his perspective on steering away from that path, “You always know that you can do better and something different than the last time, and you never want to stop the fun…which is why successful formulas are good for people who want to make lots of money, but I want to have fun doing what I do.”
As he carries forward the culinary adventurer streak, we speak about the process that goes into the bringing his concepts to life, “I have never chased ‘opening a place’. Sometimes you come across stunning spaces – and as they say ‘location, location, location’ – these three things are critically important to me. When I look at a place the first thing I do is get a vibe of it, if it appeals to me it’s then that I actually develop a concept.” The end products may be unique, however, Sikka ensures a common foundation across all his restaurants, “I steer away from too much drama and tamasha. I stick to the fundamentals, i.e., giving emphasis to the comfort that you get out of eating a meal. Dazzling presentations are value-adds, but fundamentally get your food right.” He goes on to share that, “We’ve kind of lost the fact that eating out was more about socialising, about bantering. Food is so intrinsic to our social fabric that there isn’t a single social event without it, I think we forget that fundamental basic when we create restaurants.” Sikka rightly sums it up, telling us that at each model he creates, you find food that satiates you, makes you happy, and the place is conducive to being socially together.
Not just restaurants, he has also been instrumental in introducing F&B concepts to the capital. One such trend being the small and large plates, “I come from an era when you were always constrained to order because everything was a sharing concept. Since I was 13, I felt that why am I being compelled to eat what someone else orders, and isn’t it logical that a person only eats what he really wants to eat at a restaurant? Hence the concept of small and large plates came about.” As his travels had him witnessing the tapas in Spain, Sikka brought back this idea, albeit stuck to the basics of Indian food, “One thing we did differently was that without making Indian food fusion like Indian Accent, Varq, Farzi have done, we put comfort Indian food in a pre-plated format.” To back the ideology, he puts forth a food science fact, “Three bites of any food give you palate fatigue, by the fourth bite the dish doesn’t give the same taste to the taste buds, that’s why you need a change. And small and large plates work wonderfully in this sense.”
Often called India’s Culinary Ambassador, Sikka has lit up the stove for many a state heads. Speaking of the experience, he says, “It was immensely stressful. First, you have to deal with quality, then the food has to be absolutely fantastic, and finally you prepare it with 20 people keeping watch. It’s not a natural environment to work in, yet, the experience is euphoric!” With President Obama appreciating the food saying he’s never eaten Indian food like Sikka’s before, and President Clinton calling it fantastic, the stress certainly paid off. Despite many a feathers in his cap, Marut has favoured a lowkey profile in an industry that patronises showmanship, on being asked about the same he quips, “I am a very reserved person by nature, but apart from that I also believe that if your product is good, there’s no need for showmanship. Showmanship only needs to come in if your product doesn’t speak.” As his work walks the talk, Marut continues to build his splendid empire with wife Anusuiya, and spills the beans on how their equation translates into work, “Lethal, lethal, and more lethal! On a serious note, when we started we were in each other’s territory a lot, but after all these years a semblance has set in. She’s the design person and concentrates on all the creative aspects, while my strength is operations and food, and after all this time we now work in tandem.”
A roaring catering business, TV shows, restaurants, books, we enquire what goes into donning so many hats effortlessly, “Whatever you do, you always have to be on top of things at any given point in this industry. To make or break an evening for guests is in our hands, so effectively the consumer is where our inspiration comes from, and it is what really keeps me going – to deliver what I deliver.” To balance out the insanity that accompanies the ever-bustling F&B industry and his varied roles, a digital detox and some quiet reading is what helps him regain calm, Marut tells us. Sitting on a goldmine of expertise on the business, we discuss the properties that the Indian hospitality could pick from the international scene and vice-versa, “Internationally people respect what the chef does, the creation and curation of the food. That seems to be missing here. On the flip side I feel Indian hospitality is tremendously warm, the west could maybe loosen up a bit, food is about being social.”
As we get talking about what’s next on his table, the possibility of reopening Magique strikes a chord, what with us having hosted our second Secret Supper there. “We had to shut it down because new entrants within that space meant the sanctity with which we wanted to run Magique was not with us anymore. My perfectionist thought process just did not agree with the noise all around and the difficulty it posed to guests.” However, all’s not lost, as Sikka hopes to revive the magic some day, “This is the only restaurant where I have a concept but have to look for a space. If I do find a space, the Magique candle stands will get lit again.” Apart from the erstwhile restaurant, Sikka also intends to create a restaurant format that people wouldn’t have normally seen, and evokes nostalgia, comfort, and happiness, “I’m raring to go,” as he says.
On that note, as we wait to supper at yet another Marut Sikka certified restaurant, we wish him all the luck by revving up the signature DSSC Rapid Fire.
Last day on earth – which dish will you eat?
One culinary trend you wish would end ASAP?
The next F&B trend that’s going to take the world by the storm?
One pro-tip for budding chefs?
Don’t ever compromise.
Your favourite perk of the job?
The constant food trials. It’s fun, experimental, great food, at times you get alcohol, and at times I meet so many wonderful people!
And the worst pitfall?
Late nights, constantly on the edge, no routine, no day course is planned.
What is DSSC to you?
Firstly you’re young, which is brilliant. You’re authentic, you’re truly there. And finally, you’re passionate. So I’ll call you a team who knows exactly what they’re doing and doing a good job, so keep it up.
This conversation is a part of the DSSC Secret Conversation Series, where we get candid with the ace industry disruptors who map its course one masterstroke at a time.
Featured image courtesy: indiatoday.intoday.in