Varun Totlani: The head chef at Mumbai’s Masque reveals the secret to building an award-winning restaurant in Asia
From stepping into big shoes to clinching a spot on the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list, Varun Totlani opens up about his culinary journey so far and what’s to come.
Before bagging a spot on the coveted Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2023 list, in 2016, Masque—situated in Shakti Mills, Mumbai— was making waves across the country with its 10-course tasting menu replete with an innovative take on Indian classics.
Sharing its spot on the list along with New Delhi’s Indian Accent (#19) and Chennai’s Avartana (#30), the crew is still reeling in the excitement.
From winning the One to Watch Award in 2020 to earning the title of The Best Restaurant in India in 2023 – Masque’s success also lies in the force of its team, founder and CEO Aditi Dugar and head chef, Varun Totlani.
While Totlani is known to deliver cutting-edge cuisine, his drive to create comes from a penchant for all things culinary, which began in his childhood home watching hours of Nigella Lawson and Sanjeev Kapoor.
After completing his culinary education from the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), he joined Masque in 2016 as a commis chef and worked his way up the ladder to eventually become the restaurant’s head chef in 2022. As he puts it, stepping into the shoes of his predecessor Prateek Sadhu was no easy feat.
Totlani had to learn to embrace spotlighting local ingredients besides adapting to a more managerial role.
“It also means having to double down on how you manage your time, and having total confidence in the decisions you take. At times, it can be daunting,” he says.
YS Life caught up with Totlani on the sidelines of Asian Invasion, an exclusive dinner presented by Masters of Marriott Bonvoy in JW Marriott New Delhi Aerocity, where he cooked with two of Asia’s finest chefs, Chef Ton of Le Du and Chef Pam of Potong.
The making of an award-winning restaurant in Asia
As for what it takes to be among the best in Asia, per Totlani, the strength is in Masque’s team which strives to achieve the same goal—to showcase India’s culinary prowess through diverse techniques and local ingredients in a contemporary format.
Accolades like being on the Asia 50 Best Restaurants list are an encouragement along the way.
“These awards bring in more opportunity and help the business. But they are also a step towards fostering stronger relationships with the community, be it our peers or industry stalwarts from across the world,” he adds.
Doubling down on a regional and ingredient-first approach
For Totlani, the best meals he has had in his life were at some of the most unassuming and unexpected places. This philosophy extends to Masque's menu which focuses on a regional-inspired approach. While every dish has been carefully thought out, Totlani has a soft spot for a dessert of cacao, gondhoraj and chocolate, which is a tribute to the Indian bean-to-bar revolution.
“It uses the cacao fruit and is served within the dried pod shell, utilising as much of the ingredient as we could. Another is the seaweed and ponkh bhel – a spin on a Bombay favourite that uses Goan seaweed and seasonal ponkh in a totally unexpected way,” he reveals.
The Kashmiri morels with patra (colocasia leaves) stuffed with either fresh peas or barbecued pork is a signature of the restaurant and equally popular amongst the restaurant’s patrons. “Diners today are excited about new cuisines and are willing to be more experimental with their choices. In turn, they’re also pushing the industry to think out-of-the-box and provide those options,” admits Totlani.
As for ingredients he frequently reaches out to, summer and stone fruits, and meats particularly pork are on the list. But he reveals his love for Indian produce was cultivated after he began working at Masque after returning from CIA.
“Masque opened a whole new world to me. Today, I love to cook with ingredients like jalpai (Indian olives), kafal berries, seabuckthorn and lantern berries – something I haven’t done before,” says Totlani.
Not everything finds a spot on the menu. Once an idea takes root–usually after regional travel or having tasted something new–the team works on various iterations, aiming to strike a balance and ensuring the meal is full of flavour.
“We get people from the team to taste it and give us their feedback. If all goes well, it makes it to the menu. Sometimes, things don’t work out and we scrap the idea altogether. We also try to work in products from the Masque Lab, be it misos, garums, and other ferments,” says Totlani.
A collaborative spirit
The culinary world is slowly and steadily beginning to focus more on collaboration to celebrate different cultures and techniques, providing diners with novel concepts.
As an advocate of a similar philosophy, Totlani believes it is an important step for the growth of the industry. His recent collaboration with Chef Ton and Chef Pam has received rave reviews for its seamless blending of cultures.
“The food we each cook is very much rooted in our individual cultures, and I think this was a great opportunity to see how we can connect them. Think pani puri with a northern Thai chilli paste and a wolffia sauce, or duck sausages with Kerala parottas! The food was fun, flavourful, and experimental,” he says.
For Totlani, every collaboration is an opportunity to do an entirely new menu, since it will never again be replicated in its entirety. In this regard, he shares a few interesting collaborations in the pipeline at Masque.
“Our next collaboration is a plant-based one with Chef Daniel Humm of the legendary Eleven Madison Park, which we are extremely excited about. As for the rest, you’ll have to stay tuned to know more,” he concludes.
Edited by Akanksha Sarma