New York-based 29. Private Kitchen takes sit-down meals and makes them an elaborate, classy affair replete with bite-sized dishes and secret menus which are only unveiled before the fine dining experience, all from a home-based set-up. Creating pre-fixed tasting menus for supper-clubs hosted in secret spaces, popup dining experiences in and around the city, and private events at a residence are some of the things Shuchi Mittal Naidoo’s venture caters to best, with a special fondness for small plates and tapas emerging, inspired by the unexposed genre of homemade Indian cuisine.
Word of mouth has succeeded in news of her innovative gastronomic venture spreading like wildfire, with reservations filling up quicker than you can imagine. The menu is also influenced by local products and seasonal ingredients, making for a fluid, malleable entity that depends as much on the time of the year as it does on Shuchi’s mood, and how creative she’s feeling, making it an exciting meal that leaves you full without feeling stuffed, and satiated without having overeaten.
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We caught up Shuchi on her thoughts on Indian cuisine, dining with strangers and the potency of food to ignite conversation over a well-thought out meal:
I. When did you first start cooking, and what is your favourite homemade dish?
Gosh, I can’t quite remember. Perhaps when I was eight, maybe ten. I remember making my first kadhai paneer with my mom at ten. My favourite dish is aloo gobi; nobody does this dish justice in restaurants!
II. How have your past few experiences cooking for a group of strangers been like? Are there any interesting anecdotes in particular that stand out?
It’s been, to say the least, inspirational! Meeting new people and getting feedback is a really positive way for me to keep innovating and improving. So it’s been great so far!
There have been plenty of funny moments so it’s hard to pick one. I did, however, notice the role of food in connecting people one time when I had a table of seven guests - a 74-year-old retired Argentinian teacher who has now been travelling the world, a college student, two immigration lawyers, a doctor, a farmer and a ballerina. They might not have had much in common but the conversation that ensued was far from ordinary. Where else in the world would you get a chance to have dinner with such company? There is much you can learn from a simple meal.
III. What is it about catering to intimate gatherings that appeals to you most? How do you generally go about planning the menu for these private dinners?
The people you meet, the stories that go around a table and the simple appreciation for what I put on the table. There is something magical about a dinner table that makes people put aside differences and inhibitions and simply dig in. And I love being able to create that magic.
Re menus - I could go on and on. There is no method to the madness, I’m afraid. I am always jotting down ideas and planning menus in my head, even when I don’t have an event coming up. If I try to pen down my thought process it’s this: I look at a simple Indian homemade meal and break it up into components- each of which becomes a course. I then factor in things like seasonal produce, locally available ingredients, dietary restrictions and condiments to layer. I taste-test any new ideas and try to always keep one tried, tested and appreciated dish on the menu to hedge myself (I’m an ex-banker after all!). The final menu takes a few iterations but that’s the fun of it!
IV. What is Indian food stereotypically associated with, in your opinion? What are the notions you’d like to change regarding this, and how?
This, in my opinion, is the most important question you’ve asked!
Heavy, greasy and unsophisticated for any professional gathering... in that it’s only meant for that pajama night comfort food take-out. Ugh! I want people to know that it’s everything but that and at par, if not better, than any contemporary cuisine out there. It’s all about perspective.
It’s mainly heavy because of how much you eat when you go for Indian. I like to manage portion sizes by breaking a full meal into courses, so you’re not wolfing down whatever is on the table.
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As for the greasiness, restaurants’ cooking usually involves quick shortcuts and making curries in bulk - which often means dumping cream and butter to make a dish tasty. I focus on cooking lighter, with patience, like we do at home. I want to show guests the healthier side of Indian cuisine a.k.a homemade food, and also how easy it is to incorporate seasonal/locally available vegetables and techniques into a traditional meal, without losing out on how scrumptious it all is.
When it comes to being unsophisticated - I think we can all agree that it deserves more than a bowl, and bunch of coriander on top! I like to emphasize on plating, and getting creative with it so people can see the modern/sophisticated side of Indian cuisine. One that they’ll feel comfortable with in front of a client dinner.
V. Tell us a little bit about your inclination towards centring a meal around small plates and tapas, and how you incorporate these within Indian cuisine.
It’s fun. I like the idea of being able to sample a variety of dishes in one meal (I’m Indian and proudly love buffets!). The Indian food diaspora is so vast that there are enough ideas to be creative with, and small plates allow people to experience that journey, give them time between courses to connect, and feel satisfied but not uncomfortable after the meal.
Indian cooking techniques make food so flavourful that there is nothing you can’t convert it into. Small plates are but an amalgamation of components you’d want to eat together when food is served family-style. Think dal chawal and raita, and that it can also imitate a risotto ball. Or how a slow-simmered chicken curry compliments almost anything, so why not add it to a taco, an arepa or even bite-sized crackers. I try to think out of the box. And let’s be honest, no one likes cold meat sandwiches for their party anymore.
VI. How do aesthetics feature into the meals you create? Tell us about how important you think this is, especially with respect to Indian food.
Oh, aesthetics are everything! I can’t stress enough on it. Restaurants have a reputation to create an ambience that lacks that personal touch. I support an atmosphere that’s simple yet warm and welcoming. Dim lighting, soft music (that is not Bollywood tunes!), a well-laid table, crisp linen and candles. I love candles. The overall environment makes people want to eat the food even more, because when you walk in it seems to read “We want you here.” I also focus on playing a good host. Not everybody on the table is equally social, so I help trigger conversations, introduce each course with a story, and never hold back on humour.
A perfect dinner is one where you take home the overall experience, and not just the food you ate. Attention to aesthetics ensures just that.
VII. Tell us about the one dinner experience you’ve helped create that you’re personally very proud of.
That’s a hard one. I’m proud of a few I’ve done, all for different reasons. But, if I had to pick, I suppose the most creative was a popup dinner picnic under the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridge last spring. Other than an extremely unique location for a fine-dining dinner (yes we had a white tablecloth et all!), I had to work with no heating equipment or kitchen! So the menu had to be something that worked cold, everything was pre-cooked and I even took certain dishes in flasks to keep them moderately warm. The plating was done on disposable dinnerware. Somehow it’s always interesting to break the norm and realise how much you can do with little. That dinner left me pretty encouraged.
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