When Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants released its 51-100 list earlier this year, there were four Indian restaurants on it, with one being a new entry to the coveted list. The newcomer was Ekaa, making the debut at #93. Helmed by chef Niyati Rao and Sagar Neve, the restaurant doesn’t serve any particular cuisine—an outlier in an industry where most spots have more than one on their extensive menus. Instead, it focuses on spotlighting fresh, indigenous produce and giving them the space to shine.
In an exclusive conversation with Bazaar India, Rao opens up about her culinary journey, the philosophy behind Ekaa, her advice for budding chefs, and the latest tasting menu at Ekaa.
Harper’s Bazaar India: How did Ekaa come about? Take us through the journey.
Niyati Rao: I had come back to Mumbai, fresh out of Noma, in 2020. The pandemic had just started. I applied to many restaurants but couldn’t get in as people were laying off their existing staff. That's when my former colleague, Sagar Neve (now the co-founder of Ekaa), who I had met while interning, almost seven years ago, got in touch with me and said he wanted to do something new. Over the course of many meetings, we forged a concept we wanted to take ahead—an ingredient-based restaurant. After a year and a half of R&D and conceptualisation, we opened Ekaa in December 2021.
HB: How did you get into the culinary field?
NR: Since a very young age I understood that for my family, the world revolves around food. We have always travelled so much and for us, one of the ways to truly understand a culture and enjoy it is through food. That swayed me towards exploring this field more. Plus, my influence at home was tremendous in shaping my ambition as they are all terrific cooks—from my mother and my naani, to my father.
HB: Why ‘Ekaa’—what inspired the name of the restaurant?
NR: Ekaa means unique, matchless, and the one. It had a larger meaning for us as we wanted to convey that every ingredient is unique in its own way and it is one of a kind, and when we dig into its complete potential, we realise that the possibilities are endless and the results are matchless.
It’s called the one as we do not believe in working with a pre-existing blueprint—we want to create our own combinations.
HB: Where do you find inspiration for your menus? Is your approach ingredient-first or dish-first and why is it so?
NR: The inspiration for everything we do comes from anywhere—it could be from our personal experiences to people to places, memories or even day-to-day life. Our approach is always ingredient-first, especially seasonal produce.
When we set out, people would ask us what cuisine it would be and we would say it was an ingredient-based cuisine, which was unheard of. People still haven’t unlocked the potential of seeing an ingredient through the lens of possibilities. They put it in a box of cuisine they have had or that already exists, but isn’t it interesting to see what else an ingredient can do? For a chef to create something in confines of cuisine is limited but if you only see the world of bounty and ingredients, the possibilities are endless. We will always have something to be very excited about and something new to give to the people as we keep learning.
HB: What was your reaction when the restaurant was ranked 93 on the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 51-100 list? And what is your opinion on awards and lists in the hospitality industry?
NR: Honestly, we were all actually jumping and we could hardly breathe, and it was followed by a stream of tears. It was a dream come true as we have all followed the awards for so long and we really look up to all the maestros who feature in it. They have impacted and changed so many things for us. I think the awards really motivate restaurants to understand how powerful and impactful the world of food really is and it gives every restaurant a voice that can be heard far and wide. It also ensures that the culinary fraternity can look to one another for inspiration. From a social standpoint, the award recognises great work and concepts.
HB: What advice would you give to young chefs starting out in the industry?
NR: Be brave, be bold, but work very hard and have a tough skin—you will need it. And once you start something finish it—it’s your responsibility.
HB: What is next for Ekaa?
NR: Ekaa has just launched its tasting 4.0 menu that we fondly call ‘Imprint’, which means to create an impact or an impression. We are very excited for everyone to taste it as we have taken a simplistic approach in terms of the look and plating but an advanced one when it comes to the techniques.
On chef Niyati Rao: Shirt: Imwip; Pants: Au Courant; Earrings: I Blame Beads; Rings: Studio Love Letter; Necklace: Chef's own
Photographed by: Sana Chhabra
Styled by: Natasha Hemani and Kavya Shah
Hair and makeup by: The Hair Bar, Aayushi Parekh, Harry
Assisted by: Anushka Sharma, Anoushka Shah, Anushi Shah
Photo assistant: Tarun Amarnani