Nikki To

Kolkata-born Ahana Dutt grew up going to the markets on Sundays with her mother, spending mornings selecting produce and haggling down the price of live fish. “Sundays were special for us,” she says. “It was a whole process of who would go home with the fish head.”

The weekly ritual inspired Dutt to become a chef, initially cooking alongside family at home before attending culinary school in Bombay, and going on to work in the kitchen of globally lauded fine diner Firedoor.

Now, Dutt is fronting Raja — an eatery that’s fast become paramount to Sydney’s dining landscape. “Raja is an important restaurant — it’s important for me to represent Indian food in the slightly elevated form we’re trying to do,” says the chef.

Dutt speaks to Hospitality about the art of intuitive cooking and ushering in a new style of Indian cuisine that combines familiarity with modernity.

Ahana Dutt was tossing up between becoming a writer or a chef during her school years. The occupations are linked to her mother, who was both a journalist and an incredible cook.

Dutt would go on to choose cooking as one of her electives in year 12, later studying at the Institute of Hotel Management in Bombay for three years. It turned out to be a decision rooted in childhood, with Dutt recently coming across an illustration she penned as a child.

“We were cleaning the house a couple of years ago and I found a drawing of a chef with a tall hat on a piece of paper that said ‘what I want to be when I grow up’,” she says. “I always loved to cook at home, so it made sense to become a chef.”

The graduate made the move to Sydney after completing her studies and began working for the catering arm of Aria before moving to The Keystone Group. Her next stint would be the most formative of her career, joining none other than Firedoor, one of Australia’s most acclaimed restaurants.

It was here where Dutt worked alongside Lennox Hastie, who runs a kitchen absent of electricity and gas, instead cooking with fire. “I fell in love with that place and that way of cooking … how you highlight produce and pay attention to detail,” says Dutt. “Or as Lennox likes to say, ‘Cook with conviction’. His process is so honed that you learn so much by just watching how he cooks. You start to instinctively know when things are ready or when something needs longer, which is something I really value.”

Dutt spent six and a half years at Firedoor, a lengthy stint given the transient nature of the industry. The chef honed her craft during this time, picking up not just new skills but a different approach to cooking, too. “The thing I didn’t realise that had become part of how I cook — because it was so normal — was the produce aspect,” she says. “Working with the best seasonal produce and highlighting it instead of just putting things on a plate for the sake of it.”

But the time eventually came for Dutt to start a new chapter, which came in the form of a mutual connection. Dutt was introduced to Ezra’s Nick and Kirk Mathews Bowden, who were planning to launch a restaurant that centered around Indian cuisine. “We met for coffee and a meal, and we wanted to see if our ethos’s aligned,” says Dutt. “They have visited India and fell in love with the place. We got along really well, so it was an easy decision on my part to join them in their endeavor.”

Calling time on a lengthy stretch can conjure many emotions — sadness, excitement — but fear was never one of them for Dutt. “I don’t think I was ever scared,” she says. “I have this thing where I never look too far into the future and if I’m happy with what I’m doing, I keep doing it. But I felt ready to do this and I really enjoy heading a kitchen. I am very passionate about passing on knowledge and developing the skills of new chefs.”

She’s also got a tiny but mighty team of six with her in the kitchen including a sous chef and a commis chef who was promoted to CDP within two weeks. “We get along amazingly well, and I’ve been really lucky,” says Dutt. “They’re all really great.” As for taking on her first head chef role? “I think the pros and cons are the same in the sense that you’re responsible and accountable for everything — it ends with you.”

Raja opened in July, making its arrival in Potts Point with a new style of Indian cuisine. There are flavours interwoven throughout the menu that are familiar to some guests but presented in a format they’ve perhaps yet to come across. “Obviously, there are so many Indian restaurants, and takeaway comfort food is part of everyone’s childhood,” says Dutt. “But it’s important to me that we elevate it, so it brings back memories from a flavour point of view but creates a different dining experience.”

The Mathews Bowden’s ensured Dutt had full creative licence with the food at Raja, and the newly minted head chef decided to go full tilt with the menu. “It would be limiting if we wanted to highlight a certain kind of cuisine, so it was left up to me to explore the entire country.”

Dutt’s debut menu is broad when it comes to influence, with references to dishes from Bombay, Lucknow, and even Bangladesh. “It is definitely inspired by food I have grown up eating and my time in Bombay,” says the chef. Take the spatchcock makhni, which sees the poultry marinaded in spices and buttermilk overnight before it’s grilled in the tandoor and served with makhni sauce and kasoori methi butter — aka, what’s used in butter chicken.

The queen scallops from South Australia with a moreish Goan ambot tik sauce is another example of tradition meets technique, but Dutt names the cabbage as one of the dishes she’s most proud of. “It is one of our vegetarian main courses and is cabbage layered with masoor dal, raisins, and coriander with a Lucknow-style curry made with macadamias,” she says.

As for dessert, there’s one very special addition. “My favourite is the carrot halwa with a saffron baked yoghurt my mum used to make when I was growing up.”

Local produce abounds across the menu in the form of crab from Queensland, Murray cod from Bruce Malcolm, and veg from Newcastle Greens and Moonacres Farm, but there’s one item on Dutt’s wish list: a specific type of rice. “My only difficulty is rice — it’s so hard to find Australian rice anywhere,” says the chef. “Even from India, the most common rice is Basmati. There’s so many different kinds and I would love to get these other varieties but it’s near impossible.

There is a short-grain rice from east India called Radhuni pago that translates to smelling so good it turns a chef crazy. I talk about the fragrance of rice a lot and it’s something people don’t think about because they’re not used to it. But I’d love to have that rice.”

Four months in, and Raja has been a more than welcome addition to a sector that’s seen more bistro openings than ever this year. It’s here where you’ll find food with the power of transportation to a late-night curry or a home-cooked meal. “Some people come in and expect something super traditional and it doesn’t look like that,” says Dutt. “But they will eat it and say it reminds them of their mum’s cooking. This food and cuisine is so close to my heart.”