Varun Totlani is the Head Chef, Masque restaurant. He was born and brought up in Mumbai, where, as a child, he’d spend hours watching cooking shows and videos in the hopes of convincing his mother to whip up new recipes every day. Instead, his own interest in cooking grew, and much to his mother’s relief, he began doing so himself. From then on, there was no
turning back; the draw towards the kitchen was clear, and by the time he graduated high school, there was no alternative path to consider. After staging at a 5-star hotel in the city, he moved to Hyderabad to study at the Culinary Academy of India, and later graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in New York.
On his return to Mumbai, Varun met with the Masque founders and joined the opening team in 2016 as a commis chef, steadily rising through the ranks and regularly running the
pass until his appointment as Sous Chef in 2021, and Head Chef in 2022. An ace at the grill with a penchant for all things barbecue, Varun’s cooking meets at the intersection of technique and intuition. As a cook, he is focused on showcasing the diversity of India’s produce and culinary prowess and carrying them forward into the country’s ever-evolving contemporary foodscape. Under his helm, Masque ranked at #16 on the list of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2023, also awarding it the Best Restaurant in India for two consecutive years.
Do you have a favourite time of the year or set of ingredients that you look forward to working with?
I always look forward to summer produce. We get such an abundance of colourful, fresh ingredients that I love working with, it almost feels like a brain refresher. It’s also the season I associate with a lot of my favourite fruits and nostalgic memories of summers as a kid.
What would you do if you weren’t a chef?
I’ve never given serious thought to another profession, but I’d say politician !
Do your personal preferences influence the menu at all?
In some ways, yes. We serve a 10-course tasting menu at the restaurant that changes with the season, and each new menu is heavily influenced by travel, research, and traditional techniques or recipes. Many of the resulting flavours tend to be quite nostalgic and familiar to diners, interpreted in new and different ways – and that’s partly because in our process of developing new dishes, we draw on things we’ve grown up with and been influenced by, in order to build on them.
What do you think is the most over-hyped food trend currently?
Truffle (oil) everything and pull-up cakes !
When are you happiest?
When it’s a full house at the restaurant and our guests are all having a good time, service is running smoothly, and everyone’s working in sync.
When you’re not in the kitchen where can you be found?
In my bed !
Where is your favourite place to dine?
In Bombay – Americano and The Bombay Canteen.
What’s your favourite takeaway or comfort food?
Ayub’s, in Kala Ghoda
What makes the local food scene so exciting?
Indian cuisine is on the rise, and I think the industry and diners both are taking a new kind of pride and interest in our own food, which is very encouraging to see. So many Indian chefs and restaurants are pushing new boundaries – it’s an entirely different scene than the options that we grew up with. There are so many exciting ways to experience regional foods today, whether through restaurants, home cooks, pop-ups or collaborations – but also a number of Indian chefs that are doing great things with international cuisines. People are more focused overall on quality instead of ‘fluff’, and that’s translating well for the industry.
Which is the dish you’ve created that you are most proud of and why?
The Cacao, Gondhoraj and Chocolate dessert that was on one of my first menus after taking on the role of Head Chef. It was a base of cacao fruit, lychee, gondhoraj and custard apple, topped with aerated chocolate mousse, cacao beans, cashew chikki and a chocolate tuile, finished with Pondicherry chocolate ice cream, and the entire dessert was set within half of a dried cacao pod. Beyond seeing how much our guests enjoyed it, it was also our way of highlighting and crediting the Indian bean-to-bar chocolate movement, which has progressed leaps in the last few years, while also re-purposing the cacao shells which would otherwise go to waste.
You’re having friends over for dinner tonight. What’s on the table?
Name your favourite city that has it all: food, culture, and nightlife.
I’ll be biased and say Bombay and New York.
Can you tell us more about the cuisine at your restaurants?
Masque offers a 10-course ingredient-driven, modern Indian tasting menu. The menus change with the seasons, dependent on a network of local farmers, producers and often foraging trips that we conduct as a team.
Since we opened in 2016, a central pillar of Masque’s philosophy has been a celebration of India. The team strives to create experiences with, and around, good food; not just to plate up local dishes with a twist, but to dive into the history and traditions behind regional foods and develop a new kind of modern Indian cuisine along the way—all while highlighting the excellence of produce this country has to offer.
In India, where cuisines, ingredients and technique change every 100 kilometers, the opportunity to learn from local communities never ceases, and there would be no development of modern Indian cuisine without first acknowledging this. We do frequent research and sourcing trips to new areas to explore the nuances of regional cooking, but also to learn about ingredients that don’t often make their way to the city – how they’re harvested, in what season, and how locals use them. When we’re lucky to source them in quantity, those ingredients make their way on to the Masque menu, rooted in traditional technique but paired with influences from different regions.
Recipe of Tadgola Momos with Passion Fruit Thukpa:
Thukpa Base Recipe –
- 1l water
- 15g ginger
- 10g garlic
- 5g coriander stem
- 2 pcs green chilies
- 5g black pepper
- 5g garam masala
- 5g kitchen king masala
- 5g turmeric
- 5g spring onion bulb
- 5g cumin
Blend everything together and bring everything to a boil. Chill the base.
Passionfruit Thukpa Recipe
- 850g thukpa base
- 600g fresh passion fruit juice
- 25g salt
- 70g sugar
Stir together all ingredients, heating very slightly if necessary until sugar dissolves. Remove from heat and refrigerate until chilled.
- 6pc tadgola
- 50g celtuce
- 10g ginger
- 2 pc chillies
- 10g coriander
- 2tbsp mushroom sauce
Chop everything and mix for the filling.
Slice the jicama with a mandolin or as thin as possible with a knife and steam for 2 minutes.
Fill the jicama with a spoonful of the filling and seal in the shape of choice. To plate, place the momos in a bowl and pour the passion fruit thukpa around.