Chef Aakritee Bhandari – Artist, Innovator, Revolutionary!

In many ways, the life of Aakritee Bhandari began no differently than any of our own. A young, beautiful mother, a father who was a pilot in the Indian Air Force and a sibling; a younger sister. Aside from being an enchanting bundle of joy, she seemed, in all aspects, a wonderfully ordinary baby girl.

As time passed, however, her family began to notice certain peculiarities about their precious baby girl. The nurse that delivered her predicted she would be a handful, but no one could have foreseen what would soon unfold in Aakritee’s timeline. It began with her family coming to the realisation that she could not stomach traditional baby food. In fact, any bland food at all seemed to disagree with her. Upon further investigation, and a trip to a specialist, her parents were given the heartbreaking news that their daughter would have a very difficult life, as far as food was concerned.

Young Aakritee had multiple allergies that would ultimately make it impossible to have an ordinary diet plan. Aside from this, she was diagnosed with an acute olfactory condition that gave her a near superhuman sensitivity to strong scents or aromas. This caused her to stand and sprint towards the kitchen when her favourite mutton curry was being prepared, though she could barely walk at the time or even knew what Mutton Curry was. While noticing this uncanny fervour for food was fascinating to her family, this led her to develop knee conditions in the future.  But life has a funny way of turning curses into blessings for the brave. Little did the doctors know that  Aakritee would one day use her medical stumbling stones to propel herself further than most would even dare to venture.

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Initially, the entire family moved around a lot as her father was transferred to various Air Force bases across the country. Far from being an inconvenience, as it would be for many, the new places, people, cultures, and foods fascinated Aakritee to no end. She found the aromas intriguing and often intoxicating, so she began to experiment by tasting the sources of these curious scents. This curiosity, all too often, led to anything from a mild allergic reaction to a late-night trip to the emergency room. Moreover, the food available near most of the places they lived at did not satisfy her critical palate. While she avoided bland food by habit, Aakritee could easily recognise that the food that was placed before her was neither a treat to her eyes, nose or pallet and was predominantly unhealthy. As a direct result, her family would soon become patrons of multiple high profile restaurants and five-star hotels. While this was hard on a fighter pilot’s salary, her parents found a way to accommodate her affinity for the exotic, all the while believing that there was a higher purpose behind it, though that purpose was yet to be revealed.

Aakritee’s experimental nature would take her to countless restaurants, food stalls and unconventional eateries during the course of her life. At one point, when her father was posted along the Punjab/Pakistan border, this very nature lured her into the dense and uncharted forests of the area. While she has always been wild at heart, thrill-seeking was not the primary goal behind these jaunts in the wilderness; rather, the uninhabited forests were an amusement park of scintillating scents and flavours that were completely new to her. The temptation of sampling them proved too great an opportunity to pass up for the innocent connoisseur and she wound up falling terribly ill from ingesting certain flowers and leaves. Though as fate would have it, this prompted her to recollect an age-old saying by Hippocrates that she had heard in the past, “Food be thy medicine, medicine be thy food.” Taking his words to heart, she was able to synthesise antidotes for herself from the very trees and plants that brought her sickness on. For this reason, Aakritee never developed any level of fear or paranoia for her queer form of experimentation and she still enjoys the casual nibble on new flowers and herbs for her dishes.

Upon their arrival in Delhi, following her father’s latest assignment, the family resumed their routine way of life; their choice of fine-dining establishments now expanded to include restaurants like The Hyatt, Oberoi and The Taj. Although they still had a hard time accommodating their daughter’s expensive tastes, they did the best they could and ordered soup along with bread baskets when they went out, so Aakritee could enjoy the exquisite taste she longer for whenever it was possible. Their struggles and efforts did not go unnoticed and Aakritee held these memories most dearly in her heart and mind for years to come.

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As she grew and matured, the now teenage Aakritee was admitted into school in Delhi under the Air Force Bal Bharti scheme. It was here that she discovered a new way to explore her love for food and its varieties by developing a barter system that would keep her taste buds satisfied and her family at peace. The rules were simple; food for homework. By this system, she developed a means by which she would get to taste food from students of different cultural backgrounds minus the risk incurred from consuming forest flowers. As an added bonus, the sheer number of students that cashed in on her offer caused her grades to skyrocket, making her a topper in every class. Beyond this, her love for food from different cultures soon evolved into a love for different cultures as well. She would often enrol for extra-curricular activities that would enable her to venture beyond the school walls and meet new people from different walks of life. As anyone would tell you, greatness seldom blossoms in isolation. In so keeping, other areas of her life began to develop as well. She soon became an integral part of the swimming and debate teams, excelling in both.

As the years went on, Aakritee blossomed year after year into a fine young woman, finishing her schooling with merit and numerous accolades tucked away in her belt. When the time came for her to take admission in the college of her choice, she initially had her heart set on Stephen’s College, Delhi but wound up transferring to Lady Shri Ram College as it boasted of a better canteen. This, coupled with the fact that it was closer to Khan market, the most upscale restaurant and shopping hub in Delhi, made this the obvious choice for Aakritee who had, by now, developed quite a taste for fine cuisine. Having restaurants like Chor Bizarre, Gulati and Civil House within walking distance may have somewhat swayed her decision as well. She studied Political Science at LSR, a field she was long since passionate about, as it would enable her to source the food she wanted from reliable locations. It was at this juncture in her life that she dove head-first into her passion for food and she hasn’t looked back since.

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While she still continued her tried-and-true barter system at LSR, sampling lunchboxes was simply was not sufficient to sate Aakritee’s thirst for new experiences and flavours any longer. She had heard great things about the food served by the Taj Hotel, on the nearby Mansingh Road, and had frequented the place many times on her own as well, though unofficially. So, this time she chose to come in as a food critic for the very first time. Her highly developed palate and attuned sense of smell made her stand apart from the average critic that walked through their doors. But the proud chefs of the Taj would simply not have this young lady turning her nose up at their dishes that were served to celebrities and world leaders alike. They threw open a challenge to her; that if the dishes there were so unsatisfactory, then she was welcome to show them how it should be done; and so, she did. Not too long after, Aakritee became one of the 15 select individuals chosen by Virender Oberoi, founder of Oberoi School of Hotel Management, to be part of the hospitality induction program, meant to groom young general managers. She excelled at the program, almost as if fate itself had chosen her for this path in life, and soon graduated, with honours, from LSR college.

After her hospitality course, Aakritee felt like there was still more knowledge to be garnered from the machine that was the Taj, and all its processes that ran together seamlessly like clockwork. She chose to stay on at the Taj for another 3 years, dipping her toes into every field she could, from the kitchen to front office, even to service. One thing was clear to all who encountered this human dynamo – this woman was here to learn everything she could, and she was not about to let anything stop her. Though most could not wrap their head around why anyone would take on an iota of work more than what they signed up for, Aakritee’s mind ran on an entirely different road. She truly believed that learning every inch of the process by which a hotel runs would someday play a role in her future, one that was unfolding a little more each day. She loved interacting with all members of the staff and with the customers as well, soaking up whatever knowledge she could from everyone and everything around her. Still, no matter where she would wander, she would always wind up back at the kitchen, where her heart truly lay. Aakritee’s curiosity and love for learning could only be exceeded by her fascination with food, and she would often be found donning an apron at the kitchens even during her breaks and spare time. As she discovered cutting-edge methods and techniques at the hands of the very best chefs in the country, she began to innovate and improve on them as well, taking what she learned and making it her own. To the astonishment of all who witnessed her at work, these practices, which would have taken most people years to master came to her almost naturally. As she pushed herself further into her work, she found that the work, in turn, began pulling her in as well. As she evolved, Aakritee slowly moved into maintenance, engineering and even design. Her work life now consumed close to 18 hours of her day, though she wouldn’t have it any other way.

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After 3 years of working at every conceivable desk at the Taj, the now seasoned Aakritee felt her wings strong enough to hold herself up. Spreading them, she left the comfort of the Taj in Delhi and made her way to Goa. While she was initially offered a scholarship by Cornell University in New York, Aakritee’s family strongly felt that her stint at the Taj had left their daughter rather weary, so they recommended that she come to Goa where they strain of work would be comparatively less. While she saved her stubborn nature for the office, Aakritee was always obedient to the family that loved and supported her through every seemingly strange decision she took, so she heeded their advice and took up a work assignment at the Taj, Aguada in Goa. As fate would have it, this decision to respect her parents’ wishes would be one she would be forever thankful for, as it was this hiatus in her life that would allow her to find her life partner and friend, Virendra.

Love was the last thing on Aakritee’s mind when she ventured to Goa on behalf of the Taj, yet what is written in the stars can seldom be undone. Virendra and she met in a most opportune fashion, while she was working with the Taj in Goa and he was occupied with running his own restaurant. Sparks flew as the two spirits, both unimaginably passionate about and driven by their love for food clashed into each other. It was only natural that such kindred spirits would be drawn to each other, and so without a second thought, she moved to Goa to give their relationship a chance to grow and blossom; and blossom it did. After much courting and fairy tale romance, they finally tied the knot in 2000, two souls bound together in love, their hearts interlocked in their mutual love for everything food. This love was ultimately expressed through the birth of their lovechild – A Reverie.

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A Reverie came to life in Calangute, at a different location than its current one. As she was still working at the Taj, she began to feel the strain of leading multiple work lives, with the constant pressure and travel that came with the job. Eventually, she fell prey to a rare auto-immune disease. Such a sickness afflicting the woman who he only just wed greatly troubled Virendra, so he took her to various health practitioners who prescribed a series of medications to remedy her condition. Ironically, these medicines backfired and ended up worsening her condition. But even in this darkest of hours, as her health deteriorated to the point of agony, Aakritee refused to succumb to self-pity. Instead, she began to channel this experience into something positive, contemplating the importance of nourishment in food, and how certain foods could act as nature’s own medicine. Thusly, food could be used for both, satisfying hunger and pseudo-holistic healing. She began investigating means by which she could incorporate these forgotten facets of food into her dishes.

In so keeping, the menu at A Reverie was originally curated to promote food that was healing to the body. It didn’t take Aakritee too long to wonder, however, why healthy food can’t taste good at the same time. To her, if the healthy dishes she whipped up could involve all the senses of the one tasting it, there was no reason why it could not be an outstanding dish as well. But to pull this off, she needed to draw the customer into the dish itself; everything from the aroma that tickled one’s taste buds, the textures of the different components and how they interacted with one’s mouth to the sound of the crunch as they bit into something had to be spot-on.

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“The whole idea is to first grip myself and then the diner to make them understand my art, plot and narrative,” she expresses passionately, to this day, “My approach is centred on creating a dish that facilitates a dialogue between the mind and palate. Creating food that does anything as prosaic as merely feeding people is not my cup of tea. I facilitate a conversation.” In many ways, one could liken the way Aakritee approaches a dish to a modern day director on a film set. With her mind set on the final outcome she desires, she masterfully commands the ingredients to perform together as a whole, bringing together a dish that is no more simply something to consume, but an experience in itself. To her, simply involving the 5 senses did not suffice, as they were incomplete without the 6th: imagination.

Her vision for the future and that of the future of food in Goa was brought to life through A Reverie, though it was not always located against the scenic, posh backdrop that it now enjoys. In its early years, A Reverie was little more than a dream held together by pure willpower. Aakritee and Virendra had to lease out the property to get their plans off the drawing board. Expectedly, there was a lot of friction between the pair as the restaurant began to take off, the primary one being the menu and whether they should play it safe, by sticking to popular food items, or not. Logic dictated that in a low-paying market like Goa, creating dishes and cuisine that were all but unheard of to the common man was too risky a gamble to run. But logic had taken a backseat in Aakritee’s colourfully queer life so far, and she wasn’t about to hand over the wheel just yet. They locked horns over whether sourcing out high-quality ingredients for their dishes would be economically viable in a low-paying market like Goa. Virendra, wishing to play it safe felt that it may not pay off in the long run, but Aakritee knew, in her heart, that acquiring the very freshest organic ingredients was quintessential in compiling a dish worthy of A Reverie. Moreover, she wished to introduce a relatively new concept; “Plate Sharing”, a practice that was popular at fine dining restaurants in other countries. But was the Goan foodie ready to stomach these revolutionary concepts? Would he be willing to take a leap of faith outside his comfort zone, for a chance to experience the extraordinary? Only time would tell.

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As it began to lift off, A Reverie began to be face external obstacles as well. Its name began to be acknowledged as a formidable threat among its peers and it, therefore, fell victim to name-poaching. Other restaurants attempted to replicate and take credit for their signature creations, forcing the duo to register for a trademark, in order to protect their identity and signature style. Aside from protecting their dishes, the staff themselves needed to be educated about the food, how to appreciate it and what A Reverie stood for. To create this level of awareness and appreciation, something that would normally take years for people who were accustomed to comfort food, was no small feat. Eventually, as their struggle intensified and they neared breaking point, they began to face a slew of problems from their landlord. This prompted the couple to realise that A Reverie was not destined to remain here, and they began looking for its new home.

It was love at first sight when Aakritee and Virendra chanced upon the land where A Reverie is now located. They wanted a place that gave customers a feeling of space, one that they could find with relative ease. In 2005, they came across such a plot and instantly knew that this was it. So they did what any young dreamer would, which included taking loans from friends and family to acquire the funds required for the land. Aakritee went so far as to mortgage the jewellery upon her neck when the amount fell short. People with other agendas constantly attempted to hamper their progress even then, but Virendra’s competitive business side, coupled with his wife’s famed stubbornness made short work of each and every obstacle that came their way.

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Thus, brick by brick, the A Reverie we now know and love began to take form. Architects from across India were ready to take on the project, provided that Aakritee understood that it would take no less than 2 years for it to see the light of day. She, therefore, turned down all their offers and chose to handle it entirely on her own. One might imagine that this move would have seen some opposition from the ever-cautious Virendra, however that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Like a true gentleman of old, the one thing that Virendra believed in, without question, was his wife and her unfathomable creative side. He knew that, as this project was close to her heart, the design of their dream restaurant could not possibly be in safer hands.

In the beginning of the development phase, Aakritee often worked 24-hr shifts, while Virendra ran around constantly to acquire permissions required to get things moving. Additionally, they were lacking the one thing that any restaurant needs above all else; the staff. The formidable two-person team kept the restaurant running on their own, keeping to their old menu as there was almost no time to breathe, let alone innovate. Not too long later after, they were aghast to learn that the restaurant at their older location had begun to serve the dishes they had conceptualised, so they rose to the challenge and miraculously created an entirely new menu from scratch. Simultaneously, they were able to procure a few staff members, though not nearly enough, and give their love-child A Reverie the attention it deserved.

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One year, and countless measures of sweat, blood and tears later, A Reverie is now a work of art in its own right. The design, spearheaded by Aakritee herself is akin to an amphitheatre. With its signature high ceilings and warm earthy tones, stylishly highlighted with overtones of bling, walking into A Reverie gives one the impression of being in another land entirely. She wanted a look that was inherently Goan, unlike the concrete jungle that she had grown up in, so it’s easy to see where A Reverie gets its warm, natural wood-ey look from. The turquoise colour palette found in both the restaurant and the logo itself is inspired by Aakritee’s birthstone. The turquoise spiral logo itself is representative of her, an ever-evolving, dynamic, ever-changing force. For other wine aficionados like herself, A Reverie was fitted with a stellar wine cellar, with vintages and other brands from around the world. On a parallel note, it being a cove close to any man’s heart, Virendra personally oversaw the design of the bar, and placing it at an elevated level was reportedly his own eccentric way of “raising the bar”.

As it picked up steam, friends and well-wishers from other restaurants began sending their staff members to help Aakritee and Virendra out, whenever possible. In time, many more joined the team, though some were completely new to the field and knew next to nothing about fine dining. Aakritee soon came to realise that a blank slate was ideal for what she had in mind, as it would enable her to infuse them with all the knowledge that she wanted to, with little-to-zero resistance from their end. Unfortunately, while all this was moving along smoothly in the background, costs continued to pile up, the burden of loans hanging around their necks daily. In spite of this, Aakritee kept her eye on the prize, and focused on the final unchecked box on her roster; the roof. In her own small way, she wished for A Reverie to leave its own mark upon the face of Goa, much as the Romans did with their architecture. More importantly, she wished for it to be etched upon the memory of each and every person who saw it, a feat she eventually pulled off rather well.

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After an uphill battle that lasted 2 years, against criticism, finances, external factors and nature itself, the dust finally began to settle. The support and collaboration they had received from people that believed in them, a steady patronage with repeat customers, carried them forward through the toughest times and helped them establish A Reverie as the premier stop for fine dining in Goa. The years of struggle had not been kind, but they had indirectly brought Aakritee out of her comfort zone, influencing everything from her work ethic to her style, and forged her into the person she is today. Though trained for years at renowned restaurants, nothing could have prepared her for running her own except the ordeal itself. Somewhere along the beaten path, she developed a mild form of OCD, which made her obsess about her methods and techniques and pushes her to constantly innovate and aspire to a higher standard. Several people who have witnessed her in action ask why she doesn’t just hand over the reins to another chef and run A Reverie purely as a business, to which she cheerfully replies, “I want to be a creator, not just a business-woman. I want A Reverie to be an experience, not just a restaurant.”

Aakritee uses A Reverie as a channel of her creativity; everything from the décor to the dishes have been shaped and inspired by her own life and experiences. The menu practically screams of her creativity, each of her edible, theatrical dining experiences mesmerising her audience and causing them to wonder whether it would be fair to bite into and tarnish the masterpieces placed before them. Yet, as the menu continually grows in variety to reflect her experiences and accommodate her eager audience, many items linger on as personal favorites, including the famed Chicken Liver Pate, The Wasabi Prawns and the sinfully indulgent Chocolate O.C.D. Pushing the envelope even further, she began to dabble in the rare art of molecular gastronomy, the study and practice of food on a minute level, how it changes when it breaks down and reacts to certain elements, inspired by French chemist, Herve This. Using this knowledge, she continually endeavours to find new ways to retain nutrition while creating exciting new dining experiences. To her, this is becoming increasingly important in a world where demand drives delivery, and genetic modification and artificial ripening of produce is all the rage.

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It has now been 15 years since A Reverie placed its feet firmly into Goan soil, and though it is constantly evolving, its heart and soul remain unchanged. Aakritee wants to pass on her wisdom and experience to others as she continues to grow, though since training in the country has not improved greatly, she vehemently continues to believe in the importance of on-the-job experience. As her clientele has now expanded to include the likes of backpackers and celebrities alike, she has not lost her humility and down to earth roots inculcated in her by her family. Though she has no children of her own, she desires to make A Reverie a launch-pad for younger chefs, by taking them under her wing personally and helping them use their own unique talents to express themselves through their work. Moreover, as so many prime locations close for the different seasons in Goa, A Reverie now has a round-the-year space with its “Food Lab” allowing them to experiment with the menu and evolve it constantly. The “Chef’s Table”, a dedicated space with an interactive kitchen is another idea she’s currently toying with. With theatre being at the centre of her focus, this customised dining experience will feature a sit-down course-wise meal and promises to be a much more engaging affair than the average dinner. Finally, as a cherry on top of the cake, Aakritee will be introducing Teatro, a culinary theatre of Goan influences, featuring exclusively traditional and locally sourced ingredients.

Aakritee’s life has been nothing short of an inspiration to everyone who she encounters. In every way, her life is testimony to the fact that neither financial restrictions nor paralysing health conditions can dictate what your life will turn out to be. Her legacy, A Reverie, standing proudly along the bustling streets of Calangute, Goa serves as both, a tribute to her struggle and a beacon to young chefs and entrepreneurs everywhere, sending out one resounding message: It isn’t about the hand that life deals you; it’s about how you choose to play it.

Happy Reading

Gigi Martin

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