Meet the Chef Duo Responsible for Sienna Cafe's Dreamy Food

Meet the Chef Duo Responsible for Sienna Cafe's Dreamy Food
Auroni (Left) and Avinandan at Sienna Store & Cafe

Meet chef Avinandan Kundu and Auroni Mookerjee, the duo behind Kolkata's Sienna Cafe which has reinterpreted dishes with local, seasonal ingredients

Karan Kaushik
November 17 , 2020
24 Min Read

What are your culinary influences? 

It’s a strange thing to say, but I only started appreciating my mom’s cooking recently. So my cooking has been influenced by everything but that. If it was Nigella Lawson while I was younger, to Noma becoming a major inspiration during my time in Europe, my culinary influences have been around and changed a lot over the years. I doubt I can actually pinpoint influences. It’s a lot of bits and pieces from here and there.

Auroni: My first and foremost culinary influence is my family. My Thamma (that's paternal grandma in Bengali) was a proud home cook. Growing up, I spent a lot of time with her visiting bazaars and in the kitchen. Her simple yet flavoursome culinary hand, her strict standards for the kind of ingredients to be used, and most importantly, her constant desire to cook food that was delicious yet always nourishing, still influence the way I approach cuisine.

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At the same time, my parents were both avid home chefs and have written their own cookbook. My mother was also a food writer and critic for Hindustan Times and Indian Express during the 90s. She went on to become publisher for Lonely Planet India and launched their guidebooks in India as well. This gave me insight into some of the top restaurants while growing up.

My professional mentors are Chef Viraf (now Executive Chef at Olive Group of restaurants) and his wife Prakriti. Rather than going through any formal training, I learnt my restaurant 101 under them at Café Zoe in Mumbai. They were also instrumental in helping me change careers from advertising to F&B. They went on to recommend me as the show runner at The Salt House, a restaurant that really was a game changer for the Kolkata dining scene. My work at that restaurant led to the brand, and me personally, receiving numerous accolades both at a regional and national stage.

Read: The Journey of the Indian Tonic Water

Lastly, over the years, I have avidly followed the careers of global chefs and culinary superstars Fergus Henderson and Gaggan Anand. Their cuisine really has inspired me over the last few years.

Tell us a bit about your journey from Kolkata to Paris to Bornholm to Kolkata as a chef. What was it like as a culinary explorer?
Avinandan: I realise now that I knew very little about being in a professional kitchen set-up till I actually landed up in Paris. That opened up so many possibilities. My stage at Frenchie in Paris was extremely difficult. I actually struggled to come to terms with the stress of being in what I would term as an elite kitchen. I think I only really got up to speed when I started work at Ellsworth, and even though there were some really bad nights, I think I only started to feel confident as a chef after that. Kadeau on Bornholm was a completely different experience. The work culture was drastically different on the island, and there are so many aspects of actually running a ‘humane’ kitchen that I learnt there.

Food-wise I have barely been as enthralled as I was while in Europe. I ate as much as I could earn as these are often experiences you have only once in your lifetime. And being in the company of some incredible chefs constantly does change your outlook. At one time, Rene Redzepi was dining on the table next to us. All of us pretty much lost our minds. But my time there also made me appreciate what we have back here at home.

Auroni: My culinary journey was a little different. I made the switch from being a copywriter at an ad agency to chef at the age of 27. Until the Zoe kitchens happened, I was completely self taught (it helped being a part of the Internet generation with access to so much content via blogs and YouTube) and moonlighted as a home chef serving modern/ progressive Bengali menus inspired by my Thamma’s cooking and recipes out of my living room in Bandra. It was at that time that Chef Viraf invited me to conduct an amateur chef pop-up at Café Zoe (then one of the top restaurants in Mumbai).

Read: Reviving Lost Flavours of Jharkhand

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Once I entered the kitchen there, I just never left. It’s also where Avi met me a few years later, when he was conducting the same amateur chef pop-up. On the job at Zoe, I learnt the various aspects of the restaurant business. From peeling potatoes to dishwashing to stuffing ravioli to butchering to tasting wine to book keeping, I spent some time in every department. Add to that my marketing experience, it gave me the unique ability to be able to oversee all aspects of a restaurant as both general manager and executive chef. 

The most memorable dishes you had at these places? 
Avinandan: I like food which makes you think. Yes, there must be an emotional connect with food, but after a certain point, food needs to make you think. And I have been lucky to have had a number of experiences which allowed that. If I have to pick a favourite meal, I’d pick Septime. And I was fortunate enough to eat there twice. Completely different menus and an exceptional level of knowledge regarding the sources of each ingredient. You’d often see a plate and wonder how they had even come up with the idea. A lot of the food at Kadeau was similar, albeit with a much higher level of complexity. Septime was so simple, but so good. I still remember this tuna belly I had with a piece of cured lardon on top with a sauce from the pork bones. Ridiculously perfect!

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Auroni: My favorite dishes at Zoe were the Pork Belly Carbonara and the Pan Roasted John Dory. At Salt House, I think the best dishes that the team and I conceptualised were Kolmi and Pui Saag Microgreen Salad, Mangsho Ravioli in Bone Marrow Broth, the Kakda, Thankuni Pata & Gobindobhog Risotto and Ilish Liver Pate on Toast. The dishes at the Salt House especially meant a lot for me, as they were all inspired by rural Bengali cuisine and produce.

Also Read: An Unbreached Last Frontier

What's the concept behind the menu at Sienna? How do you come up with new dishes and experimentations? Can you illustrate that with some examples? Also, what is your favourite dish/dishes on the menu?
Avinandan: Even before we joined the team, Sienna for the longest time was about promoting artisans from Bengal. With Auroni also coming on board, the idea we are trying to push forward is to bring Bengal on a plate. There has to be this synergy between our workshop in Shantiniketan and the food we serve. Of course a lot of our plans have had to wait with the COVID situation, but we’ve been trying to get things moving in whichever way we can.

Most of our ideas are derived from our seasonal markets. If we can move with the seasons, our jobs as chefs become easier. A cauliflower is never going to taste great during summers. We’ve tried to take influences from more regional cuisines in India, rather than being completely European-centric and hopefully we can move forward that way. I’d like to believe that we have a team which believes in collaboration and a lot of the food we put up reflects it.

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An obvious but simple example of this would be the pop-up we did with Bong Eats. We’ve admired Saptarshi and Insiya for a while now and were super happy when we had to opportunity to work with them. The Chitol Laksa Bowl would be one of those dishes. It’s relatable, familiar, but something different. And honestly, most of those ingredients and flavours are very local. And a lot of the bowls we do here at Sienna, especially as weekend specials are based.

What does supporting the local food community mean to you?
Avinandan: As chefs, we have the responsibility of influencing how people eat and it shouldn’t be the other way round. It is impossible in the long run to consume the way we do right now as society and expect to strike gold. There have to be concrete steps taken by every person in the food chain towards a more sustainable way of eating. As chefs we are at this unique intersection between the consumer and the producer and if efforts are made there is a lot of difference to be made.

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Read: 6 Bloggers Showcasing the Northeast's Culinary Legacy

At Sienna we try and ensure we source our produce responsibly and we made an effort to move towards having more and more information regarding the food we serve. Hopefully there comes a point where we can completely do away with any imported produce and depend solely on our markets here, but it’s a long process, both in terms of the quality we’d like and whether consumers are accepting of it. But even if progress is slow, it’s important that we keep pushing for it.

What influences do you draw from the city (Kolkata)? 
Avinandan: For me a lot of it used to be how we used to eat as a kid. The attention to detail and the effort which used to be invested to put food on the table. My grandfather used to pick each vegetable only after touching it and being happy with the quality. Our Sunday meals were detailed and everyone seemed to know everything about whatever we ate.

The landscape has changed a lot in the last ten years and there’s been an increasing disconnect with where our food comes from. You only respect an ingredient if you know the true cost of what went into making it accessible. A chicken does not come out of a packet. All this suddenly came back during my time in Paris, where weekend visits to markets is still a major part of the food experience. Kolkata was never about specific influences for me. As cliched as it may sound, it’s always been about a way of life.

Auroni: My biggest culinary influence in Kolkata is its many, many local bazaars (our fish markets even rival some of the best wet markets I’ve visited in cities like Bangkok and Saigon). They are always full of seasonal, indigenous and heirloom produce and ingredients. With every visit I discover or taste something new.

Does Kolkata's street food scene influence you as a chef? 
Avinandan: I think everything we eat should influence us, especially as chefs. Street food in Kolkata is at par with anywhere in the world. And while there may be a slight bias in this statement, there’s an incredible variety to look at outside of the rolls and chops. Minor variations in different shops, with regard to spicing or with regard to the general construction of a dish can give you so much insight as to the social/cultural aspect of that plate of food in front of you. The history of food is important and street food is a major source of it.

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Auroni: What really always impresses me about the Calcutta street food scene is just how crafted it can get for a plate of food that is so affordable. The amount of attention to detail and manual labor (just like at a crafted fine-dining set up) that goes into making something humble yet delicious. The best fish fry is a fresh and perfectly fileted bhetki – never basa. The best puchka and jhaal-muri vendors will always customise spice and seasoning to each customer’s palate. The sutli kebabs in Beck Bagan and Zakaria Street rival some of the best kitchens like a Dum Pukht or Bukhara, and yet cost a fraction of that. It goes to show just how seriously food is taken in this city.

How often do you prepare your own meals? On a night at home, what's your go to meal? What do you like to eat at home? Where do you get your ingredients from?
Avinandan: I cooked a lot during lockdown, but with work back up again, I don’t end up cooking as much at home. But I guess there are advantages of coming back and living with your mom again. I have been a little careful with the shopping now, but luckily where we are based, we get a lot of easy access to people getting in all kinds of produce on their little vans, so sourcing fresh produce has not been much of an issue. During better times, a weekly visit to the market was always a thing for me. Even if I don’t pick up much, it’s quite the educational experience.

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I love cooking one pot meals for myself. And quite often, fish is involved. All the extremely detailed meals come out if I have friends over. But for me, it shouldn’t take more than 30 minutes to get in and out of the kitchen with a plate of food. The only criteria it must fulfil is that what I eat needs to balanced in terms of flavour.

Auroni: Spending so much time in a kitchen every day, it’s rare that I cook at home. But, when I do, I love cooking Mangsho’r Jhol (light mutton curry with potato), a simple Choto Maach’r (small pond fish like pabda/ kajoli/parshe) tel jhol or just something with eggs, all easily available at any of local bazaar near home. A particular favourite are the duck or country eggs. When I can find them, I make my favourite pasta prep – carbonara. 

If you could give one piece of advice to a home chef, what would it be?
Avinandan: I don’t often see much of a difference between a home cook and a professional chef. Given time, everyone can make good food. The only thing I try to explain is organisation and efficiency. It’s the best way to take the effort out of cooking and to make it a lot more fun. If you’ve set everything up, and keep cleaning as you are cooking, great food does not take a lot of time to make.

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Auroni: Never limit your palate. Keep trying and tasting new things and to keep an open mind, especially when travelling. It’s as important to keep your culinary mind ticking, as it is your knife hand.

Do you dine out a lot? What do you look for in a restaurant? Any favourite places you can recommend? 
Avinandan: I do dine out a lot, but not so much at larger restaurants. I get slightly nitpicky with food and it’s often unfair on the restaurant, because as a business you are trying to put food out to sell and not everyone has the luxury to do what they want. But I dread mediocre meals, which is what so many restaurants have become. My favourite place to eat in Kolkata is Kasturi. I also love my visits to pice hotels in Kolkata. I like places which stay true to their strengths and focus on it. Easier said than done, but that is what keeps me going back. I think more than anything, my favourite thing to eat in Kolkata is, strangely enough, Bengali food.

Auroni: I used to dine out a lot. Now I don’t find as much time. But, like Avi, I am also rather particular when I do eat out. What matters most to me is flavour. It should always come first. And thus my favourite eateries are also the ones that are consistently delicious. I too love Kolkata’s pice hotels. My favourite is Hotel Siddheshwari (Kasturi comes a close second). I also love Royal Indian and Sufia in Zakaria Street for their Kolkata Mughlai cuisine. I especially never miss out on the seasonal specials of Bheja aka Maghaz Haleem and Nihari at the latter. These are served during Ramzaan and the winter months respectively.

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What is the best meal you’ve ever eaten in India?
Avinandan: This is a difficult one to answer. A lot of a good meal has often got to with more than just the food you eat. It’s often the place and point in time. I have had some incredible hot Maggi in Meghalaya, in cloudy and absolutely breathtaking weather and landscape. Though it’s the same Maggi we get here honestly. And I’ve had some salmon in Bombay which was cooked well, but as soulless as any food could be. Meals are a lot about the story of the food and no matter how vague that may sound, it’s what it could be, if we thought about it more.

Auroni: Over the years, my best meals have never been at a restaurant. Living in Bombay I loved home chef Gitika Saika’s amazing Assamese cooking. My mentor Prakriti cooked some of the best offal preps I have ever had – especially the way she cooked pig’s trotter and goat tripe wa amazing. In Delhi, a visit to Sadia Dahalvi’s home was life changing. Spending a lot of time in Ranikhet, Uttarakahand, I loved eating the Jholi Bhaath and Lai (fiddlehead fern) ki Sabzi at Mrs. Bangare, our family friend’s home. Another memorable meal was on a trek in the Nanda Devi National Park. We foraged fresh gucchi/ morel mushrooms during the day’s hike, plucked some wild chives and thyme from the hillside, and just tossed it in some macaroni which we had carried as rations. I will never forget just how simple yet indulgent that plate of food was.


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