A self-confessed alpha-female, Ritu Dalmia, is also very shy and private when it comes to her personal life. For the celebrity chef and restauranteur, "The conversations should be about what I cook rather than whom I sleep with." Having confessed that Ritu has always supported the LGBTQ movement from "behind the scenes," whether it be through donations or employment policies at her restaurants, the decision to be an LGBTQ activist icon by being one of the first petitioners to the supreme court against decriminalizing homosexuality was quite sudden. A decision she has since been immensely proud of.
Respecting her wishes without regret, we would first love to tell the readers about her remarkable journey of being the provider of gastronomic delight to hundreds of happy customers. Born into a family who had a marble business, Ritu Dalmia did give her best by working for them since she was 16, but she didn't quite fit into it. For her, she loved feeding people, trying out new recipes, and the culinary world pulled her in. Her first venture, 'MezzaLuna,' a café in Delhi, may have been a failure, but her love story with food continued. After a hugely successful but short-lived Indian-cuisine restaurant in London, she closed shop and returned to Delhi in 2000 and opened an Italian restaurant, DIVA, in partnership with Gita Bhalla. Calling her passion for Italian cuisine, a "fateful connection," she has since opened five other restaurants, a few cafes, had her own TV series "Italian Khana" on NDTV Good Times, where she traveled to Italy, showcased the local cuisine, and won several accolades. The celebrity chef has also penned down her favorite recipes in her book 'Traveling Diva: Recipes from around the World' in 2012.
Sometimes I almost feel guilty charging my customers because they are almost like my friends who are coming, and I am feeding them. The only difference is that I am getting paid for it.
Ritu did not try and minimize the difficulties that a female chef who also happens to be a lesbian has had to face in the Indian culinary landscape. Something which Ritu admits she did not have to face personally considering she was a chef and she 'owned' restaurants. Giving us a global perspective, she points out that most culinary spaces have a very patriarchal set-up, with only 5% of chefs being women. Calling this industry a very "rough business," Ritu elaborates on how difficult it becomes for a woman. They have the expected societal roles of being a caregiver at home, managing their household duties, and putting up with the long working hours that a restaurant will have. Especially when it came to weekends and holidays, which are the busiest times for a restaurant. Ritu, however, is adamant when she says -
Women are capable. More than capable and better at restaurants than men are, they just need to get over their fears and join in.
When asked whether her sexuality has ever been used against her, Ritu did share, "there have been a few disgruntled employees here and there calling me a lesbian, a dike, and all sorts of names." Even though these terms might have hurt Ritu at an earlier point in life, she has come a long way. Now, the power icon says, "All I feel is pity for them who feel like they have to use someone's sexuality against them." As a person, who has always been confident of her sexuality, together with financial independence and the support she got from her family, she wasn't afraid of threats of being outed.
However, Ritu has admittedly been very aware of the position of power and privilege that she has held. A position which she knew would (even if unfortunately) make sure she is heard. This was one of the key factors which made Ritu determined to go ahead and file the petition to decriminalize 377. Even if this was not something she had on her agenda, when her friend Menaka Gursuswamy (one of the lawyers who fought in the supreme court against 377) called her up and said, "Will you file the petition?" it didn't take Ritu a moment of hesitation to say yes. When asked about how she felt being part of this historical decision, her face split into a proud smile. "I look back, and I think I deserve a pat on my back." Her decision has become even more worthwhile considering the flood of messages from people from second-tier and third-tier cities expressing their thankfulness for giving them the courage to speak up.
For Ritu, the space that lesbians hold in the queer community in India is quite a 'paradox.' If, on the one hand, it is easier for women to live with women without questions being raised, it is also much more of a psychological and emotional burden on them to accept their sexual orientation. What needs to be done for them, according to Ritu, is "more representation, more material available, more platforms, and more communities.". Calling the movement to still be in its nascent stages, she urges more young people to join in and be vocal and provide more education and awareness at the grassroots. As a curious person who sometimes reads the ending of a book first (no judgments!), her culinary journey has also shown her curiosity in the palate she serves, in the restaurants she opens, and the projects she undertakes. Talking to us in Delhi, which can only be called a transit stop, it would be hard for someone to look at her and realize that she had a flight to Italy in a few hours or that she had just come back from Goa an hour before. Her being bitten by the travel bug for the last couple of decades was apparent! Her smiling demeanor and no-nonsense air could not help but invoke a sense of respect and appreciation.