Auroni's  Holistic Cooking Style & Love For Local Produce
Image Credit: Auroni Mookerjee

Once a copywriter, now turned chef, Auroni Mookerjee has always associated his formative years with food. In his words "My father, sister, and I all enjoy cooking, and my mother is a culinary critic. I made the decision to migrate to Kolkata six years ago after having a wonderful experience at One. Auroni has always been much excited about the local “Bajaars” or as we may say the farmers' markets and their fresh products and has prioritised the use of them in his cooking. The "bajaars" are almost like his second workplace. In a recent pop-up at The Lodhi, New Delhi, he gave the city a taste of much orchestrated Bengali feast as he got his favourite picks from the “bajaar” to the table.

Currently, as the head of the culinary adventure at Sienna Store & Cafe, this Delhi-bred Bengali had always loved the idea of foraging, sustainability, and the utilization of microgreens

You are known for your culinary experiments. What is your main inspiration?

I think the one source of inspiration that has been a constant through all my cooking, whether personal or professional, is the baajar (bazaar or market). Whether it was discovering snails and quails at the INA market in Delhi while growing up; tasting kafal and lingura at the markets of Ranikhet and Kumaon where my family would holiday in the summers; learning to appreciate seafood (and not freshwater fish) through the many moushis at Khar Station and Bandra Market in Bombay; relishing the sausages and oysters at the Margaon baajar; and, of course the baajars of Kolkata today. Walking through a baajar gives me energy like no other. The variety of vegetables and maach, my interaction with the Saak Mashis, maachwala (fish supplier), and butcher, all go on to formulate ideas and inspiration that ultimately come together on our plates every week at Sienna.

How do you see Kolkata’s food scene changing?

I don't see it changing that much, and that's the magic realism of the region—we know what it is to have a good thing, so why fix it? Yes, gastropubs and high-energy bars have made their way across Park Street. There are lots of well-known franchises and brands that have also made their way across from other cities. Gondhoraaj momos are the latest fad. All that said and done, it's still the local players like 6Ballygunge, Arsalan, and Flury's who are opening more branches across the city. The baajar will always be preferred to the supermarkets for the best ingredients. The city's favourite breakfast will always remain kochuri-torkari-cholar daal. And no matter how much avo on toast we sell at Sienna, everyone's favourite is still our handcut, tele-bhaaja-style french fries.

What is your best or most loved dish at Sienna café?

This is a really hard one to answer, but I think I have to say our Muro to Lyaaja Ilish Thaala (nose-to-tail Ilish meal). That dish is a heady combination of craft, flavour, and community narrative. I'm really proud of the fact that we found a way to pinbone Ilish without wasting or trimming anything at all. I'm also proud of the fact that we could channel an age-old tradition of elders carefully and lovingly deboning the steak for young children who are new to eating this delicacy. You can say that at the Bengali dining table, there's no greater act of love. Lastly, the Ilish bharta that comes as a part of that plate is probably the single tastiest mouthful our kitchen produces, and it's chef Koyel's family recipe.

What’s your favourite cookbook, if you have any?

Well, my first choice is a personal one and written by my parents: The No Fuss Cookbook. It's made up of recipes that I grew up eating at our dining table. It's how I learned the basics of cooking.

I think the first cookbook that really made me go 'wow' was Fergus Henderson's "The Complete Nose to Tail." The singular focus and dedication to his craft (of offal) just changed the way I looked at cooking. It also prompted my cousin Juju and I to go to the butcher the very next day to look for a pig's head.

What has been Grandma Mookerjee’s best lesson for you?

The one thing my thamma taught me was to never compromise on ingredients. Growing up, when I used to go shopping with her, quite often she went from baajar to baajar until she found the best ilish to her liking or the right size of kakra. It was this single-minded dedication that taught me very early on that every detail matters, down to what goes into your shopping bag and larder.

Vir Sanghvi has named you one of India’s 10 best young chefs. How much does this tag mean, and how do you see yourself taking this forward?

It means the world to me! There are very few people around the world who know and write about food the way Mr. Sanghvi does. The restaurants he eats at and the chefs he interacts with are simply the best of the best. Six years ago, when I switched careers from a successful advertising job to the kitchen, it was a risky decision. At that point, I think I just dreamed of cooking and running my own kitchen. But last year, when Mr. Sanghvi not only gave Sienna a great review but also named me as one of India's 10 best young chefs, it was beyond my dreams coming true. It felt like reality had far surpassed my dreams. 

Chefs Hussain, Himanshu, Pooja, and Nagpal—these are all stars I admired and whose work I followed even before I got into the kitchen. I really didn't ever imagine that one day I might share the same platform that they do. My team and I still have a long way to go, but Mr. Sanghvi's support makes us really feel confident about our cooking and our work at Sienna. There really is no greater validation.