A Place at the Table with Fig & Maple

There’s quiet poetry in her ivory and ebony plates decked neatly in pickled beet, and verdant micro greens in neat crescents. There’s also something to be said for her eye for detail—you’ll see Krishi Cress’s bite-sized edible flowers and slivers of fig delicately interspersed with her arsenal of organic produce. Chef Radhika Khandelwal is brimming with ideas on shaping food culture in Delhi with her one-off plating and brazenly modern approach to flavour pairing. She’s playing captain at two (very successful) kitchens in the capital and in the hours flitting back and forth between the two, she’s dreaming of her third.

Ivy & Bean was her first in Shahpur Jat, and is modelled after your nana’s sitting room. She was 24, and fresh out of university in Australia when she set up that cafe, a place for comfortable conversation and hours of deference to what’s monikered an “honesty library”—a place for books that you can borrow and return as and when you please.
Khandelwal wasn’t always destined for the kitchen though. She grew up in Delhi, and later moved to Australia to train as a professional hairdresser whilst studying psychology. She spent her days working long hours and also worked part time as a waitress; “Australia’s really good with its pay and it’s also super expensive, so one serves the function of the other. I landed a job as a waitress and then made my way up from there,” she said. That next step was setting up The Cat’s Reply, a small deli she established that helped her segue fully into cooking. “That didn’t last long, unfortunately,” she remembers. But it was this stint that helped her develop her clever use of produce. “Australia is where I learned how to use local. The produce there is just so beautiful.” She adds, “It’s also taught me how to use ugly produce,”, a real issue in the food industry because disfigured vegetables don’t make pretty plates. Destined for the dumpster because they’re hard to work with. “It’s hard to peel a carrot because it has three faces, or a potato that has two heads. It’s millions of tonnes of produce just going to waste because it’s hard to use.” she said. “But Australia has these educational campaigns where they teach you how to use ugly produce. It’s sold for much cheaper, and helps reduce food waste.”

Khandelwal’s years of waiting tables gave her an eye for detail and a commitment to moodboarding. We’re not talking about the intricacies of cooking here. This is the stuff that goes on after the delivery, and it’s the big ‘P,’ presentation. In each of her dishes, the different qualities of a single food item shine through. “If something’s going out of season, and I’ve fallen in love with it—I’m going to pickle it, preserve it, make jams out of it, every damn thing under the sun,” she admits. “My menu might not be a gazillion things, but it is a few selected seasonal products that can be done many ways and presented as such.” Greater Kailash’s Fig & Maple is her pièce de résistance. A narrow elevator with collapsible grille doors will lead you into her monochrome fortress. It is one spacious floor and the terrace right above it, done up in cool white and punctuated with graphite details. Pops of colour appear only on your plate, served as rhubarb reds and champagne chartreuse. There is that salad, served in her signature crescent. “It’s local produce, used in modernist, urban ways. That’s basically the concept. Just make each plate look like…this is what you’re here for.”

Her summer menu brings a slice of the East to the table—“I’m introducing Bengali limes, banana blossoms—not just in our salads, but in our mains and our eggs as well,” she said. “The last I experimented with it, was with a Bengali lime egg, with a beetroot hollandaise—which was beautiful and I plan on putting that on the menu from the next weekend.”
She collaborates with others in the industry; her work dalliances include Lavaash by Sabi’s Megha Kohli, Blue Tokai’s Namrata Asthana, Krishi Cress’s Achintya Anand, and Anandini Himalaya Teas’ Anamika Singh—the last four of whom have partnered with her on the coffee, greens, desserts and tea (respectively) that her kitchens serve up. Khandelwal is ardently formulaic with her treatment of food—“During the winters, we have an entire herb garden of our own. But during the summer, we’re sitting on nothing.” For warmer weather, she has Krishi Cress’s Achintya Anand pushing her to treat her produce as sacrosanct. She said, “If I ever need something out of the box, he’s my go-to man. He's one of the few people who’ve really pushed me to use my produce differently. It’s lovely to have a collaborative space—that many more ideas to go around.”
Fig & Maple seats a 100, with a total of five chefs running the kitchen. “My team is my backbone. They’re my army—and it goes without saying, I’d be nothing without them,” she quips. “It’s difficult to get a team that you can trust to begin with. It’s also really difficult to get them to unlearn everything that they’ve already learnt. That’s the real challenge. It’s not really so much a question of expanding their skills as it is repurposing them. Starting from the drawing board…building towards an ideal. We’re an adaptive kitchen, we have a really strong mindset of what we believe in. They’ve not seen stuff like I use, so every time they work with something new, they're interested but they're happily surprised, I’d like to think.” She works with alternate produce like candy cane beets (Chioggia beet), golden beets, and white beetroots and carrots. This along with the farm produce that includes celeriac, mizuna and a range of leafy greens, explores a burgeoning food curve that’s exclusively hers.

And next? A 20 seater communal dining space. It’s going to be called ‘Salt’—after the seasoning that’s traced its way from her days in Australia, to her ceramic canvases overseas. Chef curated menus catering to four dinners a week, give her a three day head start to research new ways to whet a city’s worth of palates. Besides, passing around a casserole with a place at the table for anyone that wants in, speaks to a larger spirit of oneness. And for someone who’s been to as many feasts as Khandelwal, it’s befitting.
Fig and Maple is at M-27, E Block Rd, Block M, Greater Kailash II, Greater Kailash, New Delhi, Delhi 110048. Call (+91) 88006 65975 for reservations.