Chef Sanjay Rawat’s Kahani debuts at the Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel
Chef Sanjay Rawat came to the Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel a year ago to head up the culinary program dedicated to Indian weddings at the Dana Point Resort.
“This was something very close to me and my culture,” said Rawat.
His culinary journey now continues with the opening of Kahani at the Ritz on Oct. 7.
“When I immigrated from India eight years ago, I never imagined I would be given the opportunity to helm a restaurant at an iconic resort like the Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel,” he said.
Kahani, which translates to “story” in Hindi, is a new restaurant concept that takes influence from the New Delhi native’s experience from his grandmother’s kitchen in India and brings it to Dana Point.
“We couldn’t be more proud to collaborate with Chef Sanjay to open Kahani on property and share his cooking with resort guests and Southern California locals,” said Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel general manager Kelly Steward. “Sanjay has brought joy and comfort to numerous families in the South Asian community and beyond, and we quickly recognized that his talent could not be confined to private wedding events but celebrated as a full-service concept.”
Rawat was born in Uttarakhand, India, a state in Northern India, and grew up in New Delhi. He received his culinary degree in Malaysia, and over the last 10 years he has worked in kitchens like the five-star Taj Hotel in New Delhi to Orange County staple Clay Oven.
“Working around the world, doing my culinary arts in Malaysia, then moving to Bermuda, then working for a five-star hotel in India, it just gave me a different perspective about food,” said Rawat. “From the presentation to the cooking technique, it is different around the world.”
Rawat came into his chef de cuisine position at the Ritz in 2022 and earned a following for his bespoke menus designed for 400-plus-person, multi-day South Asian weddings.
“I am really big on customizing the menu for weddings,” Rawat said. “I talk to the client and try to understand their preferences, their spice level and gather as much information as possible, and then I present a menu to them. Pretty much every wedding has a different menu.”
Rawat plans to bring the same care and understanding of Indian cuisine to Kahani, with modern interpretations of traditional dishes.
“I want to stay true to the food, I want to stay true to the culture and to the people that I am going to be serving,” Rawat said.
Guest can look forward to dishes like rogan josh short rib, which features beef short rib slow-cooked in traditional Kashmiri curry, served with roasted root vegetables, pickled onions and crispy garlic, and a curry sampler that fills the table with daal, curry, rice, naan and all the accompaniments. Rawat said the saag lobster risotto, which highlights whole grilled lobster tail in Tandoori spices, is a perfect example of the innovation he is bringing to the menu.
“Risotto is Italian, but I have used this rice from Italy with a flavor that is fully Indian,” said Rawat. “Pretty much all the components are Indian, apart from the rice.”
There will also be some favorite dishes initially developed for catering on the Kahani menu.
“Our corn and cardamom bisque is from our banquet menu,” Rawat said of the soup that blends cardamom and turmeric and is topped with cilantro crema.
In order to ensure the quality and authenticity of the dining experience at Kahani, the resort formed a voluntary Indian Cultural Committee, made up of several Indian food and beverage managers and directors across finance, operations and banquets with Sanju Beri, the assistant director of food and beverage overseeing the wine, beer and cocktail program. Rawat said the committee decided each detail of Kahani.
“It was so helpful, and it all happened under Kelly Steward’s guidance,” said Rawat. “Having this Indian Cultural Committee helped us decide the uniform for those representing the front of the house, the environment and the type of music.”
In addition to the opening of Kahani, Rawat is also preparing for the Ritz-Carlton’s second-annual Diwali Mela Dinner, celebrating the Hindu festival of lights on Saturday, Nov. 4.
“Last year’s Diwali event was all street food on live cooking stations, and people loved it,” said Rawat. “And if people love it I don’t want to change much on that.”
Rawat said this year, he will incorporate buffet-style serving along with the live cooking stations, in order to keep lines short and allow more guests the chance to try more food.
“I want them to enjoy as much as possible and not waste time standing in line,” Rawat said.
Diwali Mela takes place at the edge of the resort’s bluff overlooking the ocean, illuminated by string lights and featuring a colorful decor. Rawat will present live food stations with modern and traditional regional cuisine, like pani puri shots and mithai, an assortment of Indian sweets. The event will also include Bollywood music and a traditional dance performance.
While opening a new dining concept, planning a Diwali event and continuing to head up the resort’s Indian wedding culinary program might seem like a big job for one chef, Rawat said he hopes the story his work tells inspires others.
“I want Kahani, my story, to inspire other chefs to dream outside of their parameters and have trust that their journey will come full circle like mine.”
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