At 19, Aanal won a competition that deemed her the ‘Youngest Chef of Gujarat’, a turning point in her life that kickstarted her restaurant chain The Secret Kitchen, which puts unique spins on ancient Indian recipes.
If you happen to walk into The Secret Kitchen in Ahmedabad — a restaurant run by Aanal Kotak — you may find yourself awestruck at the kind of dishes that are made here. Not only are these the result of a unique blend of ingredients, but they also have a deeper, cultural meaning.
For instance, one of the most popular dishes on the menu, she tells The Better India, is the ‘Caged Samosa’, which borrows inspiration from a recipe followed by a 100-year-old shop in the town of Kutch, and one that she came across during her research for the restaurant.
“I loved the recipe so much that I brought it to my restaurant. Here, I wanted the serving to represent how the samosa had found a new lease on life and from a small town had now found its way to so many others. So I began serving it in a cage, hence the name.”
In fact, Aanal notes that at the Sydney outlet of The Secret Kitchen in Australia, the Caged Samosa is the “fastest-moving starter”.
Having built such a loved and celebrated food brand, Aanal says she finds the journey to be quite “surreal”. Her dreams of becoming a chef had taken shape since the young age of six.
“I would play with the kitchen toy set, and as I grew older, I’d sit near my mom in the kitchen as she cooked. I loved watching her create new recipes and unique flavours,” she says, adding that when it was time to choose a career, she was clear that a chef was what she wanted to be.
“But, I wasn’t allowed. I was raised in a Gujarati family, which did not believe in girls becoming ‘chefs’. I was told I could choose something else instead, so I went ahead with fashion design at NIFT, Gandhinagar. But the dream of being a chef never left my mind,” she says.
An engagement, an audition, and a dream come true
Even as 19-year-old Aanal busied herself with work after college, her love for cooking never faded away. So in 2009, when an opportunity presented itself in the form of a cooking competition, she just couldn’t bring herself to refuse.
At the time, Rasoi, the popular and longest-running Gujarati cooking show, was holding the Rasoi Maharani competition, and Aanal thought this was a great time to show the world her cooking skills. But unfortunately, she wasn’t selected the first time, and went ahead and applied again in 2011.
“The show held a lot of sentiment, as I had grown up watching it with my mother and grandmother, and loved every episode. So, I went ahead and applied, and even got selected! They invited me to the next round in May that year, but as luck would have it, it was on the same day as my engagement.”
When Aanal’s parents heard of the plan to audition on the same day as the engagement, they weren’t too happy. But her fiance, she says, supported her and she went ahead, managing to make it to her ceremony once the audition was complete.
Not only did Aanal clear that round, but she also went on to win the finale round in October 2011 and in 2012 was invited by the show as a culinary expert, where she was bestowed with the title of ‘Youngest Chef of Gujarat’.
This, says Aanal, changed her life.
Everyone wanted to taste my dishes.’
During the course of the show, Aanal cooked and ideated a myriad of recipes, both traditional as well as fusion. Viewers loved her recipes so much that she was flooded with messages and requests that she start selling her food and the delicacies she prepared on the show.
“That was when I decided to start my restaurant,” she says.
Aanal recounts how she’d always been fascinated with what went behind the scenes of a restaurant, especially how the kitchen worked. “I was intent that I wanted my restaurant to have an open kitchen where guests could interact with the chefs. I decided to incorporate this into my restaurant,” she says.
In June 2017, The Secret Kitchen was launched, and Aanal’s dream was ready to take flight.
Secret Kitchen: A space for innovation
Speaking on how her venture is different from others, she says she has always aimed for authenticity.
“You know when you visit a restaurant and have a great time with the food, but end up feeling very heavy the next day? I figured that feeling was brought on by the garam masalas used in the food, and so I decided to make my own masalas,” she notes.
She goes on to add that while today pre-made masalas are very common, the concept of homemade masalas has existed for centuries.
“In ancient times, maharanis would make their own masalas and then give them to the khansamas (head chefs) to use in the dishes. These masalas would include a lot of flowers and spices and instead of the heavy feeling, they provided a soothing one.”
Soon the ingredients and dishes at The Secret Kitchen gained huge popularity and Aanal decided it was time to open more outlets so people wouldn’t have to travel.
“I started the Ahmedabad branch of Secret Kitchen in 2018 and in 2019 the Surat franchise. Now we also have a branch in Sydney Australia. In 2021, we also launched The Secret Kitchen retail space with ‘Southak’, a spice brand,” she adds.
Aanal’s references for the masalas borrow inspiration from a wide variety of history resources such as ‘The Moghul Feast’ by Salma Husain, ‘Ancient Spices of India’, etc. “These have a vast storehouse of information on how different spices must be used in order to render the best taste. For instance, elaichi shouldn’t be heated in oil, while laung lends good taste only when heated.”
The range of dishes at The Secret Kitchen includes a spread of vegetarian delicacies such as Pesto Kulcha (Indian bread with flavours of basil and crushed garlic), the Gossip Platter, which has a spread of several dips, salads, and chutneys and fusion dishes such as a dhokla fondue (steamed rice cake with cheese sauce, moong dal and special spices and tempering).
Incorporating all of this had taken The Secret Kitchen to the heights where it now stands with every outlet of The Secret Kitchen seeing around 180 to 200 guests daily.
“When I just entered this industry I noticed how women did not get much recognition in this space, but the respect I received was different and I feel proud that in five years I have managed to create this,” she says.
Edited by Divya Sethu