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Tiny Helpings of Joy

12 months ago / by Nupur Bhatnagar

Monica Saxena makes bite-sized Indian food chic at aRoqa

Pic courtesy Monica Saxena

The Michelin-starred aRoqa restaurant is Monica Saxena’s novel ode to Indian cuisine. Taking curry away from how the world imagines it, the New York-based restaurant marries casual chic with traditional richness. Roqa, an informal engagement of two people in Punjabi, made for a perfect setting for a romantic date night with Indian tapas food.

In a city like New York, where there are so many options for food, Indian included, what did you do differently? How has that process been?

Authentic Indian flavors with a playful presentation in the tapas concept is something I felt was missing. I was tired of hearing Indian restaurants being referred to as curry houses. I always wondered why Indian food couldn’t be presented in small plates, allowing guests to enjoy more dishes.

Did your childhood experiences influence your work into the food industry?

India has an abundance of flavors and experimentation. That alongside a well-evolved core palate at home (Lucknow, India), got me hooked on authentic interpretations of food that we all liked.

I moved to the Bay Area in 1987 and what I missed most was that surrounding set of flavors. As I liked food, I put in the effort to learn how to experiment and make do with flavors that I had begun to miss a lot.

The food industry is a very trying one. What keeps you going?

My experience with running a technology startup in Los Angeles, building teams in the semiconductor world of Atheros, Conexant and Qualcomm, where I spent 14 years, enabled me to accord the respect and cultivate the team environment lacking on restaurant floors. For my staff, I worked hard to build their confidence, cultivating integrity, honesty, and respect towards each other and the guests they serve.

During the COVID crisis and the resulting staff shortage, I focused on training each team member in different aspects of the business as well as their job duties so that they could step up to help one another.

How does your menu reflect the Indian cuisine you want to serve to the world?

The cuisine was developed and curated by two Indian chefs, Jamsheed Bhote and his wife Hanisha Singh, who came to New York to train the current team of aRoqa’s kitchen and helped to design and plate the cuisine to match the concept and vision of aRoqa serving Indian cuisine in small plates.

The goal was to stay true to the flavors and taste of Indian food while presenting it in a playful manner, keeping it appealing to the eyes and tasty in the mouth.

What are your thoughts on connecting people with food?

Owning a restaurant gives us an opportunity to host guests. Some are skeptical because they have not had Indian food or only knew of it as a spicy cuisine. We enjoy changing their perceptions and [people come] get together…, simply focusing on their time together while we present them with delicious food.

How do you think you, at aRoqa, bring empathy through food?

Empathy is an important word in the space we stand to make sure each guest’s dietary restriction is met as best we can (examples: vegan, pescatarian, vegetarian, and those with food allergies).

The concept and name aRoqa brings couples together, whether meeting for the first time or having a special night or a celebration. We get lots of people who have had their first dates at the restaurant and then hold their engagement parties there. We are conscious of birthday celebrations and bring out sparklers and dessert to make it special.

I like to meet guests and speak to them. It helps me to consider their feedback regarding service or food. It is important to be aware of the guests’ thoughts versus just thinking that we are doing everything right and that our food is great.

What are the challenges that you had to face at the beginning and continue to face today? How do you strive to overcome them?

My biggest challenge was switching roles from an investor to an operator trying to save the investment and knowing nothing about running and operating a restaurant. I learned each aspect of running a restaurant from the bottom up.

I would say learn CASH first and foremost. Running a restaurant is like any other business. Cost, expense, revenue, profit, delighted clients, and satisfied and available skilled staff are all core ingredients of a successful restaurant. One cannot be a fashion trend and then disappear. A lot of hard work, toil and tears go into making a restaurant work.

Philanthropy is important to you, isn’t it?

The world thrives on giving back what the universe gifts you in life. In December 2021 I took the year’s profits and distributed it among the staff – from my dishwashers to my oldest and newest team additions – as bonuses.

aRoqa is not Saxena or one individual; it is everyone that works on my team that creates aRoqa’s success.

aRoqa’s kitchen needed to stay warm during the pandemic so we cooked and fed homeless people on the street who we saw regularly in front of our restaurant.

We donate to DIL (Development in Literacy) and we generously support St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital, and the Karma foundation in India that takes care of street dogs. We recently contributed towards powering a village with 30 homes with solar panels.

In almost all households it is the lady who manages the kitchen and provides for the family. Why do you think there are so few of us in the food industry then?

I do not want to belabor cliches, but it is reinvigorating to stand up for your beliefs and then deliver in what still is a very male dominated industry. Women restaurant owners and chefs are few and far between, and I would essentially say that I am doing what comes naturally and if it adds to the body of work that hard working women do around the world, then so be it.

It is good to be out there pushing that agenda and effort of generations for a much larger participation since food cooked at home where the domain was mainly run by mothers and grandmothers from time immemorial.