This Pune-based chef creates flavours from scratch

Buff charcuterie cured for a month with spices and koji and served with a panch phoran tempering from an older menu at Ground Up.
Buff charcuterie cured for a month with spices and koji and served with a panch phoran tempering from an older menu at Ground Up.


Gayatri Desai, chef and founder of Pune’s Ground Up, is taking things up a notch with a full-fledged fermentary and a rooftop test kitchen

Bottles of miso, jars of colourful vinegars, koji in teakwood trays and soy sauce in huge oak barrels take pride of place at the reopened Ground Up. “We never really closed, only evolved," says Gayatri Desai, chef and founder of the restaurant in Pune’s Viman Nagar. Ground Up 2.0 is now a fermentary along with a test kitchen on the rooftop.

In its previous avatar the popular Pune restaurant was known for creating dishes of dazzling complexity with every element right from the sauce to the vinegar, pickles, bacon, miso, tofu and even the soda was made from scratch.

“I have finally perfected tofu after making it for eight years. I could crack it by understanding the soy bean better and not just by understanding the technique. Knowing how the grain or the produce is grown is equally important. It adds that flavour element on the plate," she says. One of the top dishes served at the old Ground Up was a warm and cold salad which had a delicious strawberry vinegar granita melting on a kodo millet salad. There was also a sensational pork belly luxuriating in coffee vinegar and a delectable amazake rice pudding.

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Desai has always been a bellwether. In her last pop up at Ground Up she carved a nine course meal from nine native varieties of rice. When she brought the curtains down on the restaurant in July 2023, she started inoculating koji spores on all kinds of local grains.

Currently the team is brewing 40 batches of miso and fermenting numerous barrels of soy sauce for clients and chefs all over the country. A voracious traveller, Desai has spent months backpacking through Vietnam, Japan, Peru and Mexico, staying with the locals and eating at six places in a day.

Chef Gayatri Desai
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Chef Gayatri Desai

In an interview with Lounge, Desai talks about the new avatar of Ground Up, her love for fermentation and how to make the humble magical through fermentation. Edited excerpts:

What can people expect from Ground Up 2.0?

The philosophy remains the same - creating flavours through fermentation. This time I wanted to share it with more people. Ground Up now is predominately a fermentary. We are making all kinds of ferments from soya sauce, to miso, vinegars and cured meats for our regular clients and chefs across India. There’s a small space on the terrace where I continue to cook as a chef. The dining experience can be booked a couple of times a week on prior reservation. It also functions as a test kitchen for us to experiment with the things we make in the fermentary.

What was your childhood experience of food at home?

I was born in a Gujarati household but I don’t like the food too much. Living in Pune exposed me to Maharashtrian cuisine and that what I loved eating. I was also a vegetarian growing up. But when I quit my advertising job to go to culinary school, it opened my eyes to many other things. I was always curious about food and was even cooking a little bit, but not from my family members but from my friend’s mothers.

You were an advertising professional. Was there a definitive moment when you decided to switch from advertising to cooking?

It was when I came to Mumbai to work in advertising. I could not afford a cook. The working hours were long. But I always looked forward to coming home post-midnight and cooking a meal for me and my roommate. That was the most exciting part of my day.

What drew you to fermentation?

I first got interested in it when I was studying in culinary school in Vancouver, Canada. The city had a lot of chefs making their own booch, vinegar, ferments and using it in their food. I had my first taste of miso there. Then onwards wherever I travelled I sought out fermentation. After I closed Ground Up I went backpacking in Japan for three month and lived with the locals in the countryside. The way they approach fermenting philosophically and imbibe it in their daily life and cuisine was a huge revelation. I visited many breweries, stayed with a farmer who made his own miso and interned with a koji master.

How can we use fermentation to draw out more depth and flavours in home cooking?

Ferments should be used to add a boost or a nuance to a dish. Just a dollop of miso to a mayo will bring out the umami. The tomatoes we get in the city are super hybrid and lack the acidity. Recently, for a family dinner I tossed the sliced tomatoes in inhouse pineapple vinegar and tamari. The marination just transformed the tomatoes and amped them up with a lot of flavour. Marinate your meat with miso to make it tender and add umami. Ferments work great even in desserts.

Nivedita Jayaram Pawar is a Mumbai-based lifestyle journalist.

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