The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel is one of Southern California’s most striking hospitality destinations. The property hugs the cliffs above Dana Point, its lobby-level restaurant featuring floor-to-ceiling glass windows that overlook winding pathways down to a sandy beach and the endless horizon of the Pacific Ocean. It’s an idyllic, and expensive, getaway for Angelenos, Orange County locals, tourists, and anyone else eager for a night out with a view. But the hotel is also home to one of the area’s best-kept culinary secrets, a rising star Indian chef who has quietly become one of the most in-demand cooks for weddings, Diwali celebrations, and other Indian American events and festivals.
Officially listed as the hotel’s chef de cuisine, Sanjay Rawat does not regularly spend time on the line at any of the hotel’s several on-site restaurants. Instead, he oversees a combination of catering and research and development processes, for which he is quickly becoming a kind of cult Indian cook, heavily sought out for his carefully crafted, unexpected takes on traditional Indian food. His food is not just flavorful and personal for many of the people he serves at events — it’s big business for the Ritz-Carlton itself. The hotel is a hub for Southern California’s Indian community (which spans more than 160,000 people across LA and Orange counties), and between 30 to 40 percent of the ceremonies held on the property are Indian weddings.
The Ritz-Carlton is beginning to promote Rawat’s culinary talents at cultural and food-focused events outside of wedding season, including possible pop-ups for diners to sit down over a full meal from Rawat and his team. The hotel’s October culinary cookout event will center on Diwali, the festival of lights, with an extravagant night of eating and drinking; tickets run $170 per person. Rawat is excited for the opportunity to grow his connection to the immediate community. “This is my community now,” he says, “and I would love to celebrate Diwali with them, just as they do in India.”
In America, Indian cuisine has long struggled to move past strip malls, where talented chefs seldom have the luxury to be creative or showcase less-understood aspects of regional cuisines so rich in flavor and history. For Indian American families, finding fine Indian dining in a premier venue outside of India often seems impossible; catering operations that are respectful of the culinary traditions of a complex region are even more so an anomaly. And so for many, tasting Rawat’s sol kadhi starter, a silky coconut milk preparation from coastal western India, flavored with just the right amount of Indian mangosteen; or his modak, a traditional handcrafted festive rice dumpling filled with grated coconut, is thrilling — and that’s to say nothing of the picturesque backdrop of the Ritz-Carlton property.
And for Rawat, the thrill is mutual. “Cooking makes me happy. But cooking Indian food makes me happier,” he says.
With a childhood spent at the foothills of the Himalayas in the small village of Pauri, just east of Dehradun, Rawat began to spend time in the kitchen when he was perhaps six or eight years old. In a bid to escape the cold weather common to the region, he would huddle near the family’s wood-burning kitchen stove, the choolah, and hover by his grandmother’s side. “If I was not helpful, I knew I would get kicked out,” jokes the usually shy Rawat, “so I would help stir dishes, cook the roti, or even move a pot out of the way — anything to stay near the flame.” Having watched his grandmother and mother cook over the years, Rawat began to whip up his own dishes, including a rice pulao with dal, tomatoes, and potatoes, complete with all the right seasonings at age 10 or 12 that earned him a warm reception from his friends.
When Rawat’s parents divorced at 13, he moved in with his aging grandparents in New Delhi. His grandmother was the caregiver for his grandfather, who may have suffered from undiagnosed Alzheimer’s. “Dadi [grandmother] was always stressing about my grandfather. I could not see her worrying and then also cooking all three meals for everyone, he says. “I wanted to help out as much as possible.” Soon he was cooking all the family’s meals. Inspired by two uncles who were also chefs — one in London and another in Ireland — Rawat began to map a future in which being a chef was possible. By age 17 he had enrolled in culinary school in Malaysia.
“Some of my friends quit because culinary school became too hard for them. Instructors would yell at you if something did not get done — they would make you feel like shit,” Rawat says. “I didn’t want to do anything else, so I stuck it out.” He soon began to pick up odd kitchen jobs, like being a dishwasher, so he could pay for his living expenses; in these roles, he would watch the chefs at work and make detailed notes to familiarize himself with ingredients and dishes from world cuisines. Eventually, Rawat returned to India to work first for an Italian restaurant and later joined the Taj Group of luxury hotels. He’s led an itinerant culinary life since then, with stops in Bermuda for three years, and around Southern California, including stints at other hotel properties and the lauded Clay Oven Indian Cuisine restaurant in Irvine, a city home to nearly 20,000 Indian Americans. Rawat joined the Ritz-Carlton in the spring of 2022, in part to help grow the hotel’s events and catering arm.
Depending on the needs of a given event, Rawat may plate hundreds of dishes. In appetizer dishes like pani puri, pakoda chaat, or papdi chaat, Rawat takes advantage of seasonal fruits like raw mango and pomegranate to add color and crunch. His pairings offer tangy flavor bursts that punctuate layers of steamed chickpeas and white onions with earthy and spicy chutneys, rounded out with a cooling sweet yogurt and microgreens. It’s a unique, lively take on traditional Indian snacks with each ingredient incorporated deliberately.
His tandoori platters require marination for more than 24 hours before being fired off in a coal-based tandoor oven. When done well, this technique creates dynamic textures and gives a smokey char, aroma, and great depth to achaari paneer chunks or yogurt-marinated shrimp. Chicken breast pieces pull flavors from cream, cardamom, and other spices, transforming into tender malai chicken served with a selection of sides like mint, tamarind, or cilantro chutneys, masala onions, pickles, and raita.
At weddings, families might find Rawat finishing a variety of family-style dishes, like chicken lababdar, which elevates a makhani chicken with a rich onion-garlic sauce. A lamb rogan josh, lamb stew made with a rich onion sauce and seasoned with Kashmiri garam masala that has notes of saffron and cardamom, is a hearty staple for groups that hail from Kashmir (or who just love the dish), and comes laced with lots of cumin, fennel, and a parade of other spices; the stew is served with saffron rice. He plays with flavor, texture, and aromatic nuance in dishes like a creamy Chettinad-style chicken or a hearty choley.
Rawat is also an accomplished pastry chef and works to complete his elaborate menus with surprising Indian desserts. On a busy weekend, the chef and his team turn out countless jalebi, the Indian version of funnel cakes paired with cream-based rabdi sauce, as well as halwa, mithai, and gulab jamun. No “proper” Indian feast is complete, though, until there is a paan, a betel leaf rolled or folded. In Rawat’s case, the focus is often on chocolate paan, filled with rose petal jam, saffron chutney, dried fruits, nuts, and more. The finishing dish serves as both dessert and mouth freshener for anyone on the invite list.
Of course, Rawat is not alone in the kitchen. As chef de cuisine overseeing a team of cooks and workers, Rawat is eager to mentor those around him, something he struggled to find as a young cook himself; he emphasizes the role that his mentors — one of whom he met at the Ritz-Carlton — played in his overall growth as a chef. Part of his kitchen force is culinary apprentices from India, many of whom arrive to work at the Ritz-Carlton for a full year. “I feel like a big brother: watching over them, watching out for them. And they respect me for it,” he says. Rawat tries to instill both his out-of-the-box culinary approach and the business side of working in a corporate kitchen. The young cooks help Rawat to cook dishes like bhatura, a leavened fried bread from Northern India, and jalebi, which rely on traditional Indian cooking techniques not taught in western culinary institutions.
Rawat’s found friendships through evenings at the property, he says, and understands how important these weddings and festivals can be to the greater community. He’s a staple figure at serving tables during the events, working to ensure that the food and the space are as memorable as possible. “I feel a deep sense of apnapan [kinship] here. It is such a special responsibility to be part of someone’s special day, and I want to make it their best day ever,” Rawat says.
At the end of a long night of dancing, laughing, and watching the sunset, when a classic Bengali rasmalai is laid at the table (reinterpreted with a chocolate tart shell, dressed in pistachio crumbs, and served on a strawberry coulis with rose petals), it signals more than a great finishing bite. The dish is a remarkable shift for a luxury hotel property in an upscale part of Orange County, where flavors and experimentation can sometimes be muted by money and the desire for identical European dining experiences. Rawat’s food moves in a different direction, showing that Southern California’s dinner table is only getting bigger — there’s plenty of room for more innovation.