Sharing food creates community. This can take many different forms: cooking with family, inviting friends over for dinner, taking someone special out for a meal. Opening a restaurant is another example, but for the creative chef behind Aruna Cafe (now Marigold Kitchen), there are other routes to creating community through food.

Like many chefs, Chef Dhirendran “Dhiru” Paulraj of Aruna Cafe grew interested in cooking from watching his family—his mother, grandmother, and aunt back home in Tamil Nadu, a state in southern India. “I can still cook food that I recognize from my own childhood,” he says. He pursued culinary studies in college and worked in the Maldives and San Francisco before coming to Santa Fe. But unlike many chefs, his career has taken an unusual trajectory into the business model of catering and limited takeout rather than opening a sit-down restaurant. And he has no plans to change that model.

“Santa Fe has a huge potential for catering,” he said in a phone interview. For Dhiru, catering offers a unique opportunity to be involved with the community. “People are supportive and generous here. I see a lot of community involved in every step you take.” 

After speaking to him and looking through some of his social posts, it makes sense to me: catering gives him the chance to go out into the community and collaborate with various nonprofits, businesses, and individuals—from Reunity Resources to the Santa Fe Dreamers Project to Desert Montessori School—in a way that would be much more challenging if he worked in the kitchen of a traditional restaurant. He often personally takes catering orders, listens to requests, and serves food at events, with help from a small staff. This model also gives him more flexibility to spend time with his wife and daughters after years of working seven days a week in restaurants (including Paper Dosa, which he helped open).

For those of us who have not been lucky enough to attend an event catered by Aruna Cafe, the weekly Friday take-out option, which started during COVID, is going strong.

“I did Friday meals from home for friends and family, to try something new,” Dhiru explained.

He moved into his current kitchen at 1314 Rufina Circle in June 2021. (Dhiru is in the process of changing the name of the business to Marigold Kitchen, to lessen confusion about what type of business it is). The Friday takeout is a simple and effective model: a new three-course menu is posted weekly on Instagram, people can order for one or two diners, and then they can pick up their order between 5 and 7 on Friday evening.

My vegetarian meal (as Dhiru’s offerings often, though not always, are) was a combination of fresh spring ingredients and northern Indian–inspired dishes. The first course was a mixed-greens salad with beets, thinly sliced watermelon radishes, and fennel, sprinkled with sunflower seeds, dried cranberries, and sprouts. It came with a light vinaigrette on the side. The main course was Dhiru’s vegetarian version of kofta curry: paneer vegetable balls seasoned with a mix of spices and herbs including ginger, cilantro, and jalapeño, perfectly cooked and served in a rich tomato cream sauce with garam masala and notes of cinnamon and chile. There was a side of rice, of course, and lastly, a dessert new to me: gulab jamun thandai mousse, a velvety, light mousse made with almonds, cashews, and pistachio as well as hints of fennel and cardamom, which happens to be Dhiru’s favorite spice to cook with because it “goes with anything and has a unique flavor.” 

I think “unique flavor” is the perfect phrase to describe Dhiru’s contribution to Santa Fe: collaborating with local organizations and catering events while also giving a taste of his inspired dishes to the public, in the form of a paper-bag dinner. A wonderful taste of India, yes, but also a distinct vision from a valued member of the community. 

Aria Chiodo

Aria Chiodo originally hails from Taos, and after fifteen years in New York City, she is back in New Mexico, living in Santa Fe. In addition to food writing, she writes film and book reviews, personal and travel essays, and short stories.