Meet some of the Big Apple’s hottest and happening Indian chefs…
They are the interpreters of Indian Cuisine, the innovators who aren’t afraid to experiment and create, adding new dimensions to the food they grew up with, giving an exciting buzz to the ho-hum chicken tikka masala and palak paneer which has become the norm of Indian restaurants around the world. Some of them are at the helm of New York’s most noted Indian restaurants and bring in the foodies.
A hot new restaurant in New York is Vermilion, a branch of the critically acclaimed restaurant in Chicago which is owned by the entrepreneur Rohini Dey. This striking contemporary restaurant offers a totally fresh take on Indian food with a Latin American beat, and the chef behind this innovative concept is Maneet Chauhan. The name may conjure up a burly male chef but Maneet, to the surprise of many guests, is a woman, a vibrant chef without the customary toque. She wears a bright bandana, oversized earrings and a dazzling smile, and conjures up the most amazing concoctions.
“To me food is like life – it’s all about evolution,” says Maneet, who is from Ludhiana. “My passion lies in creating new things. What I love about the job is there are no two days which are alike – I’m a glutton for challenges. I love the spices, blends and chilies which go into the food, and through researching and experimenting I come up with the menu.”
Maneet loves the fundraisers for causes like Meals on Wheels and March of Dimes, including an Indian/Latin American fusion sit-down dinner for 600 people for AIF. She has also designed the menus for American Airlines flights to India, bringing in such dishes as Shrimp Molee and Dahi Elachi Rajma, which can be frozen, thawed and served 8000 miles up in the sky.
Ask her for an essential ingredient, and the practical Maneet jokes, “Salt – without it you can’t do much!” Then she adds, “To me ingredients are all about discovery and you can discover things in the weirdest places. Huilacohe is literally a fungus which grows on corn and is a delicacy in Mexican cooking – we make crepes and stuff it with Crab or Paneer Konkani – and guests really, really love it!”
Jehangir Mehta, Bombay boy from a staid family of chartered accountants, has become a bit of a cult figure with his much watched appearances on the Food Network’s reality shows ‘The Iron Chef’ and ‘The Next Iron Chef’. Though he lost out by a few points in the final battle, he’s been a big winner as far as the buzz has translated into lots of traffic to his restaurant, Graffiti Food and Wine Bar, which he started in 2007 in the East Village.
Before that, Jehangir had received a lot of renown – and notoriety – for his unconventional desserts as a pastry chef in top restaurants like Jean-Georges, Mercer Kitchen, Union Pacific, Compass, Virot, Sapa and Aix.
Now as a chef/restaurateur, he continues to deliver his signature tastes at Graffiti, which is probably one of the smallest restaurants with a kitchen just 50 square feet – smaller than the galley kitchen in a boat! Jehangir, however, produces some big tastes, using spices from many parts of the world, including India and Persia. Recently Zagat gave Graffiti a 26 for food which says a lot about its food. Mehta is indeed a fearless warrior who is not afraid of strong spices or of blending them in unexpected ways.
The menu has such specialties as green mango paneer, asparagus garlic wasabi pizza and chickpea crusted skate with a mint yogurt sauce. As for desserts, how could you pass up the experience of hazelnut chocolate caviar cupcake served with chocolate ice cream, or cranberry apple crumble with black pepper ice cream?
Jehangir is also involved in catering upscale private dinners and his clients include Fortune 500 companies and Indian diamond merchants. He has lots of other pots cooking: Partistry, an online company where you can order hand-painted wedding cakes and handmade chocolates; Candy Camp, where he introduces kids to the basics of cooking; And if you can’t make it to Graffiti, you can always browse Mantra: The Rules of Indulgence, his cook book in which he balances healthy Ayurvedic foods with his own interpretations of indulgences. By using flowers and offbeat ingredients he provides new adventures for the tongue and taste buds, such as Turmeric Yorkshire Pudding and Red Grape Sev.
He’s launched his own online food show, J Walk. And on top of all that, Jehangir Mehta and his wife Hinata are the parents of a pair of young twins!
New York’s most well-known Indian chef has to be Floyd Cardoz, quite the pioneer in introducing Indian spices to the mainstream. He is the chef and partner at Tabla, which offers American cuisine with Indian flavors, and is a star establishment in noted restaurateur Danny Meyer’s line of top restaurants. Cardoz has been nominated for four James Beard awards for New York’s top chef, has presented his special dishes at many fundraisers and is the author of ‘One Spice, Two Spice: American Food, Indian Flavors’
Born in Bombay, Cardoz earned his spurs working in the Taj and Oberoi in India, and studied classical culinary techniques at Les Roches in Switzerland. He worked in Italian and French restaurants before returning to New York. He finally rose to sous-chef at the prestigious Lespinasse where he worked under four star chef Gray Kunz, and increased the number of Indian spices from just a few to over two dozen at Lespinasse.
Floyd emphasizes that rather than changing Indian food, he is embellishing American and French dishes with Indian spices. Earlier, American food with Indian spices were served upstairs, and Indian home foods and street treats in the more informal Bread Bar downstairs. Now both cuisines are being served together, a nod to the changing American taste. Says Floyd, “The Americans are changing the way they eat – they are much more accepting of Indian flavors.” He points out that a very traditional Goan fish curry – with the bones – that his grandmother used to make is selling out every night at Tabla.
Floyd has created a line of fresh microwavable foods for Fresh Direct, the popular online grocer, and he’s also taken on an unconventional role for a celebrated gourmet chef – feeding 1000’s of baseball fans at the newly constructed multimillion dollar Citi Field Stadium, where he’s the consulting chef at El Verano Taqueria.
A master of spices, he is familiar with the similarities between Indian and Mexican cuisine and plays hardball with chilies and a variety of herbs and flavors. For Cardoz, a big Mets fan, the bonus is the Taqueria’s location. Has he managed to catch many games? “I’ve made it a point to see every first pitch so far. I get to see all the games – so it’s worked for me!”
Suvir Saran and Hemant Mathur are the two anchors behind Devi, a restaurant with a high profile in New York. Chef partners, each one’s strong points supplement the other’s. If there were a temple dedicated to Indian cuisine, Suvir Saran would be its chief priest and most ardent devotee. The chef, cookbook writer and teacher says quite simply, “India will inspire me for as many lives as I live. It has a million muses for me and I am not even past one yet.”
Suvir has cooked for Brooke Astor, the late doyenne of American high society, as well as for a dinner hosted for Al Gore, and another in honor of actress Jean Moreau. The model Kristy Hume has taken cooking lessons from him, and. celebrities including the rock group U2 and actress Uma Thurman have frequented Devi. He’s also published ‘Indian Home Cooking: A Fresh Introduction to Indian Food’ and ‘American Masala: 125 New Classics from My Home Kitchen. A total devotee of cuisine, Suvir packs a punch into his evangelism of Indian food, and he and his partner Charlie have a 68 acre farm, American Masala, in upstate NY where they rear cattle, grow veggies and even promote a line of china. He’s also opened a new casual restaurant called American Masala, in New Jersey.
At Devi, he and his long time friend Hemant Mathur, who is a tandoori master, have found the perfect canvas for their food creations. “Hemant and I are the ying and yang of the kitchen,” says Suvir.
Hemant Mathur is the pillar behind Devi and is the master tandoor chef who makes things happen. He is the always smiling host who stops by your table to make sure everything is fine. Hemant, who is from Jaipur, has worked in many countries including Mexico, (where he was the private chef for British financier Sir james Goldsmith) and Germany and is a noted tandoor master. His Tandoor Grilled Jamison Farm Lamb chops with Pear Chutney and Lamb Stuffed Tandoori Chicken are some of the specialties at Devi, which is the only Michelin-star Indian restaurant in the country.
Hemant’s cooking has been spotlighted on many TV shows including PBS’s “How to Cook Everything: Bittman Takes on America’s Chefs’ and ‘Food Trip with Todd English’. He has been a featured chef at the James Beard House and a participating chef at the “Worlds of Flavor” conferences organized by the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone. Hemant, whose wife is the noted pastry chef Surbhi Sahni, also at Devi, has supported a number of causes such as Citymeals-on-Wheels, and City Harvest.
Chai Trivedi is the man in the kitchen of Pranna, another buzz-inducing restaurant/lounge in Manhattan. A consultant with Lucent and Nortel, he left Wall Street for the kitchen, and hasn’t missed the corporate world at all – except for the money! He was cooking from childhood, growing up in a traditional home in Rajkot, where food was very much a part of the culture. He and his sister Payal were cooking at home, and when he went to college, he was cooking for his roommates.
When his sister opened an Indian restaurant, Sitar, she recruited Chai to help with the banquet items which Indian cooks didn’t know how to do, such as pad thai spring rolls. For Chai, the experimentation with pan Asian foods was a big adventure and took him to Asia several times a year. “My favorite way to see the country was by motor bike,” he recalls. “I’d travel from Thailand to Laos to Vietnam to Cambodia, and in every place I’d rent a motorbike.” His friends own resorts, guest houses and bars in Asia, so it is easy to connect with people and learn the ins and outs of Asian cuisine. If he met a woman making fresh rice paper on the streets, he’d go to her house and learn the skill from scratch.
At Pranna, which is also owned by Payal, the menu isn’t just Thai or Vietnamese food – it’s Chai’s interpretation of traditional dishes, blending in Indian influences. Thus he makes a Malaysian goat curry which is a take on a beef redang; a Kashmiri chicken curry which is presented in French style.
He says, “We put a little twist on things. So we have samosas sticks – which is samosa filling wrapped up in spring roll skin with a skewer like a lollipop, rolled up tightly like a cigar. It’s all about modern South East Asian flavors – I love curry leaves, lemon grass, garam masala, kalonji. I love chilies – seranos, paprika, cayenne, Indian long hot chilies – I can manipulate them in any way I want.”
Vikas Khanna is another passionate chef who’s got cooking in his blood. He started his own banquet and catering business, Lawrence Gardens, in Amritsar when he was just 17 years old. He studied cuisine at the Welcomgroup Graduate School of Hotel Administration, and worked at five star hotels in India before coming to the US to study at Cornell University and New York University. He has been chef at several New York restaurants and is currently consultant at the Café at the Rubin Museum of Art, and is also planning to open a restaurant in New York in 2010.
Vikas, who himself had vision problems in his student days, has a nonprofit organization called Sakiv (that’s his name spelt backward) which stands for South Asian Kids Infinite Visions. He is also a founding member of New York Chefs Cooking For Life which organizes tasting events by major chefs to raise funds for relief efforts. He’s authored six books including Mango Mia, and all author’s royalties go to Mother Teresa’s Mission.
Hari Nayak is another New York chef with his fingers in a lot of different pies: he serves as a consultant to several different restaurants, writes books and is also involved with fundraising for causes he believes in. He is co-author with Vikas on ‘Modern Indian Cooking’ which has a foreword by the noted French chef Daniel Boulud. Hari is currently working on ‘My Indian Kitchen’, a new cookbook which will have its launch in summer 2010, and a fitness book with a Hollywood celebrity fitness guru, emphasizing fitness food made more delicious by Indian spices.
He is also a consultant with Café Spice in creating fresh Indian food for Whole Foods, the popular food chain in the US. This chef certainly does more than cooking and represents Sula Wines as their culinary ambassador, and makes guest appearances on the Seaborne Luxury World Cruise, cooking for guests, and taking them to shop on dock days in places like Cochin, Singapore and Dubai.
Yes, Indian chefs seem to be headed in all different directions: they are celebrities, bold face names who raise awareness of Indian food, raise funds for favorite causes, write books and increasingly inhabit the air waves and the social networks. Through all this they continue to create and innovate, taking Indian food to a whole new level. They’ve certainly got a full plate!
© Lavina Melwani
(This article first appeared in Hi Living magazine)