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Food is the ultimate global ambassador, uniting geographies, bridging cultures and hyphenating palate pleasures in a way that the only chasm between people remains the slip between the cup and the lip. The great ‘Indian food moment’ has been in the running for many years, but the most recent to force the focus has been Indian-origin chef Meherwan Irani’s, restaurant ‘Chai Pani’ in North Carolina’s Asheville. The charmingly christened Chai Pani recently won ‘Outstanding Restaurant’ by the James Beard Foundation. But don’t beat yourself up, if the award was what drew your attention to Irani’s masterpiece.
“Our approachability has been intentional and kept us low key.” We’ve always wanted our food to feel accessible and approachable, not intimidating,” explains the proud owner-chef. Popular on their menu, Sloppy Jai goes to the essence of Chai Pani’s approachability. “I wanted to serve Kheema Pav in a way that would be familiar and bridge the cultural divide between a Parsi dish and Americans that have never tried it.” Recreating the bright, cheery interiors of street-style eateries in India and serving food in stainless steel thalis, therefore, is all part of the charm and the USP of this delightful restaurant.
Self-effacing and a self-taught cook, Meherwan grew up in Ahmednagar, in Maharashtra, and only moved to the US at the age of 20 to earn an MBA. Here, he met his wife, Molly, while waiting tables at her parents’ restaurant in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. After spending a decade or so in the Bay Area, working in management positions for auto giants Lexus and Mercedes-Benz, it was only in 2009 that he decided to drive home his dream of starting a restaurant.
Chai Pani was hardly born at an opportune time, riding the bottom of the great recession, but Irani had a clear vision of what he intended for his downtown chaat house. Irani and wife Molly introduced to Asheville—a small mountain town in North Carolina—to the colours, flavours and faces of Indian snacks served on the streets of Indian cities, and meals that you would expect to be served as a guest in a friend’s home in India. Championing the most under-represented Indian foods to a primarily white town, shattered many stereotypes. Unpretentious food, drinks and service, combined with this first-of-its-kind establishment sparked off something of a revolution in the perception of Indian cuisine in America. “We ran out of food on our first day of service in 2009,” he recollects. “We opened our second location four years later, and we’ve received press accolades from the start,” he proudly attests. They have seven restaurants now: Chai Pani Asheville, Chai Pani Decatur, Botiwalla Atlanta, Botiwalla Charlotte, Buxton Hall Barbecue, Buxton Chicken Palace, and Nani’s Piri Piri Chicken in Atlanta.
Along with his growing restaurant business, he also owns a spice empire in the South’s most vital culinary cities. He was named by TIME magazine as one of the “31 People Changing The South” and is a five-time James Beard Foundation Awards semifinalist for Best Chef: Southeast. Here, he helped us decode Chai Pani’s stupendous success and shared his personal food favourites.
What made the winning cut for Chai Pani?
The deliciousness and approachability of our food and atmosphere, our story telling about Indian culture, and our company culture of service and hospitality to others on our team and in our community sums it up.
What makes the award even grander for you: Acknowledgement of Indian food or recognition for street food?
I’m so proud that what we represent is being recognised: That Indian food is so much more diverse, interesting, unexpected, personal, than a handful of regional cuisines that have been popularized so far. To me, there is no other food that captures the essence of India like street food—chaotic, colourful, innovative, vibrant, joyful, complex, and of course delicious. It takes a critical mass of courageous and passionate chefs and restaurateurs of Indian descent to take a chance on telling the whole story of regional and evolving Indian cuisine, and not just play it safe with Mughlai or Punjabi style menus. I’m looking for Indian cuisine to be as much a part of the American culinary landscape as Italian, French, Mexican, etc.
Co-founder, Molly Irani adds: “Indian culture is one that we are honoured to represent, celebrate, and share with the world. From the food of the streets, to the atmosphere in our spaces and aesthetics that transport one right back to a street stall in Mumbai, as a team we are devoted to that storytelling in a way that reaches beyond the white table cloth atmosphere with curated pictures of the Taj Mahal, and brings the liveliness (and even some of the happy chaos) of the streets of India into Chai Pani.” Clearly, it’s time to weigh in.
* Three must-haves from the menu
Bhel Puri, Sloppy Jai, Vada Pav
* Personal favourite
One of our most famous dishes, Sloppy Jai, is Kheema Pav served by simply assembling it like a Sloppy Joe sandwich, wrapped up with a clever name.
* Favourite food memory
Playing hooky from school when I was a young boy and going down to MG Road to eat Bhel Puri.
* Favourite cuisine
Parsi cuisine
* Favourite ingredient
No such thing! But if I had to highlight one, it would be fresh ginger—because I can’t live without it in my chai.
* Most underrated ingredient
Believe it or not, chillies: Most people use chillies or chilli powder one dimensionally—to add heat. There are hundreds of varieties of chillies that have an incredible variety of flavour, range and subtleties in the type of heat, and they can add body, colour and even smokiness to a dish.
* The most versatile vegetable
Most vegetables have incredible versatility. Onions stand out in particular in the myriad ways it can act as the main feature in a dish, or a component of a dish, a side dish (a pickle, for example), or even the hidden foundation of a dish that features other vegetables.
* One food trend that is here to stay
Regionalism: The understanding that large and diverse countries don’t have one cuisine but a variety of unique and diverse cuisines, which are as distinct as it gets.
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