In Conversation With Chef Meherwan Irani Of James-Beard-Winning Restaurant, Chai Pani
Chai Pani’s Win At James Beard Is Off The ‘Chaats’ Because It Finally Celebrates Indian Street Food

Executive chef and founder, Meherwan Irani tells us what went into growing his business and why contextualising Indian food in the West has merits

There were many standout aspects to the recently concluded James Beard Restaurant and Chef Awards in the US. First, of course, was Asheville-based Indian restaurant, Chai Pani’s big win as the Outstanding Restaurant of the Year. Then, there was the fact that these awards were even happening in real-time, after a two-year hiatus (no thanks to Covid). And thirdly, because of the first factor, Indian food was suddenly back in global news. The last time people seemed this decidedly interested and adulatory about our cuisine was back in August last year.


It so happened that Gene Weingarten, a humour columnist for the Washington Post, wrote an article, where he listed Indian food as an ethnic cuisine “insanely based entirely on one spice.” By doing so, he ruffled quite a few feathers, including that of diasporic-Indian food’s poster child, Padmalakshmi, who seemed downright furious at the time. Personally, as a reporter invested in food, I find more joy in Chai Pani’s win. And think of it as a much more veritable affront than any Tweet, troll or direct jab at Weingarten; the poor guy probably knows as little about Indian food as he does about humour, given that the piece made hardly anybody laugh. But more importantly, the conversation around Indian food in the US came full circle — from a senior American columnist disparaging it to the most formidable culinary body in the US recognising it as the best. 


Also, what made Weingarten’s comment problematic was the fact that it purported a long-standing but erroneous perception of Indian food, which has often been trivialised as “curry” in the West. Between the ‘90s, when Meherwan Irani — the founder and executive chef at the winning Asheville restaurant — arrived in the US and today, that image, he promises, is changing. “Americans are discovering that Indian food is far more diverse and complex than just ‘spicy curries,’ thanks to the efforts of a number of innovative and talented Indian chefs around the country, who are showcasing a different side of the cuisine,” he opines, adding that recognition among the media and organisations like the James Beard Foundation will play a pivotal role in unpacking Indian food of its stereotypes. 


Image: Tim Robison


He’s right, because his win was especially noteworthy, if you consider the type of food that Chai Pani serves — bhel puri, pakoras and a variety of chaats. This is in stark contrast to what diaspora chefs are doing abroad, which predominantly involves taking our food and giving it a fine-dine spin, with all the trimmings of ‘high food,’ molecular gastronomy or some such culinary excess. Why then, did Irani decide to go after Indian street food, which is likely to be intimidating, or alien, even to the American diner? “I consider it to be the most democratic, egalitarian, approachable, affordable and pan-Indian cuisine of India,” he argues. Which brings us to the next question: how did he accomplish this? 


Aside from being a chef, who seems to be intrinsically drawn to his roots, Irani also comes with sharp business acumen. He has a keen understanding of the market, and in fact, had moved to the US to pursue his MBA. All of this, naturally, has come in handy with him making bold moves, like opening the first Chai Pani outlet in 2009, shortly after the recession. Turns out, it had some pluses. “Opening in a recession taught us to make due with less, and create a menu that was affordable and smartly developed to keep our cost of goods down, while also using high-quality ingredients. It ensured that we stayed true to the concept of Indian street food, which is meant to be affordable,” he explains.


Over the years, Irani has also done what any good businessman would — diversify. In 2017, he combined his learnings from running a business and his endeavour of familiarising Americans with true-blue Indian food, and channelled it into another venture, Spicewalla. The brand offers small-batch, and hand-processed spices sourced from quality suppliers. Elucidating on it, he tells me, “We launched Spicewalla to bring fresh spices to restaurant kitchens like ours. And after Oprah named us one of her renowned, Oprah’s Favorite Things, our direct-to-consumer business really exploded. We’re now carried by more than 1,300 independent retailers across the US, including Whole Foods and Walmart, alongside smaller boutique stores.”


Image: Sarah Hoski


That aside, under Irani’s aegis, the Chai Pani Restaurant Group has grown to include brands such as, Botiwalla, a kebab joint in Atlanta; Buxton Chicken Palace, which specialises in fried chicken sandwiches, and Buxton Hall Barbecue, both of which he launched in collaboration with chef Elliott Moss; and Nani’s Peri Peri Chicken, which is again, based out of Asheville. 


While much of Irani’s success can be attributed to entrepreneurial deftness, some of it also has to do with his dedication towards ‘storytelling’ — a term I see increasingly becoming central to concept-first food ventures that are looking to capitalise on the evolved consumer’s need for a story that precedes the product. It comes through in a bunch of menus, both outside and within India, naming dishes after mothers, grandmothers and aunts; blurbs painting sepia-tinted pictures of days long gone and romanticising food through the lens of culture and identity. It’s why you see celebs like Priyanka Chopra linking the launch of a homeware label in the US with her personal yearning for home. Or why top chefs in our country, like Prateek Sadhu, focus obsessively on produce from his birthplace, Kashmir. It’s surely a compelling narrative. Irani echoes this when he says, “The power of storytelling has a way of creating an experience where, for a moment, someone could leave behind whatever they may be going through, to be transported to another world full of warmth and hospitality.” 


Image: Molly Milroy


But could this mean restaurants co-opting stories, or more urgently, the food itself taking a back seat? “For me it goes hand in hand. I can’t imagine putting something on a plate that didn’t have a story that was not just authentic to me, but resonated with the diner, too. It’s not enough to tell a story. It has to be meaningful, purposeful and interesting, both on the plate and in the environment surrounding the place,” Irani suggests. 


If you pay close attention to the bit where Irani stresses about a story being authentic to the environment in which it unfolds, one could find a lot of answers. And particularly to this one: Why do global culinary awards and lists not recognise Indian restaurants from India, in lieu of those present on foreign land, such as Chai Pani? True that there are restaurants on Indian soil that are doing exemplary work, many of which are dedicated to reimagining Indian food, just like Indian restaurants in the West. But it does beg the question, if a New-York-based restaurant refashioning a thepla into a taco for its non-Indian customer is perhaps a bit more authentic (and even sensible) than a Mumbai-based diner calling ragi dosa a “millet crepe.” The disquetitude that follows from seeing haldi doodh become popular as “turmeric latte,” is natural; no questions there. But maybe, there’s also merit in viewing it simply, as a good start. 


(Featured Image: Jack Sorokin)

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