If you’re interested in food, you’ve probably heard of New York’s boom. In the year it opened (2021), the New York Times ranked it first on its list of the top ten new restaurants in the city. (All restaurants: not just Indian restaurants.) It is, by any objective standard, the most successful Indian restaurant in the Western world.
How successful? Well, let me give you an example. Let’s say you wanted to have dinner with a bang. You go to a restaurant’s site to book a table and find it’s full for the next few weeks. But, rest assured, all was not lost. Dhamaka accepts reservations for a period of 30 days only. When this 30-day-period is complete, you can try your luck at opening bookings for the next 30-day period.
So, the day the bookings open again, you’ll say to yourself, “I’m going to book three weeks ahead today, so I can be sure of getting a table.” You’ll call Dhamaka and be told that all tables for the 30-day period are sold out within hours of booking opening.
What can you do now? You can check out the secondary market as the tables of Dhamaka are like gold. In New York, there are websites that sell you reservations at top restaurants like Dhamaka. And, of course, the price is high.
I asked Dhamaka owners Rony Mazumdar and Chintan Pandya how they felt about it. They were terrified, they said. This, to use an Indian parallel, was like buying a black ticket for a hit movie. But while black-marketing of tickets is illegal in India, selling bookings on the gray market is legal in the US. And there is nothing Majumdar and Pandey can do.
How did it come to this stage? Who would have thought that a dinner reservation at an Indian restaurant would be so rare that you would have to search the black market? Will an Indian restaurant be rated as the top new restaurant in the world’s most competitive dining market?
Not only that. Unapologetic Foods, the group run by Majumdar and Pandey, also has four other restaurants in New York, all of them highly successful. One of them, Semma, which serves South Indian cuisine cooked by chef Vijay Kumar, received a Michelin star a few months ago and received rave reviews from the New York Times. (New York has its own rules: Chefs value Michelin stars but business is largely driven by reviews in local outlets, notably the New York Times.)
I haven’t been to New York since Dhamaka or Semma opened. So I didn’t get a chance to try the food. But earlier this month, Mazumdar and Pandya embarked on a tour of India, cooking in Delhi and Mumbai. The nonprofit I’m involved with (full disclosure) helped organize the tour, and I had two live interviews with Dhamaka’s founders in both cities and had dinner in Mumbai. I also spent a lot of time with Chintan Pandya about his food.
What struck me first was how Chintan found his own solution to the central dilemma faced by all Indian chefs who want to make a mark in the West: how to differentiate the menu?
Indian restaurants around the world (including India) rely on North Indian specialties such as tandoori chicken, butter chicken, some versions of biryani, black lentils, paneer peas and naan on their menu. There’s nothing wrong with this menu: it’s Indian comfort food. But no chef can get much satisfaction (let alone become famous) from cooking these dishes over and over again.
So chefs look for other ways to draw attention to their food. They make the plating French. They make street food the star. Or they steal from Manish Mehrotra and Gagan Anand and try to serve a modern Indian menu. Sometimes it works. But all too often, it doesn’t.
What I find fascinating about Chintan’s food is that he doesn’t use any of these methods. Instead, he relied on his own skills as a chef, and delved into the universe of Indian cuisine, choosing dishes from across the country and cooking the best versions of them all. It only works because Chintan’s food is so full of flavor that it’s impossible not to like it.
Some of these relate to his focus on content. His mutton is from old sheep on an Arizona ranch. He hates commercial cheese so he makes his own. (Which he also did in Mumbai and Delhi.) He chooses the rice that goes with each dish. Basmati was followed by Govinda Bhog in dinner in Mumbai. Then there are little chef tricks: he uses red onion in white etc.
But that’s not why he’s the most successful Indian chef in the West. There are basically two elements to the success of meditation. The first is that he sees Indian food as a vast wonderland that he wants to explore. So the food comes from all over: from Meghalaya, from Bihar and from Gujarat itself. And there’s no limit to the things he cooks: veja fries are just the beginning; The thinking does not stop at the intestines or other parts of the animal. The food he cooks can be eaten nose-to-tail without limit.
But, on the other hand, he can provide even the most delicate vegetarian flavors. At dinner in Mumbai, Gujarati-style eggplant bharta was one of the best dishes. The gravy for the Madras Egg Roast bursts with flavor. And speaking as someone who doesn’t like cheese, I asked for a portion of her cheese dish and polished it off. It was a veg option and I had to eat non-veg. But his veg food was so good, I greedily ate both the veg and non-veg options!
There is a second part of his success. And that’s because he’s amazingly talented. If you ask him, he can easily extract the flavor from the stone. His food is incredibly delicious, no matter what he cooks. By now, he has perfected his own techniques for each dish, so he manages to make it look easy. But I know how much time he spent preparing India’s dinner. (He would be in the kitchen late at night and early in the morning, while the rest of the Dhamaka team were either partying or snoozing).
And although he is one of the humblest chefs I know, he is deadly serious about his food. There are no shortcuts, no compromises, and he can be stubborn if you ask him to tweak a dish to make it more acceptable to the market.
From my point of view, it is a great relief to find a chef who is so confident in his cooking that he lets the flavors speak for themselves. When you dine at Chintan, you enjoy the complex blend of spices, flavors and ingredients that make Indian cuisine great.
Majumdar and Pandey named their company Unapologetic Foods, after their attitude. It’s a good name. But given this level of success, it’s hard to see what they can apologize for.
From HT Brunch, March 18, 2023
Follow us at twitter.com/HTBrunch
Connect with us at facebook.com/hindustantimesbrunch