These Award-Winning Chefs Are Expressing Their Indian Heritage With Southern Food
Despite its notoriously tiny kitchen and a bathroom trapped in 1975, the James Beard House is one location chefs want to cook a meal at during their career. After all, if you make it to the house where the Dean of American Cookery hung his toque, you’ve done something spectacular.
And on a recent summer evening, a group of decorated chefs converged on New York City to showcase not just their individual talents but a movement that’s transforming the traditional perception of Southern food. The event? The Brown in the South Supper Series, featuring a band of highly successful chefs and hospitality entrepreneurs who share a personal connection to India along with serious cooking credentials.
The group includes chef Vishwesh Bhatt of Snackbar in Oxford, Miss., a recipient of the 2019 James Beard Best Chef: South award; Asha Gomez, the chef-owner of The Third Space in Atlanta and author of My Two Souths: Blending the Flavors of India Into a Southern Kitchen, makes regular appearances; as well as Meherwan Irani, the founder and CEO of Chai Pani Restaurant Group. Chef Cheetie Kumar of Garland in Raleigh, N.C., and Maneet Chauhan of Chauhan Ale & Masala House in Nashville also frequently bring their respective talents to the supper series. And these are only some of the chefs who’ve made appearances during this dinner series, which launched at Chai Pani Decatur, in Georgia, on Jan. 14, 2018.
But what unites this group is not only a passion for creative culinary expression, nor is it their heritage alone. For these chefs, the American South is home, and the dinner table is the perfect place to share stories of immigration followed by subsequent transformation.
What If I Told You We Were Putting a Team Together?
“Before we found each other, each of us in Brown in the South often felt alone as immigrants in a region with a strong identity,” says Meherwan Irani, who grew up in India. After moving to San Francisco for his MBA, he found his way to the city of Asheville, N.C., where he discovered a population unfamiliar with the deliciousness known as Indian street food. If the success of Irani’s first restaurant is any indication of what the reaction was to chaat, lamb burgers, and uttapam crepes, it’s safe to say this vibrant cuisine was well received. The restaurant group now counts five locations and a spice company across three different cities, including one of the most revered of all Southern food institutions, a barbecue joint. “What identifying as a Southerner means is that I now participate in the region’s growth and evolution instead of being a passive bystander,” explains Irani, whose hospitality group also sponsors a trip to India for select staff members.
Bridging the gap between the old world and new is something all immigrants must face. That’s why Brown in the South is as much a fun dinner party as it is a genuine display of the transformative power immigrant chefs have in their communities.
Vishwesh Bhatt’s journey into a professional kitchen really took off when he walked through the doors of chef John Currence’s City Grocery. Bhatt, who was at the time a graduate student at the University of Mississippi, was so captivated by Currence, who won a James Beard award in 2009, that he made the decision to pursue a career in culinary arts. Taking over Snackbar, Bhatt was nominated six times before winning his first James Beard award earlier this year. “I don’t cook Indian food, I cook Southern food,” says Bhatt. The chef is also quick to point out that Indian food really isn’t that different from what people might think of when they hear the phrase “Southern fare.”
From rice grown in the Mississippi Delta to black pepper and cumin which have been part of the region since America became a player in the spice trade, the connection between regions is closer than geography might suggest. “Let’s not forget that the New World was ‘discovered’ by someone looking for a sea route to India,” Bhatt notes.
“To me, a lot of my experiences cooking Indian cuisine in the South have been about finding familiarity in a cuisine that is not familiar,” recalls Maneet Chauhan. When Chauhan first settled down in Nashville, she tried hot chicken and immediately recognized how people from the city craved the tear-inducing, mouth-burning spices. “That led me to have dishes on the menu at Chauhan Ale & Masala House that are our ode to Nashville, like the meat and three and the hot chicken pakoras,” Chauhan says.
Dishes like catfish Goan curry, fried green tomato pakoras, and even a reimagined dal makhani made with local lentils, beans, collards, and Benton’s ham have sparked controversy. Nobody said breaking culinary stereotypes would be easy, but that’s the position these chefs accept in order to move the conversation forward.
“My dream is to live long enough to see good food being respected and honored for just that, without a nationality attributed to it,” Bhatt says, whose career is a testament to the notion that patience and passion pays off.
The similarities between and history of Southern and Indian ingredients make the two regional cuisines a better match than most. “At the end of the day, it’s the soul of the food that’s so similar,” Chauhan says.
The greater message these chefs want to share with younger generations is to embrace your identity wherever you come from and wherever you go. When the results of those beliefs are exceptionally nourishing, that message tastes even better.
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