Chef Chintan Pandya started at Rahi, created a stir with Adda giving street food an address, and now his Dhamaka turns this into a success story of Indian classics.
Simplicity. It’s overrated. Especially in the context of eating out. Two Indian guys in New York – Chef Chintan Pandya and Roni Mazumdar took desi khana, zeroed in on going beyond simplicity to a taste trail of India’s hinterland – authentic and flavourful. From those sparring matches and palettes arose an “unapologetic” philosophy that became an outlier – giving foodies in NYC wholesome, ingredient-rich provincial fare. Chef Chintan Pandya started at Rahi (now Sema in 2017), created a stir with Adda giving street food an address, and now Dhamaka turns this into a success story of Indian classics. Raising the bar, it’s food married to regional fare, turning simple into sumptuous. Provincial pickings, says the creator of this rage in New York. Pandya recently won the James Beard Award 2022 for Dhamaka. The Mumbaikar-turned-New Yorker is a traditionalist, focused on quality ingredients, to present something as simple as a chill bhaji or an unheard of Bihari Champaran meat. His belief is that instinctive flavours unearth traditional cuisine to celebrate India’s epicurean legacy. Dhamaka is that swan song.
As the first ethnic chef to get the award in a year that saw five Indians clinch high honours, this augurs good tidings for Indian cuisine that usually plays second fiddle to Western palettes.
Awakening the world to the Indian culinary story, Chintan turned inside. One finds him grounded yet flavour searching, and totally moo fat (straight talking) about how it is.
It, being the diversity of Indian cuisine that has too often been relegated to being the lowest on the totem pole. “We glorify things and lose the bigger picture – to keep pushing Indian food ahead. Our cuisine is relegated to such low levels in America. The surprising part is that I might be the first ethnic chef to win the James Beard Award in New York. The only other chef who got the award cooked modern Korean, not ethnic Korean – David Chang. This year, there were five Indian nominations and finalists – that is unheard of,” says Chef Chintan Pandya. Now, this fiddler of desi recipes is calling out Indian cuisine’s richness from NYC roofs. And Unapologetic Foods, with partner Roni Majumdar are the team behind Dhamaka, Adda, Sema, and many online kitchens launched during Covid 19.
The foodie who yearned to taste!
Chintan is a foodie at heart – gorging on street food delicacies as a child when senior Pandya bundled up the family on weekly food trails. Thus hotel management it was, and he soon found himself at the Oberoi kitchen in Calcutta. Uncannily, though, the shocked vegetarian who mistakenly walloped chicken fried rice from a school friend’s lunch box, became a closet non-vegetarian then. Today, though the family is vegetarian, that might just have been the tipping point to explore the simplicity of regional cuisine like a true believer.
From a child peeling vatanas for his mother, to an award-winning chef, Pandya laughs sheepishly, “I loved eating, and would go to lengths. Hotel management was a selfish choice – I thought free mien khana milega bahut sara!” Once he started, he fell in love, especially the scuttle of a kitchen. From Oberoi Grande to management school (2001-2003) Delhi, with a gold medal, Chintan started at Oberoi Mumbai. Then Jet Airways, (food and beverage) – it was onto Singapore as chef partner at Yantra, then to Cleveland and Atlanta as consultant chef. Till the Big Apple became the final frontier to unearth regional Indian cuisine.
Like most chefs, his passion for Indian cuisine had predecessors – French and Italian! Working in a French or Italian kitchen was what most chefs aspired for. Yet, that’s where Chintan’s stars shifted. Perplexed about “this craze to helm a western kitchen,” the 22-year-old saw first-hand the norm to hanker for an executive chef position in Western fare. “Working in an Indian kitchen didn’t give you high odds to higher roles, unlike working in a French or Italian one,” he recalls. It explains the systemic error where India does not promote its own cuisine. “We are the same who go gaga over bouillabaisse but jo apni khud ki history ke upper sharam karengay,” he admits.
At Dhamaka, “We have a dish – Champaran meat from Bihar, garlic ke saath jo meat banta – this dish has been there for decades but we have never spoken about it. That has been a fundamental problem with us Indians – our perception of Indian food is butter chicken and dal makhani.”
As he sits in his office conjuring up Indian provincial fare, he wishes Indian cuisine had the devotion seen with Japanese, French Italian food – an exclusive pride of following traditional recipes. “We have not been able to do it, and that is why Indian cuisine is languishing.”
Roni and Chintan, the new kids on the NYC block, brainstormed, honest in their focus, realising this need for hearty regional Indian representation. That off-chance meeting with Roni through a friend has now led to six concepts – with three more on the anvil.
Roni himself opened his first restaurant with his father’s vision – Masalawala which is being relaunched in Brooklyn – as Masalawala Reboot. From Rahi in 2017, which Chintan believes was his best – wholesome food that was fancy, Adda, and Kebabwala added to his culinary expertise. Most of their concepts are cuisines they both crave for! Even so, it helped this Gujarati brahmin find his epicurean philosophy. “We opened up Adda – at the most grungiest locations in Long Island city across La Guardia College – it worked as rent was cheap,” he smiles, of the canteen to grab a bite of a simple menu focused on quality. “I felt this was missing in Indian restaurants in the US.”
Chintan recalls how Adda’s menu had Roni flabbergasted as it was one of regulars, yet was “done with integrity, going that extra mile with only 20 dishes,” his eyes crinkle. A month on, there were lines!
“We were overwhelmed – it was like a dream that people liked our food, then New York Times wrote about us, and everything went beserk!” he adds.
The difference Unapologetic Foods brought – Ingredients were key, no compromises. “We have a philosophy at Unapologetic Foods, our ingredients are the best quality, very specifically bought, weekly, my colleague and I spend nine to 10 hours sourcing them,” he says.
A Dhamaka in NYC
This unique and different philosophy sees Chintan work organically – an idea strikes and is not forced. “You need to be excited about and inspired,” says Chintan. Dhamaka too saw the team struggle for eight months, and one Monday, his weekly holiday, his wife Namrata Jani, a nurse practitioner asked him what he wanted for lunch. “She made something in 35 minutes – aloo and tendli ki sabji.” That first bite was when the idea struck –wholesome seasonal fresh fare was missing in US restaurants. “We focus too much on complex food, and forget simple khana – one that you eat and say wow. It was Dhamaka’s Eureka moment. I called Roni and Eric, our talented chef de cuisine from Phillipines, explained my vision. Roni was like – you are mad.” Mad, but apt! For Pandey, these culinary forays find success because of the stellar team.
Forgotten recipes from different parts of India, engraved in Chintan’s mind have pride of place at Dhamaka. “It is culmination of all those recipes I had that cannot be served in a restaurant – it broke all boundaries.”
A succinct menu, the ingredients are KING. For the Champaran meat for example mutton is sourced from Arizona.
Provincial food –papdi chaat, dishes from Bihar, Orissa and Meghalaya, pamplet fry, his mother in law’s bharela mircha – ragada pattis –“all original recipes with no short cuts, and original spice levels. We only serve you the best version of the dish,” says the chef.
And it’s not arrogance, but a sincere belief in authenticity. The rage that he has stirred into New York’s culinary landscape apart, his wife Namrata is the home chef as this foodie chef eats anything! Now, Sema too is creating a South Indian flavour trail after San Francisco-based Chef Vijay was hired and his philosophy of regional South Indian got its canvas.
The former cricketer loves beach and park trails, especially Acadia National Park, and Hampshire where he is often seen with his two children. Chintan’s father has since passed, and his mother now lives with them. He relishes her undhiyo, pav bhaji and dal dhokla.
Success for Chintan has different parameters. His focus is – khanay se matlab hai – wholesome delicious and traditional. The James Beard Award, as recognition should inspire and empower Indian chefs to celebrate Indian cuisine, he feels, “because at some point if we are not proud humara koi legacy forward nahin kar payega, and hum confused state mien hi zinda jiyengay.”
A no fear of failure attitude guides the team’s philosophy. “Dhamaka or Rowdy Rooster would not have come true without our belief and imprudence.” Pandya wants chefs to believe in the menu, work on it and reinvent. He hopes Indian chefs will embrace ethnic cuisine, and stop indulging in confused Indian food – which, “is not innovation, woh confusion hai.”