The Self-Taught Indian Cook Who Founded America’s Best Restaurant

Chef Meherwan Irani of Chai Pani, which serves Indian street-style grub in Asheville, on the story of how it won the James Beard Award for America’s Most Outstanding Restaurant.

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Street-food picks and a characteristic hyperlocal, Indian town vibe defines Chai Pani. In picture: Sev Potato Dahi Puri, or SPDP, as it’s known here. Photo courtesy: Jack Sorokin/Chai Pani

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Anyone who even remotely knows their food and drink currently has probably only one thing on their mind—that an Indian restaurant is now America’s Most Outstanding. Serving street-style Indian flavour bombs in stainless steel thalis to North Carolina’s Asheville—described as equal parts “classy and hipster” and historically teeming with patrons who know the art of fine dining—Chai Pani recently won the honour at the James Beard Foundation Awards (the de facto Oscars of the restaurant business, for the uninitiated). A week back, one would have thought only of names such as Chef Chintan Pandya’s Dhamaka, Sona by Priyanka Chopra Jonas and Vikas Khanna’s Junoon when counting down the most iconic recent Indian names in the American urban landscape. The story of Chai Pani interestingly began much earlier.

“When I first came to America I was surprised how Indian food was being represented—in a very one-dimensional, Mughlai-style, north-Indian curry-house way… the butter chicken, chicken tikka masala, saag and paneer. Everywhere I went, that’s all I saw. But once in a blue moon, I wandered into a little dhaba-style Indian restaurant maybe in San Francisco, Berkeley, or New York that was doing something different, and I would wonder why aren’t we doing more of this because it was evident that Americans liked that too. So when I finally came to the realisation that the only way this was going to happen was if I did it myself, and bear in mind, I was 39,” recalls Meherwan Irani, founder of Chai Pani. The “self-taught cook” and founder of America’s current most talked-about restaurant left home in Maharashtra’s Ahmednagar in the early ’90s for an MBA.

Having spent his formative time in Pune and around Mumbai, Meherwan fell in love with street food, like “every high-school or college kid in India does,” he tells me, adding, “When I came here, that’s what I missed the most, along with ghar ka khana. And of course, my mom didn’t teach me how to cook—growing up in India, especially back then, it was unlikely that the son would be in the kitchen with the mother. So, I called my mom, and it was highly amusing to her that I was interested in learning how to cook. But she started sending me recipes, would come and visit me when I was in my college dorms, and I slowly learned to cook. I also recognised that I needed to learn how to cook not just Indian food, but to understand Eurocentric cuisine. I got really good, and became a self-taught cook—I can’t say the word ‘chef’ because that only applies in my mind to if you’re a leader in the kitchen, right?”

 

The Self Taught Indian Cook Who Founded America’s Best Restaurant

Chef Meherwan Irani, founder of Chai Pani, arrived in the U. S. in the ’90s from Maharashtra’s Ahmednagar. Photo courtesy: Tim Robison/Shutterstock

 

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Making his Own Tradition

“When we opened back in 2009, the response to Chai Pani was incredible. We were in a small town in the mountains of western North Carolina. There was almost zero Indian population. In my first few years here, I met maybe three other people that were Indian-origin. And so, certainly, I wasn’t opening a restaurant for an Indian clientele. Not only were we making and serving Indian street food and figuring it out as we went, I was also learning about the business, about the industry. I waited tables in restaurants, but I never had any professional experience running a kitchen. And of course, for the first few years, it was very hard, very challenging,” Irani says, adding that his goal for Chai Pani was to make the food approachable, to bridge the cultural divide that could so easily have existed between an Indian street-food restaurant and an American clientele.

Having been influenced to a great degree by his mother, Meherwan recounts learning from her to make do with what was around her in terms of ingredients. “With tradition and authenticity, it’s easy to get stuck. Traditions were created out of necessity. The way we cooked our dishes, my mother explained, is because that was the only way to do it. That’s all you had, and then it becomes traditional. When she came to America when I was still in college, she was teaching me how to cook. In Columbia, South Carolina, in 1993, where do you think she was going to find Indian ingredients? She made do with what was around her and taught me that you can create your own tradition, from the place that you are from, don’t try to just copy a tradition from where you came, because it might not work where you are now,” he asserts.

 

The Self Taught Indian Cook Who Founded America’s Best Restaurant

Clockwise from left: Server Isa at the restaurant; Molly and Meherwan Irani; The Butter chicken platter they do. Photos courtesy: Molly Milroy/Chai Pani (Molly and Meherwan; food); Sarah Hoski/Chai Pani (Isa)

 

Sloppy Joe to Sloppy Jai

One of the best-selling dishes at the restaurant—“we call it our gateway dish,” says Chef Irani—is the Sloppy Jai, or Parsi-style keema done the way his mother would make it. “Traditionally, we would serve it with the pao on the side and the sub the other, but I knew that I couldn’t just put that on the menu without any way of helping somebody understand that actually the dish is delicious and approachable—so I playfully renamed it to the Sloppy Jai after a sloppy joe which is you know, an American dish.”

And then slowly the Indians started to come. And where were they coming from? “They started hearing about us from cities that were from one hour to four hours away. Charlotte, Greenville, Atlanta, Johnson City, Tennessee… where there were larger populations of Indians. And I gotta tell you, Indians are very good at spreading the word. I mean if we find something we like, we tell everybody.”

Slowly, every summer, spring break or holiday weekend, more Indians showed up at the restaurant. “There are days where the restaurant, especially the one in Atlanta, on a Saturday night can have 90 percent Indians, not because the Americans aren’t coming. It’s just the Indians are better at getting in line, or even better at getting ahead of the line,” he adds, laughing away merrily. “In Asheville, when it’s not a holiday, and you walk in the restaurant, it’ll be full of 90 percent of Americans. And I’m not just saying white Americans, but Asian and Latin Americans,” he tells me.

 

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Why Chaat?

“I very specifically wanted to feature chaat, because in my mind, if you had to pick one cuisine and label it as Indian cuisine, it’s ludicrous. It’s as ridiculous as saying ‘Oh, I love European food’. And the average person would say, ‘What does that mean? Be more specific’. For me, Indian street food is the most democratic and approachable food of India. So if you had to pick for me one cuisine that represented all of India, the way India works, you know—where we all come together—it would have to be chaat,” adds the chef.

 

The Self Taught Indian Cook Who Founded America’s Best Restaurant

Photo courtesy: Sarah Hoski/Chai Pani

 

Asheville, a Major Dining Destination in the Making

Quite evidently, the North Carolina city with a population of about one lakh has just become a “national-level culinary destination”, in Irani’s words. There were five nominations from Asheville alone (the city won two). Katie Button, a fellow chef and restaurateur, who has a Spanish Tapas Bar, won the award for Outstanding Hospitality. She was also nominated for Best Chef for the region.

“But there are probably 10 other restaurants with similar incredible cuisine, hospitality, and experiences. It is one of the most exciting culinary cities in America right now, not just with food, but also beverages. We have a craft brewery and beer scene that’s been slowly growing over the past 20 years, thanks to which we’re now acknowledged as one of the the premier cities in America for the same,” Chef Irani shares, adding that the city is also now a major hub of packaged food. “Apart from Spicewalla, which is my company, there are eight to 10 other incubator companies… chocolates at French Broad Chocolate Lounge, No Evil Foods with plant-based meat alternatives, Poppy Popcorn, the list goes on and on. So, it’s a really exciting city to visit right now, and very beautiful. It reminds me of going to Mussoorie, which is my mother’s hometown.”

Irani credits this movement brewing in Asheville, and a lot of his restaurant’s success, to access to high-quality ingredients in and around the area. “I can buy the best yoghurts from local farmers, the best pao from a guy who lives in Atlanta and makes it for me, the best puris to my specifications… double-fried, a little bit crispy, a little bit darker. So, I’m able to do things that some street vendor doesn’t have the privilege of access to,” he explains. But one wonders if this privilege comes at a cost, and if yes, how much of a challenge it is to one of Chai Pani’s most talked-about features: affordability.

“Well, luckily, even these ingredients that are fresh, can still be affordable. Fresh vegetables and produce are always cheaper than meats and proteins. Dals, grains, rice and lentils are always cheaper than pastas and things that need a lot more processing. There are certainly meat dishes too, on the menu, but our menu is heavily vegetarian. We’ve been lucky to get to such a size and volume that we are able to buy in bulk and get better deals. Also, though, I don’t think people understand how slim the margins in the restaurant business truly are, especially if you are buying high-quality ingredients. Paying your team living wages where they can actually afford to have a life doesn’t leave a lot over. I think it’s okay to be okay with that. That’s how we’ve always operated. I don’t want to raise my prices any more than I have to, because then I’m basically betraying the essence of what Indian street food is meant to be,” Irani explains.

 

The Self Taught Indian Cook Who Founded America’s Best Restaurant

Aloo Tikki Chaat (left) at Chai Pani; the patio area at the restaurant (right). Photos courtesy: Sarah Hoski/Chai Pani

 

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Favourite Memory at Chai Pani

“A day after we won the Outstanding restaurant award, I got an email from an Indian lady who lives in the area. She is married to an American and she wrote me an email saying, ‘Meherwan, I came to visit Asheville in early 2010, and you’d only been open for a couple of months. We came in, and my husband sat in the bar. You must have noticed that I was Indian because he came to the kitchen and he started talking to me. And then you bought two big masala dosas on the house because I was actually back then experimenting with other things. You were so kind to me and my husband, and when we mentioned that one day we’d like to move to Asheville, you even gave some recommendations for where to stay’.”

“Years later, she did move to Asheville. During the pandemic, she was working with the CDC, working with the medical and government organisations to help in the fight against the pandemic and she would get takeout from Chai Pani. She said it’s the only thing that helped her make it through that time, because she said your staff recognised her from having ordered takeout so many times, they’d leave little notes for her on the takeout little thank you notes of gratitude to her. And that is my favourite moment of Chai Pani,” Irani signs off.

 

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Chef Meherwan Irani’s Top Three from the Chai Pani Menu

Vada Pav: It’s a bold claim, but our vada pav is the best vada pav that you will ever have. I’ve had Mumbaikars and people from Pune come and say, “Meherwan, how did you do it?”

SPDP: Short for Sev Potato Dahi Puri, our SPDP (puffed flour crisps filled with sweet yoghurt, green and tamarind chutneys, potatoes, onions, cilantro) is world-class. 

Kale Pakoras: I’m very proud of these since for me, they bring the East and the West together. “That pakora batter is made just the way my mom showed me how to do it. We don’t use baking soda or seltzer. I just use warm water to allow a little warm-water fermentation to happen with the besan. And then we still get this beautiful, crispy-crunchy without a tasting Billy and chewy and oily. And then I make it with kale.

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  • Prannay Pathak dreams about living out of a suitcase and retiring to the island of Hamneskär to watch films in solitary confinement. He is Assistant Editor (Digital) at National Geographic Traveller India.

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