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An Indian chef wins top honours in the US

Indian-origin chef Chintan Pandya won the prestigious James Beard Award for “Best Chef: New York State"

Street food offerings at Chai Pani. Image via Instagram
Street food offerings at Chai Pani. Image via Instagram

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 A celebrated Indian-origin chef and an Indian restaurant in North Carolina serving “innovative and affordable” street food have won the top honours at America’s most prestigious culinary awards that recognise exceptional talent in the food industry.

Chintan Pandya of the popular restaurant Dhamaka in New York City won the James Beard Award for “Best Chef: New York State" while Chai Pani in Asheville, North Carolina won the award for “Outstanding Restaurant” in the US on Monday.

Also read: An insider's guide to dining out in London

The James Beard Foundation announced the 2022 Restaurant and Chef Award winners.

The James Beard Awards, “considered to be among the nation’s most prestigious honours, recognise exceptional talent in the culinary and food media industries, as well as a demonstrated commitment to racial and gender equity, community, sustainability and a culture where all can thrive.”

CEO of the James Beard Foundation Clare Reichenbach said that the awards “recognise outstanding food and beverage professionals” and also “honour our entire industry—and the incredible resilience, fortitude, talent, and leadership so many have shown over the past two years” amid the COVID19 pandemic.

Pandya is considered among the leading and most celebrated Indian chefs in the US and has several successful restaurants and eateries under his belt.

The Chai Pani website states that the restaurant serves “Indian street food from five-time James Beard nominated chef Meherwan Irani."

During his acceptance speech at the awards ceremony, Pandya said it is “actually unbelievable and never imagined that I'll stand here at any point of time.” Accompanied by his business partner Roni Mazumdar on stage, Pandya, referring to Mazumdar, said: “the reason he's over here is that I always came up with ideas which were very idiotic and stupid. And over the 22 years that I've been cooking, nobody believed in it.

“I met this guy five years back. And after a few years, I realised that he's a bigger idiot and stupid than me because he believes in my ideas. And because he believed in my idiocracy and stupidity that I'm standing here, so big thanks to him.”

Irani, the Executive Chef and Chief Chaiwalla who was born in London and raised in India, has been nominated four times for the James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Southeast.

“His restaurants have been written up in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, GQ, Food & Wine, Men's Health, USA Today, and Bon Appetit, among others. Not bad for a former car salesman – although his mother who still lives in India is not impressed,” his profile on his website says.

In his acceptance speech at the award, Irani said that when he opened the Indian street food restaurant in Asheville, he had no formal culinary experience and had never managed a kitchen or restaurant.

“But the only guiding principle that we had was an Indian spiritual quote ‘Mastery and servitude’. And this idea that if every day, every act you do is an act of service, that you can not only transform yourself, but transform the community, society around you and maybe even the world and it's been the greatest privilege of my life.”

“Restaurants are so much greater than the sum of what's inside the four walls. A restaurant has the power to transform the people that work there, transform the people that come in, transform the communities we're in, transform society, restaurants can transform the world,” Irani said.

Dhamaka’s website states that “Dhamaka is Explosive. This is the other side of India, the forgotten side of India.”

Describing itself as “Unapologetic Indian”, Dhamaka, from chef and partner Pandya and restaurateur Mazumdar, serves “provincial Indian cuisine to the new Essex Market.”

Pandya and Mazumdar are the duo behind New York City’s other popular Indian restaurants Adda and Rahi.

Dhamaka, which opened in February last year amid the COVID-19 pandemic, was featured on the number one spot in New York Times’ list of New York’s Top 10 New Restaurants of 2021.

“There’s nothing gray about the food at Dhamaka, though. Every dish comes at you as if it wants to either marry you or kill you… Mr Pandya doesn’t strafe every single dish with chiles, but he doesn’t hold back, either. For all the heat and spice in his cooking, though, there’s a lot of nuance to be appreciated once your heart has stopped racing,” the New York Times had said.

Dhamaka also featured in The New York Times list of the 50 most vibrant and delicious restaurants in America in 2021.

On its website, the Chai Pani restaurant says that it "literally means “tea and water.”

“It's slang in India for going out for a cup of tea, a tasty bite, a snack, or ‘a little something’. In Downtown Asheville (and now in Downtown Decatur) it means innovative, fun, affordable and delicious Indian cuisine. We'd go so far as to say it's ‘mindblasting’,” the website said.

Chai Pani, which opened in 2009, features ‘chaat’ - crunchy, spicy, sweet, tangy, brightly flavoured Indian street snacks, it said.

“The New York Times was particularly taken by our “fresh, cilantro-strewn takes on Indian street food,” GQ Magazine lauded our “Indian street food with a twang,” and New York Magazine called us "a star in downtown's dining scene.”

The Huffington Post had us on their list of "Top 10 Cheap Eats in the US,” and even Fox News called us the "hit of their Asheville trip.” (We're just glad we could get them all to agree on one thing)!,” Chai Pani said on its website.

The James Beard Foundation’s Restaurant and Chef Awards were established in 1990 with the first awards given in 1991 and is one of five recognition programmes of the Awards, the organisation said.

The 2022 James Beard Awards are the first in two years, “after a hiatus during which the Awards underwent a full audit of its policies and procedures, continuing the work to remove bias, increase transparency and accessibility, and make the programme more aligned with the Foundation’s mission and values.” 

Also read: How a South Indian restaurant in New York honours its roots

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