The word “unapologetic” features several times in a conversation with chef Chintan Pandya and restaurateur Roni Mazumdar, the forces behind New York-based eateries such as Adda, Semma, Masalawala, Rowdy Rooster and the much loved Dhamaka, which was rated as No.1 in The New York Times’ list of Top 10 New Restaurants of 2021 in the US.
Who would have thought simple home-cooked and street food dishes from our childhood—gurda kapoora, or goat kidney and testicles served with red onion and pao, goat belly seekh, ragda pattice, Champaran meat, and doh kleh, pork made with lemon, cilantro, onion and ginger—would be lapped up with such relish at a US-based eatery like Dhamaka? Today, the food at the restaurant, which celebrates the regions of India, is not just becoming popular with diners but also winning laurels for its team. Pandya, for instance, won the best chef award for New York State at the prestigious James Beard Foundation Awards in June 2022—a rare feat for an Indian chef in the US.
Both Pandya and Mazumdar believe in keeping it simple. So, the dishes come to the table in the vessels they are cooked in. No attempt is made to modify the taste to suit different palates. “We serve the best version of the dish, which stays authentic to its roots. If it is spicy, take it or leave it. But we shall not compromise on the taste. For instance, rogan josh is called so as it needs that bit of oil and fat called ‘rogan’,” says Pandya, who is currently on an India tour, hosted by Masters of Marriott Bonvoy, which brings global gastronomic excellence to India through partnerships, and Culinary Culture, a food consultancy company.
One guest at Dhamaka told the chef they didn’t want so much oil in the signature Kashmiri dish. If Pandya had chosen to remove the rogan, it would have destroyed the integrity of the dish. “I asked the person, will you go to a Japanese restaurant and ask the chef to cook the fish in sushi? No, you won’t. Japanese food culture is so strong that they feel insulted if you ask them to meddle with the integrity of a dish,” asserts Pandya. “Then why expect Indian chefs to modify our dishes? Till the time we don’t stand up for our cuisine, it will be destroyed in the US—I know it is an off word but it will become so ‘bastardised’ that no one will know the original version.” No wonder then that they have chosen to call their food venture Unapologetic Foods.
Dhamaka, which opened in 2021, and the other restaurants—such as Semma, which specialises in southern Indian fare, Adda, an Indian canteen, and Rowdy Rooster, a casual space which focuses just on Indian fried chicken—are part of a small, albeit impactful movement in the US that hopes to clear the misconceptions about Indian food. The focus is firmly on regional diversity, with the restaurants making these dishes accessible to diners in a fun dining experience. Take, for instance, Chai Pani in Asheville, which serves affordable Indian street food and was voted as “America’s most outstanding restaurant” at the James Beard Foundation Awards in 2022.
Earlier, believes Pandya, people thought Indian food was only about seven-eight dishes. Dhamaka helped change this perception, allowing the team to explore further. For instance, in the US, people have an image of what saag paneer should be. However, Pandya has gone back to the roots by making his own paneer and pairing it with local greens.“Our food at home has long been looked at as pedestrian. But we should celebrate it,” chimes in Mazumdar, who first met Pandya in 2017.
By that time, the latter had already been part of the culinary ecosystems in southeast Asia and the US for some years, having worked with the Oberoi group in Kolkata and Mumbai, and then moving to Singapore for 4.5 years as a chef-partner in a restaurant. He had plans of coming back to Mumbai, but an opportunity to work as a culinary director for a company took him to Cleveland in 2014. “Then I moved to Atlanta because I wanted to do something on my own. Atlanta looked like a phenomenal market for Indian food, but it wasn’t. The market was not ready for it. It was a very big setback for me. I lost a certain amount of time, money, effort, everything. That’s how I ended up in New York,” Pandya had mentioned in a 2022-interview to the Eater.
When the idea of Dhamaka took root, Pandya began to think of ways to break set notions around Indian food. One day, he was at home, still struggling with the menu, when his wife cooked lunch. Within 20-30 minutes, she had made aloo tinda, dal and roti. That’s when he realised it was this ghar ka swaad (taste of home) that was missing from Indian restaurants—it set the template for Dhamaka.
It’s amazing that Pandya, who grew up, and continues to live, in a strictly vegetarian Gujarati household—“my wife is stricter than my parents,” he laughs—whips up offal and seafood with panache. “I started eating non-vegetarian food outside home as a teenager. I enjoyed eating offal but couldn’t find it on a restaurant menu. So we decided to put it on our menu,” says the chef-partner at Unapologetic Foods.
Mazumdar and he hadn’t anticipated the kind of success Adda, Dhamaka and Semma have tasted. They used to distribute flyers, hoping people in the neighbourhood would come by. “We all think of business plans but never about purpose and conviction. We had never thought that people beyond the 10-block radius would think of us. It’s nice to see that we stand for something. A gentleman said to us that he has had food all over the world but this is Indian food worth fighting for,” says Mazumdar.
The year has started on an exciting note for them. They are opening one more Rowdy Rooster in New York and working on a concept called Kebabwala, which will allow people to enjoy high-quality kebabs “without having to break a bank”. They are also working on empowering members of their team. “Eric Valdez, the chef de cuisine at Dhamaka, has been with us since we opened. He is a Filipino and someday hopes to open a restaurant of his own. So we are opening Unapologetic Filipino with him in the next few months. The vision is to empower people to speak their own language and culture,” says Pandya.
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