Video Editor: Pawan Kumar
"If you come to America from India, and you eat the paneer here, then you'll sink into depression," says Indian American chef Chintan Pandya.
Pandya is no ordinary chef! He owns 'Dhamaka', an "unapologetically Indian" eatery, which, according to its website, is "the other side of India, the forgotten side of India."
"I’ll be honest with you, not only for us, but this was a phenomenal year for Indians, because we literally had 5 Indian nominations as finalists," Pandya tells The Quint.
In this interview, he opens up about his restaurant, the "unapologetic food" on the menu, his desi roots, and advancing Indian cuisine in the United States.
On Winning the Prestigious JBFA
"I thought I was the biggest underdog in that list. And we were actually more prepared to have the award for Dhamaka as Best New Restaurant", Pandya tells The Quint.
"I wasn’t prepared for it, and, I don’t know, it’s a very weird feeling, like I told everybody, like, I can’t even explain. I’ve spoken in front of people, like 200 people or something, this was at least 9,00,000 people, and I think it just came out of my heart. So, I wasn’t prepared for a speech, and it was too overwhelming, that’s why."
On his Food Being 'Unapologetically Indian'
"You will get a culture shock if you come to America and dine in an Indian restaurant," Pandya asserts.
He goes on to explain that Indian restauranteurs are too accommodative to their customers' demands. They'll ask whether they want their food "mild, medium, extra spicy, less spicy, all that."
"So, one thing we don’t do in our restaurant is that thing. We keep it the way it is. If you want to eat our food, this is the way we feel, this is the best version of the food. Then you have to eat it," Pandya explains.
The Indian American chef argues that changing how the dish is cooked as per every individual customer's demands completely kills its authenticity.
"There won't be any cultural context left. And we believe in being what our cultural cuisine should stand for: that we don’t have to apologise for something that we believe in."
On Dhamaka's Menu
"You know, the menu of Dhamaka is like, we call it 'the forgotten side of India,' because if you look at the menu, it has dishes from Bihar, Meghalaya, Orissa. These are dishes that I think you most likely won't see even in Indian restaurants."
He goes on to explain that the cutlery that his restaurant is mostly made of stainless steel. The glasses are bought from IKEA. Water, he asserts, remains water whether that is served on a glass costing 50 cents or 20 dollars.
"But what we do is, we invest our money on ingredients," he proudly says before introducing to The Quint the open challenge that his restaurant has thrown around. The focus of the challenge? Paneer.
"If you can get a better-quality paneer than what you eat at Dhamaka, in all of America, then get that better quality paneer, and get your receipt from the night you dined, we’ll give you cash. People think it’s out of arrogance: it’s not out of arrogance, it’s out of pride for our cuisine."
Chintan's Desi Roots
Pandya reveals that he is a Gujarati, and there was never any non-vegetarian food that was cooked in his house.
"I think I would be, like 11 or 12, and that is the first time I would have had a chicken fried rice by mistake. And I was like, Okay, what should I do? So I went back home and told my parents."
Luckily, his parents did not mind and even told him that he was free to eat whatever he wanted outside the house.
"So, they were really supportive about it, they didn’t treat it like 'arre baap re!' Nothing like that, and I think because of my love for eating, that was a part of becoming a chef."
'On Advancing Indian Cuisine in America'
When asked about other Indian chefs and restaurants in the US, Pandya says, "I love to connect with a lot of Indian chefs, because I feel if… me as an individual or our restaurant as an individual will fail if we, as a cuisine, don’t grow."
"I always say to people that for our cuisine to grow, which is far bigger than all of us individuals, we have to work together and move forward. When somebody comes to me and says, 'Bhai, is this Indian restaurant your competition?' I say no!"
He then goes to provide a few statistics, stating that "in America, there are around 29,000 Chinese restaurants, plus or minus, 52,000 Mexican restaurants, plus or minus."
"You know how many Indian restaurants are there? 5,500. What’s the competition?"
Finally, Pandya says he feels proud about the success of his restaurant. "I won't lie to you. Once upon a time, people did not even look at us. And now, they come to us and say hello. So, it feels proud, it feels proud."
He goes on to narrate two anecdotes. The first one was about an old gentleman who had once dined at Dhamaka with his family.
"I was there, they called me, I go to the table. The guy touches my hand and starts crying. He says, 'First time I feel like I’m eating food which is like Delhi, but not in Delhi.'"
In his second anecdote, Pandya narrates the story about a lady, who after eating at Dhamaka, had remarked, "When my daughter told me I have to come and eat over here, I said 'You want to torture me? To eat southern Indian food in a restaurant?'"
"But then, she literally had tears in her eyes. She says, 'This took me back to Chennai.'"
This is what we fight for, and this is what our belief is, Pandya concludes.