On a weekend getaway to New York City, my girlfriends and I had dinner at Graffiti Food & Wine Bar in the heart of East Village. In contrast to our tasting lunch at Bouley the day before, our meal at Graffiti was not upscale nor fancy. However, with a near perfect Zagat food rating of 28 and the ambience of a tiny (and I mean seriously tiny) and unassuming restaurant in a bustling Indian city, we walked away feeling like we had just enjoyed a fantastic meal half way around the world. For a moment, we actually forgot that we were in NYC.
Between the wonderful fusion of Asian flavours, eclectic Indian wood carvings, flickering tea votives, newsprint table cloths, small communal tables and bustling atmosphere, we felt connected to Chef Jehangir Mehta’s vision for a complete experience.
Chef Mehta passed by our table right when we were contemplating the various menu items. He graciously greeted us and suggested a number of dishes; all of which turned out to be incredibly delicious. We started with the Zucchini Hummus Pizza and found it to be surprisingly flavourful and rich; mainly because of the wonderful pastry dough pizza base.
Curious about the man behind our inspiring dinner, I asked Chef Mehta whether he’d be interested in sharing his insights with me. His generosity became obvious in the hour that he spent chatting with me on the phone after I returned home from our weekend getaway.
Q: What is your favourite drink and snack?
A: Tea…black tea; mainly Nilgiri. (Take a) piece of bread and put (it with) Piave italian cheese, egg, and bake it with chilli. Chilli cheese with egg….cool snack growing up…(I) really love eggs.
Q: What was your favourite childhood meal?
A: Dhan (rice) and dar (yellow lentils)…with Kolmi No Patio (made of) tomato cinnamon glaze, onions and shrimp…lots of spices. Eaten when anything good or anything nice (that) happens in your life…for good luck occasions.
Q: When entertaining friends at home, what types of foods/dishes do you like to cook?
A: On average, I like to cook things that are in one pot…and (I like to) cook a lot in the oven. (It’s) healthier. At work, we cook potatoes in the oven…takes less oil and is much healthier…on a Sil Pat. (It’s) fast…and (you) can leave it.
Q: What do you think the key is to hosting a good dinner party?
A: It’s not about you making the food; its about knowing what the person will like…not about saying “it will look better with lamb” or “it’s so much more expensive (with lamb)”. If the person doesn’t like lamb, but they like beef or chicken, (then) it’s won’t please the palate of the (guests). Great to educate people about food but don’t do it to make yourself look good. (Make) food as they would like…make things to make the client happy. For example, at the restaurant, serving from the right or the left (of the guest) might be better for the customer if they are in conversation…do something that works for client; it’s not about rigid rules.
Q: Who inspires you in your work?
A: My parents. I definitely know that it’s my family, my sister, everyone. (Family plays) a very important role in who you are and who you want to be. (They) gave me the right values. Even today, (they) will correct me if I am saying something wrong or doing something wrong. Most important thing is for us to listen (to them) and that they encouraged me…need to observe some sort of norms and values in our life. (There’s) no sense in (being) a health freak, but on the other hand, own a (chain) of fast food restaurants and not care how people eat. If you really promote health in your family, you should portray that in your business. It’s important to stay true to yourself. (It’s) like re-using paper. At home and at work, I don’t like wasting paper. We re-use old menus at my restaurants. We burn stains on the menu to extend the life of the paper menu. Whatever you believe in, try to incorporate it into your work.
Q: What is the biggest lesson you learned while working in the kitchens of L’Absinthe, Jean-Georges and Mercer?
A: I learned (something) different in each one. (The) most I learned is from Jean-Georges. Not (just) about his food but more about behaviour towards customers. Just today, I quoted him (on several occasions). When I started working for him, I was very new…one of the few people who had not previously worked in his core team; other members were those he had (previously) worked with. Jean-Georges loved to snack on berries at our station. (I) said to him, “please do not eat the berries because these are the last ones”. Jean-Georges (responded) that no one had ever told him not to do something before; but it made sense (because it meant that I was) thinking about the business and (he) liked that. I was thinking about business instead of who Jean-Georges was. My staff knows that (as well). Business is more important. (I learned) a lot (about) business from Jean-Georges. I don’t think he even knew how much I was observing (him) in this aspect but I would keep a note of things he did or said. (I’d) listen to (his) reasoning. For me, (it was the) best thing about working there.
Q: Of the various aspects of your career, what are you most passionate about?
A: I’m really passionate about pleasing my customers and my family. If money wasn’t important for day to day survival, I would give up my day job and be with my kids. I keep telling myself, people won’t remember the food. At my restaurant, Metaphor, it’s like a boutique hotel. (We once hosted a) small wedding…the (bride) was so tired (that she wanted) to take her shoes off. I’ll make sure I take a pair of hotel slippers and keep them at the restaurant. I gave them to her. 99% people will remember the hotel slippers rather than the whole meal. At that very point, that was the most important thing. It reduced her pain. (You need to) try to figure out something so unique that they will remember you for something different other than (the fact that) they came here to eat. Give them an experience. A restaurant should be about hospitality.
Q: What has been the biggest challenge of your career to date?
A: It’s the constant change. Fortunately or unfortunately, (things are) fleeting…society (is) fast moving…therefore, we need to constantly do things differently. Not just (in respect of) food. When blogs started, there was so much negativity (about them); even from restaurateurs and food writers. Now, there is not a single place that won’t say bloggers have a huge place in society. If you only talk to big magazines, you’re the silly one. (We) cannot be stuck (in time).
Q: What has been your proudest moment of your career to date?
A: Keeping the businesses alive
Q: What are you currently excited about in terms of new approaches to cooking and food?
(I’m) doing a lot of work with colleges. (For example,) I work with the Mushroom Council. Something I really enjoy. Just something that I try to promote in my life. Eating a little more planful and less red meat; it’s something I would like to do even more and (to continue) making that change.
Photo credit for feature image: Rodney Bedsole