Ask Preeti Mistry why she cooks Indian food, and you can almost hear the frustration in her voice.
“Well,” she explains without hesitation, “it all goes back to chai.”
“This is a drink my family, and my grandparents, have been drinking every morning and every afternoon their entire lives,” says the mohawked chef of Oakland’s Juhu Beach Club and Navi Kitchen in Emeryville. And one day, mysteriously, the Ur-beverage of South Asia began turning up at every coffee shop she encountered.
We weren’t yet using terms like cultural appropriation, but “chai tea” marked something of a political awakening. “Why,” she wondered, “are all these white people making money off it?”
“You get made fun of in school for being weird, for being different, for having weird smells coming out of your house,” says Mistry, who was born in London and raised in the United States. She kept the faith. “I knew I would get to the place where I can cook Indian food like the Indian food I love, and people will see there’s more.”
She was correct that there would be a new generation of diners — foodies — eager to dig their forks into the unfamiliar. There is also a new generation of chefs like Mistry, born or raised stateside, rewriting the script on what that cuisine should look and taste like.
Starting Thursday, the Smithsonian Museum of American History hosts its annual Food History Weekend, which this year focuses on food’s relationship with migration and cultural exchange. To mark the occasion, we spoke with several rising restaurateurs about how their experiences growing up in two cultures have affected their cooking and are redefining American food.
For the chefs, their love affair with food began, as it does for most, at home. One pinched dumplings alongside his mother; another learned to eat adventurously from his father.Their families turned to newspaper clippings and well-worn yard sale cookbooks to make their children lasagna and hamburgers on the nights they didn’t serve japchae or roti.
Some of these chefs went to culinary school, some went to business school. And when they finally decided to open their own restaurants, the cuisine they chose to make surprised even them: It was the one they’d grown up with.
“I don’t think these folks set out to do this thing; it’s just who they are,” says former LA Weekly restaurant critic Besha Rodell, who began to notice the swell of young bicultural chefs a few years ago. “That’s what makes it different from fusion. Fusion is taking one thing and banging it into another — like, wasabi in the mashed potatoes. This is authentic in the very real sense of the word, because it is their authentic, lived reality.”
Now 41, Mistry is the one making money off her chai, which she serves at Navi Kitchen, with freshly roasted spices, sugar and milk, all boiled, the way it is in Mumbai. You can, if you must, get it with a shot of espresso.
Wesley Avila has a no-nonsense way about him. When Gary Menes of Le Comptoir asked him about his goals in a job interview, Avila told the chef he wanted to be a taquero — a taco slinger, the furthest thing from the tasting menu Menes would offer.
Menes wanted to serve his guests personally, from behind a counter. So did Avila. Menes gave him the job.
Avila had known taqueros all his life. He was raised in Pico Rivera, a largely Latino suburb in L.A. County. His mother was born just outside San Diego; his dad immigrated from Durango, Mexico, in the 1970s, washing cars at first, and then snagging a job at a cardboard factory that he held for more than 40 years. Listless for years after the tragic death of his mother when he was a teenager, Avila looked like he would put in a life at the same factory; he worked there as a forklift driver for seven years. His father finally intervened. “You guys are American,” his father told him. “You should be able to go to school and have a career, and do something you want to do.”
Avila ultimately quit his job and went to culinary school. He went to Mexico and France and Spain to educate himself and spent years in fine dining. Avila, now 39, launched Guerrilla Tacos in 2012. It took its name from the fact that Avila’s taco cart was, at first, a rogue, unpermitted operation. Now a food truck, Guerrilla Tacos might sell a sweet potato taco with French feta and romesco-like salsa one day, or a wild boar taco another.
“I really identify as Angeleno — from L.A.,” he said. “What my food represents isn’t necessarily Mexican, and it isn’t high-end. It’s Angeleno; it’s a melting pot.”
The newest location of Mimi Cheng’s dumpling shop is in Nolita, on the edge of New York’s Chinatown, where dumpling shops seem to occupy every other storefront. This one is bright and cheery, with lush plants, pale walls and a print of a pineapple. It reflects the tastes of its proprietors, Hannah and Marian Cheng, 31 and 29, respectively. So does the menu, which is dotted with Taiwanese fare such as scallion pancakes and beef noodle soup, and also a macro bowl served with lemon-tahini dressing.
The sisters grew up in Upstate New York eating a mash-up of cuisines: Their father was raised in Taipei, where the cooking is light and not particularly spicy, while their mother was raised in Thailand. After Hannah graduated with a finance degree from Georgetown University, and Marian graduated from the University of Maryland having studied international business, they floated the idea of a restaurant. “Our parents,” says Hannah, “were horrified and terrified.”
“They were like, ‘Why are you opening a Chinese takeout restaurant? We sent you to college.’ ”
They’ve adapted the fast casual model for their vision, with collaborations such as a truffle foie gras soup dumpling, crafted with Daniel Humm of Eleven Madison Park, and a vegan sweet potato-black bean-quinoa dumpling, with the trendy By Chloe.
Complaints about authenticity plague the sisters. “It’s a running theme in the Yelp reviews,” says Marian. “Organic chicken, or kale or zucchini, you’re not going to find that in Taipei. But it’s authentic to our family.”
Others, sometimes other Chinese or Taiwanese Americans, complain about the price, which can be $12.50 for a bowl of chicken noodle soup. It’s a subject that comes up repeatedly for second-generation restaurateurs.
The criticism is frequently an “Asian-on-Asian hate crime,” Hannah jokes. But in all seriousness, she says, “We have a huge gripe with it. Ultimately, it’s racism.”
“We use the same meat distributors that the best restaurants in the city are using. We use the same vegetable distributors. So why would our meat be cheaper? Because we’re Asian?”
Daniela Soto-Innes moved to Houston from Mexico City at age 12, with the blood of a family of cooks in her veins. A great-grandmother, Luz, had traveled to Paris to train as a cook, and her grandmother managed a bakery, she says, while sipping a fresh cashew-milk cappuccino at Atla, the casual modern Mexican restaurant she helms with Enrique Olivera (of Pujol fame).
It was her mother, a lawyer, who enrolled Soto-Innes, 27, in a culinary training program outside Houston when she was just 13. One day, she recalls, a chef came to a class and told them, “You’re not going to make any money for eight years. If you’re good, maybe five.” Perhaps thinking she ought to start early, Soto-Innes bega n pestering the chef, who worked for a Marriott, for a job. It was two years before the hotel relented.
After a stint at Underbelly in Houston, an apprenticeship at Pujol in Mexico City connected her to Olivera, who eventually tapped Soto-Innes to helm his U.S. spinoffs. She would eventually receive a James Beard rising chef award.
At Atla and Cosme, servers and bartenders must frequently lean in to explain dishes — memela, tlayuda — from Oaxaca and Puebla and Mexico City. She has more she wants to teach, from encouraging kindness in the restaurant industry to educating diners “that Mexican food can be contemporary.” It is already working. One magazine’s recent headline blared that Atla was a “restaurant designed for how New Yorkers eat now.”
As one of three girls in her Ohio household, Preeti Mistry viewed cooking with suspicion. It was “just another household chore I didn’t want any part of,” she recalls. “But I liked to eat. I was always really curious.”
It was only at age 19, when she moved with her now-wife, Ann Nadeau, to San Francisco’s Mission neighborhood, that she began whipping up vegetarian dishes for their friends. At the urging of Ann and her friends, she enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu in London. She landed a job as a chef at Google, then was selected as a contestant on “Top Chef,” where she was booted in the third episode of Season 6, but had made her name known.
Ann nudged her again, this time to follow through on her dream of opening a pop-up, Juhu Beach Club, in a dodgy liquor store near their place in San Francisco, before it moved to Oakland. The menu includes a fiery riff on Cracker Jack, duck salad in a tamarind dressing and pav, roughly described as Indian sliders. At Navi Kitchen, she serves pizza. What of it?
On the walls of Juhu Beach Club, which she will likely close this year, she took pains to hang photos of her family and friends not in exotic settings but as their lives really were, in London, in Trinidad and in the United States.
“I’m not trying to re-create something that exists in India,” she says. “This is about the journey.”
“As long as I could remember, our house was always the house that had people over for dinner,” says Danny Lee. “For my sister and I, some of our best memories are sitting around the kitchen table, just folding dumplings.”
Overseeing them was his mother, Yesoon Lee, who grew up in Seoul. She immigrated to Illinois for graduate school in the early 1970s, before meeting her husband and moving to the Virginia suburbs. There, she became a social butterfly with a reputation as a formidable cook.
When Lee was 15, his father died, and to earn more money, Yesoon bought her way into a deli business, Picca-Deli, in Alexandria, and then a pan-Asian eatery at the airport, hawking sesame beef. “My mom’s generation, no one [in America] knew what Korean food was,” Lee, 36, says. “Her generation, to make money, they couldn’t cook Korean food.”
But Lee was born here. “I can’t speak Korean that well. I’m, like, the whitest Korean person I know,” he jokes. “But I grew up eating Korean food. I was immersed in it.”
In 2006, his family opened Mandu, the Korean word for the dumplings they once all made together as a family. His mom is its chef.
But at ChiKo on Capitol Hill, opened this summer, only the faintest impression of his Korean upbringing is evident. Lee is one of two chefs: The “Ko” in the name represents his Korean heritage, while the “Chi” represents fellow chef Scott Drewno’s Chinese cooking prowess. Stainless steel bowls arrive at tables like a stream of consciousness, filled with charred Brussels sprouts or sweet, vinegary slabs of daikon dyed highlighter-yellow with turmeric. One of the most buzzy dishes is brisket, not exactly a staple of traditional Korean cooking. For Lee, the restaurant is a playground, where he can serve a meat more often layered between two slices of rye bread than over a bowl of rice with furikake butter.
A decade ago, this sort of fare might have been called fusion. But Lee and Drewno shrug at the idea of definitions.
“Cuisines evolve,” says Lee. “People have their idea that bulgogi has to be a certain way and bibimbap has to be a certain way, and anything else is fusion. Or Americanized.”
“We do whatever we want,” adds Drewno. “It’s not really something that keeps us up at night.”
Nakul and Arjun Mahendro, Toronto-born brothers of Indian descent, insist that their family’s Los Angeles restaurant Badmaash is not that kind of Indian restaurant, though it serves samosas and butter chicken.
That kind of restaurant has a terrible rap. “Why has Indian food stayed the same for the past five or six decades?” Nakul says. Because, he says, most of the early immigrants pouring into the United States through the 1980s were skilled professionals who couldn’t always get work in their fields. “They go out and take any job they can,” he says. “A restaurant job. But they haven’t dedicated their life to the craft.”
Pawan Mahendro, their father, was trained in Mumbai in French and Sichuan cooking, before he arrived in Canada in 1982 in search of better prospects. He mopped floors, made salads, cooked Indian food in apartments for parties. “I’ve been to so many jobs, and they say, ‘Let me show you how to use parsley.’” He always humbly took the lesson, no matter how much he already knew.
In Toronto, the whole family worked in restaurants. Nakul was starting out as a busboy, and their mother and Arjun settled in on the business side. Pawan opened an Indian restaurant. Eventually, Nakul says, “I wanted to move to New York and work in some fancy restaurant like Jean Georges.”
Pawan, who’d worked for others for so long, stopped him. Why, he said, would Nakul “help some other guy build his restaurant?”
Together they settled on a move to Los Angeles, where they opened Badmaash with the notion that Indian food has no singular flavor. They serve lamb burgers and chicken tikka poutine (a nod to their Canadian upbringing) in a space decorated with a Warholian mural of Gandhi rocking shades.
“I fought with Yelp to be listed as Indian and also New American,” Nakul says. “New American kept getting taken off. I kept adding it.”
To him, it’s a sign that while some get what Badmaash is trying to do, there’s work that remains. “This is the new America,” he sighs. “It’s the old America as well.”
Ramanathan will moderate a panel about identity and food at 1:30 p.m. Friday as part of Smithsonian Food History Weekend, Oct. 26-28 at the National Museum of American History, offering discussions, cooking demonstrations and evening celebrations. Most events are free. Constitution Avenue NW between 12th and 14th streets. www.americanhistory.si.edu/events/food-history-weekend.
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