Certain individuals stand out as true visionaries in the ever-changing world of cuisine, transforming the culinary landscape with their unique thoughts and perfect execution. Among them are Chintan Pandya and Roni Mazumdar, two energetic individuals who have made important contributions to the food business. Chintan and Roni have effectively developed dining experiences that transcend boundaries and attract food fans worldwide with their distinct approaches, cultural influences, and devotion to perfection. Let us delve into the lives of these culinary geniuses and the legacy they have created. During a conversation with TINDS, the maestros share their story of coming this far and making a name for themselves miles away from home.
TINDS: Tell us a little about your childhood. Where were you born and where’d you grow up?
Roni: I was born in Calcutta and moved to the United States when I was around 12 years of age. Because I left India at a very early age, my childhood was mostly around the local community here in the States. Food was a form of entertainment. It was pretty much of a very simple middle class childhood. I grew up in a joint family back when I was in India, I had the opportunity to grow up in a house where everyone would always be up to doing or making something, which was interesting and created a really fun environment for me to grow up in.
Chintan: I was born in Ahmedabad, a city in the state of Gujarat. I grew up in Mumbai and spent 29 years of my life there. Most of my childhood was spent in school, eating outside and playing cricket. I moved to the States in 2013.
TINDS: Tell us a little about both of your backgrounds.
Chintan: I did my diploma in hotel management and catering technology. I chose to be a chef so that’s what I studied for and that’s how I pursued my professional career.
Roni: I studied engineering after I moved to this country and it was during a little later stage, around late 20’s is when I got interested in restaurants and started that.
TINDS: Describe each other in three words.
Chintan: Charismatic, Dynamic & Risk-taker.
Roni: Punctual, Eccentric & Impulsive.
TINDS: How did each of you get involved in the restaurant business?
Chintan: I started my career working in hotels first. It was around 2009 when I started my own independent restaurant. Later in 2017, I and Roni met and started our journey together.
Roni: I started a restaurant with my father in 2011. It was around 2017, when I met Chintan through a mutual friend and by that time he was perhaps already cooking for 15+ years. It’s tough to define the journey we started as a restaurant instead, more of a philosophy involving what we wanted to explore together, which took the form of more than a few restaurants as you can notice now. It was always the idea that we were fighting for.
TINDS: Tell us a little about the customers you serve at your restaurants. Is it mostly just Indian people?
Chintan: A lot of customers that we come across are not only from India, instead they are from the sub-continent. We have customers from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka etc. who basically share the similar preferred taste. Apart from this, we have innumerous people from different backgrounds who come in willing to explore the cuisine, to understand the flavors of our region. Something that we firmly believe in is providing the original and authentic flavor which helps us connect with the majority of our customers.
TINDS: What is the story behind the hashtag #unapologeticindian ?
Roni: I think we have been apologizing to the rest of the world for too long about our food. Growing up, we were all eating food that was available around in our homes and our streets, what we consider our real food to be. Somewhere along the way, I think we realized that in order to present it to the world we needed to apologize, saying sorry that our food is a little spicier or a little oilier. Every alteration that we make is a form of apology to the rest of the world. The philosophy behind the hashtag is to be who we really are, stand up for what we believe in. This has been like a form of revolution in NY City.
TINDS: Tell us a little about the restaurants that you own and what they represent.
Roni: I don’t think the story of India can be told in one restaurant. We’re out to tell the story of India and in order to do that each of our restaurants focuses on a different perspective. “DHAMAKA” focuses on the forgotten side of India, cuisines that are not generally on the menu of an Indian restaurant probably because they are not thought of belonging to a certain status. What we have done as restaurateurs in NY is broken through the barrier of believing that the only version of Indian food that can exist is what restaurants have to offer. “SEMMA” talks of South India but from the perspective of a farmer’s family, not just South Indian food, because you can find a dosa to have almost anywhere. The restaurant won a Michelin star becoming the only Indian restaurant in the country with the honor. “MASALAWALA” is about food from the Bengal region. “ROWDY ROOSTER” is about the pakoda style chicken with spices that we are used to as Indians. “ADDA INDIAN CANTEEN” serves canteen style food that we can relate to going back to our college days. We celebrate what is real India to us.
TINDS: I’ve read that people need to book a table for a meal at least a month in advance which is outstanding for a restaurant. What do you have to say about the overwhelming response?
Chintan: We believe our job is to deliver our absolute 100%. We have decided on a certain number of people that we can serve every night giving our absolute best. All our ingredients are sourced in a very specific way because at the end of the day the food is only as good as the ingredients we use. Unfortunately we have a very limited pool to source our ingredients, and they are individually hand picked which led us to decide on a number of people to serve every night. Our customers understand what we strive for and they have been extremely kind to us and accepted us with open arms. It is humbling and it’s not a moment but a movement.
TINDS: Doing so much how do you manage to balance your professional & personal life?
Roni: I don’t think we have much of a personal life, we are professionals even around our families. I believe we haven’t done anything that is significant enough because companies like Amazon or Starbucks are doing so much more which is definitely harder than running six restaurants in a city. It is the lens that you’re looking at everything through. Everything is possible when you put in the right people in the right places.
TINDS: How often do you visit India to be able to represent the culture the right way so far away from home?
Chintan: During the formative years of my career I was based out of India and I traveled a lot. Being in any profession or field, there are things that people learn along the way which they instantly may not know to put in use right away. There were several learning experiences that I picked up during traveling and I never knew where I would put them to use. I got clarity about what needed to be done. Something that worked in our favor is that the entire cuisine of 1.4 Billion people was defined in 9 to10 dishes, which was a very commercialized version of Indian food. We basically got a blank canvas and chose to paint it our own way.
TINDS: Coming this far, what have you had to struggle with?
Roni: The real struggle was getting ourselves to believe what’s possible, the biggest barrier that anybody faces is not the world but ourselves. Working as a team we make each other believe in things and support each other. Growing up we see the world in a certain way and it’s about working with your own mind to believe what’s possible or how far you can push. It is a matter of perspectives.
TINDS: What would your advice be to younger chefs out there?
Chintan: My advice would be to keep failing. The more you fail, the more you learn. One has to always keep on trying but the day somebody moves out of their fear of failure, that’s the day they start growing and progress faster.
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