Recipe courtesy of Best Chef Meherwan Irani and Chai Pani of Asheville, NC and Decatur, GA
Prep Time: 15 Minutes
Cook Time: 1 Hour
2 lbs. chicken breast, cut into bite-size pieces
1/2 cup vegetable oil plus 1 additional Tbl.
1-1/2 tsp. mustard seed
1/2 tsp. fenugreek seeds
12-15 curry leaves, finely chopped
2-3 small dried red chiles
4 cups chopped red onion
2-1/2 Tbl. grated ginger
1 tsp. chili powder
1-1/2 Tbl. ground coriander
1 tsp. turmeric
1/2 cup chopped cilantro (leaves and/or stems)
3 cups chopped tomatoes
2 Tbl. fresh lime juice
1 tsp. salt
1 cup unsweetened coconut milk
1. Pour 1/2 cup oil in a large sauce pot over medium heat. When the oil is hot, add the mustard seed, fenugreek seed, curry leaves and red chiles.
2. Saute for 1 to 2 minutes, and then add the ginger and onions. Reduce the heat to medium-low and allow the onions to brown until they are dark and soft enough to smash with a spatula, about 25 to 30 minutes.
3. Add the chili powder, coriander, turmeric and cilantro. Mix together.
4. Increase the heat to medium and add the tomatoes, salt and lime juice. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes have disintegrated and the oil separates out, about 15 to 20 minutes.
5. Add 1/2 cup water and 1 cup coconut milk. Bring to a boil, reduce heat.
6. In a separate skillet, heat the remaining oil over high heat. Add the chicken to the skillet and brown on all sides, leaving the centers pink, about 2 to 4 minutes.
7. Add the chicken to the curry and simmer 5 to 7 minutes until the chicken has cooked through. Serve over basmati rice.
Meherwan Irani is the owner and executive chef of Chai Pani in Asheville, NC and Decatur, GA. Click here to read his exclusive interview with Best Chefs America.
Frustrated with the way Indian food was being represented in the US – “such a narrow, Anglicized version of a very regional cuisine” – Best Chef Meherwan Irani decided to bring the “vibrancy, color, energy and excitement of the street food scene in India” and share how he really ate at home: “simple, light, fresh, fragrant and comforting.” Meherwan and his wife Molly chose Asheville as their home after being “blown away by the art, culture and food scene” and opened Chai Pani.
What was your first idea for a menu item?
The first menu item was one of the most iconic street snacks in India: Bhel Puri. It’s hard to describe – puffed rice (murmura), crispy fried lentils (channa daal), fine crunchy chickpea noodles (sev), fried wheat crisps (puris), onions, cilantro, tamarind & date chutney, green chilly and cilantro chutney. It encapsulates every hallmark of Indian street food – sweet, tangy, spicy, funky, contrasting textures and temperatures. It is literally an explosion of flavor and texture.
You put your mother Armit’s heart and soul into Chai Pani, but who or what else influences you when it comes to cooking?
I asked my mom to come and teach at Chai Pani because I wanted to remind myself, and teach all my cooks, how an Indian housewife thinks and acts when she’s cooking. Women are the unsung heroes of Indian cuisine. The culinary backbone of a billion people. Their dedication to the art & craft of cooking puts me and many of my peers to shame—especially when you remember it’s not a career, there are no adoring legions of fans, no recognition in magazines. Yet, they do it for the sheer joy of cooking and for pride in doing their best. I see it over and over again in every household I’m in. That’s why putting the heart and soul of my mom into our food was so important to Chai Pani.
I’m most influenced by classic technique and the French & American masters of that technique. I see in them the same dedication to the confluence of art, craft and science that excites me about food and cooking. Maybe because I never went to culinary school, I find myself drawn to the old school fundamentals.
Can you tell us anything about Buxton Hall? Any stories worth sharing?
I was drawn to Elliott Moss’s vision for Buxton Hall because of the parallels between his journey and mine and between his vision and mine. Elliott, too, is a self-taught cook. And like me with Indian food, he wanted to return to the roots of whole-hog barbecue. We’re planning a road trip in an RV with a cast of characters (chefs, writer, foodies, etc.) before Buxton to explore BBQ in the south and trace the cultural pathways and stories of BBQ in the south.
Who do you trust most in your restaurants? Why?
Everyone. We don’t have a hierarchy of authority; we have a hierarchy of responsibility that allows for shifting roles and dynamics. Needless to say, it’s critical to hire intelligent, articulate, skilled people with empathy. And then it’s equally critical to trust them. Will they make mistakes? Of course. But what we gain in trusting people to figure out how to correct mistakes and move forward is worth far more than whatever the mistake cost us.
If you could choose someone to cook for you, your family and friends who would it be?
My mom would be at the top of the list. She’s still a bad ass cook and I only see her once a year since she lives in India, but if I had to pick one today – I’d pick Charles Phan, Slanted Door, San Francisco, CA.
My favorite ingredient right now is Kodumpuli, also known as smoked black tamarind. It’s not really tamarind, but has a similar tartness. But what makes it an incredible ingredient is the tannic smokiness from the extract—hints of tobacco and cedar. It’s a staple in Malabar and Kerala cuisine and adds incredible complexity to any south Indian curry.
What makes the chef community interesting to non-culinary professionals?
Like an artist or a craftsman, when we cook we’re driven to create something that brings meaning, happiness, excitement, wonder, emotion, joy and nourishment to people. We obsess over it, refine it, push the boundaries and bring every ounce of effort, talent and integrity to create something different, new, exciting, approachable and life changing. We can often see ourselves in every chef and every cook. And that’s what attracts us to the culinary world.
Do you see yourself cooking another style in the future?
It’s really important to understand and articulate the story of what we choose to cook, so for now I’ll keep telling the story of India.
What would you say is the most incorrect assumption about Indian cuisine? What do you want people to know about Indian cuisine?
One assumption of Indian food that drives me crazy is that “all Indian food is spicy.” That’s as frustrating to me as saying that all Italian food is garlicky. The chilly pepper isn’t even native to India. It was brought to India in the 15th century by the Spanish & the Portuguese so for thousands of years prior to that Indian food was not “spicy.” Although India embraced the chilly pepper like a long lost child, much of our cuisine is not meant to be spicy. It all depends on the region, the dish, the ingredients and sometimes even the family.
Meherwan Irani is the owner and executive chef of Chai Pani in Asheville, NC and Decatur, GA. Click here to see his recipe for Malabar Chicken Curry.
Being a chef was not Trent Pierce’s first career path and as a competitive runner at the University of Oregon, an athletic future was in sight. But an injury stopped those dreams and his path quickly changed to becoming a third generation restaurateur.
The rigor of Pierce’s competitive running days sound similar to those as a chef, “The discipline of being an athlete, waking up for practice at 7 AM… Working a 14 hour day,” and the challenges do not sound quite different either. He found dealing with the multiple failures was the biggest challenge in getting to where he is now professionally. Despite those failures, 2014 has been a good year for Pierce. He was nominated for James Beard Award: Best Chef Northwest, and his restaurant Roe in Portland, Oregon was ranked #3 Best New Restaurants in America in GQ.
Pierce’s grandfather owned and operated the River Queen Restaurant in Portland. Pierce created a rendition of River Queen Restaurant’s Fish and Chips at his other restaurant Block + Tackle, a casual snacks oyster bar. Roe sits behind Block + Tackle and is more upscale, offering an experience with high-end ingredients. When it comes to ingredients, Pierce does not have favorites. He likes to work with fish and seasonal offerings, “tomatoes and corn in the summer, mushrooms in the fall and truffles in the winter.”
At Roe, you will find Pierce and his sous chef Patrick behind the counter preparing the dishes themselves, “I trust him with any of my dishes and he sees the things I do not see. Patrick is from the Dublin Bay Area and has been with me from the start of Roe.” Roe is one of Portland’s first high-end restaurants. The introduction of Roe’s caviar service last fall is what really made the restaurant stand out, “If Roe ever moves to a different location, I hope to have a caviar & oyster bar.”
I suggested to Pierce that personality is just as important as food, if not more, when it comes to a chef’s profile. Pierce explained, “I think chefs have become glorified in an interesting way, there are chefs you can follow like sports, and customers do that. Customers will sometimes ask me if I heard about a recent opening or closing and I am usually unaware. In the 1990s no one went into cooking with the public figure mindset.”
Pierce sees the Portland culinary scene evolving quickly, “as people are more willing to spend I think more high-end restaurants will start popping up in Portland. I would like to see more low-end restaurants with a focus in ethnic food.” I asked Pierce if he could see himself cooking another style in the future, “I hope to cook Japanese again in the future. It is easy to combine styles and cuisine flavors once you learn the techniques of cooking. Say a dumpling, there are hundreds of dumplings.”
Kyma, part of the Buckhead Life Restaurant Group owned by my father I. Pano Karatassos, is a dining experience that cannot be matched anywhere else in Atlanta. It is unique in that it’s the only upscale Greek restaurant in the city, as well as the only restaurant to offer a white tablecloth vegan and vegetarian menu. My roots lie in Greece and I have grown up on Mediterranean fare. I began cooking at my father’s various restaurants when I was 16 years old and went on to train under some of the most famous chefs in the country after graduating from the Culinary Institute of America. My entire life has been based in the culinary arts so I have a sincere appreciation of upscale dining. Kyma has given me the opportunity to blend my heritage with the fine dining standard that my father founded in Atlanta with Buckhead Life many years ago.
At Kyma, we value a variety of tastes and lifestyles. We not only offer traditional Greek vegetarian cuisine, like Spanakopita and Dolmades, but we also serve more contemporary dishes that incorporate Mediterranean flair, such as our Watermelon Feta Salad and Quinoa Salad. The modern dishes have proved to be just as popular as the traditional ones, helping us to keep the menu balanced and colorful.
We also pride ourselves in providing the freshest and healthiest produce, much of which we grow ourselves in the garden at Kyma. Guests can expect that many of the vegetables and herbs that make up their favorite entrees and meze (small plates), came right out of Kyma’s backyard.
Vegetarian dining is valuable to Kyma: the lifestyle has gained great popularity in recent years and origins of vegetarianism can be traced back to the 6th century B.C. in Greece. It’s natural that we would blend the two.
We also offer seafood options and other meat dishes like chicken and lamb. One of our most popular Mediterranean seafood entrees is the Wood Grilled Octopus. We were the first restaurant in Atlanta to serve this dish and we are often told no one can match it. Just like our produce, Kyma also provides the freshest seafood in the city. Through Buckhead Life’s own boutique seafood company, we source directly from the fishermen and guarantee an 18- to 48-hour timeline of sea-to-table.
Next time you are in Atlanta, we hope you will consider Kyma. You won’t regret it.
Best Chef Chad Clevenger is a very versatile chef. He has cooked all types of cuisines, been a personal chef for celebrities in France, a chef and owner of a fine dining restaurant, a chef and owner of a food cart and a consultant. He also cooks a cuisine that is not looked at as high end but has created a new way of thinking about Mexican cuisine.
Where and how did you develop your love of Mexican and Latin cuisine?
I attended culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu in Texas. There is a lot of Tex-Mex in Austin and many southwestern restaurants. The food at one restaurant, Z’Tejas—something grabbed me—I liked all the flavor combinations. Out of culinary school, I went to Coyote Café in Santa Fe. I was hired as a sous chef and cooked southwestern food. I worked my way up over a few years time and became the executive chef at the age of 26. I started to love the cuisine and the culture. Ever since, I have been cooking Mexican full time or as a hobby at home.
What did you enjoy the most about staging in the Michelin-starred restaurants Saint Paul at Hotel le Saint Paul and Jacques Maximin?
At 26 years old, I was offered a position to be private chef in France for 6 months. I lived with Leslie Bricusse, a famous lyricist and composer. While Leslie would travel, I would stage at Michelin-starred restaurants. I enjoyed seeing some of the different techniques that the chefs are using, whether it was haute food or pastries. In France they have quite a few ingredients that we can’t always get here in the States. They are just more readily available to them: little courgette squashes, different types of whole fish and local ingredients.
What did you enjoy the most about working as a private chef?
I went to three different villages for shopping: Cagnes-sur-Mer, Vence, Nice. I got up and cooked whatever I felt like cooking and every single meal I cooked something different. I chose whatever looked good at the market. I would go to these little towns and visit a cheese monger, who has been doing it his whole life. I would go to the butcher and have them break down the meat, truss it for you… pretty neat experience.
You’ve worked in European kitchens as well as kitchens in the United States. What are the biggest differences between the two?
French kitchens are a touch more organized—cooks are in the mode, heads-down, working. In American kitchens, cooks talk and cut-up while they’re working and sometimes play music. French kitchens are more strict… more serious in their approach.
Tell me a little about your food cart in Denver.
I opened a food cart named “The Porker” and it was anything and everything pork. “Street Food at its Swinest” was my motto and it was named “Best Street Food in Denver.” I was nominated for Street Food Chef of the Year in Denver and a couple of the dishes won awards.
You cook contemporary Mexican cuisine at Alma Cocina (July ’11-Present) in Atlanta. Define what contemporary Mexican cuisine is.
Technique and ingredients; elevating the dish with either the technique that is involved, or using local, authentic and made-in-house ingredients. I’ll take something that’s very traditional in Mexico and put a spin on it just by using a nicer cut of meat or a modern technique. For example, sous-viding a piece of octopus, charring it on the grill and having Octopus Al Pastor.
What cuisines and who in your life have influenced and inspired your cooking style and menu?
My menu and cooking style have a French influence and technique from studying at Le Cordon Bleu and also growing up in the south and now being back in the south. Influences such as, “collard greens stewed with white Peruvian beans.” I owe a lot to the women in my life: my mother, grandmothers, sister-in-law and especially Mama Jewel for showing me how to cook and enjoy good southern food. The restaurant in Texas that kind of made me want to pursue Southwestern/Mexican was Jack Gilmore’s Z ‘Tejas. Jack’s son is now a great chef himself, Best Chef Bryce Gilmore.
What would you say is the most incorrect assumption about Mexican cuisine? What do you want people to know about Mexican cuisine?
Think about Mexican food as you would your favorite French and Italian; they’re allowed to do new things.
Who are other chefs cooking authentic Mexican cuisine that you admire and respect?
Rene Ortiz, Rick Bayless, Alex Stupak, Mark Miller, Hugo Ortega, Brad Borchardt (my consulting chef now).
BCA award: what does it mean to you?
It means a lot to me to have my peers think of me and nominate me for such an award. I feel special knowing I’m one of the Best Chefs in America. I worked hard for it as well as all of the other chefs featured. It’s truly an honor.