I didn’t become interested in food the way most chefs do. In my family, no one was a great cook. I grew up in Mumbai. We had servants. It wasn’t like cooking was a big deal or making recipes was a big idea.
The main thing about food in my world, in our household (mainly from my grandfather), was how food was good for you in terms of well-being. For example, if you fell down, right away turmeric was given to you because turmeric is a healer. If you got a sore throat, it was always honey with brandy. It didn’t matter if you were six years old, you still got the brandy.
Mangoes are our national fruit, and it’s very healthy for your body. So it was compulsory to break open the mango and eat the pit inside the stone. It was dry and not very pleasant, but you had to do it because mango is a healing fruit, and it is very cooling for your body. My grandfather insisted that we had to have that. It was compulsory. There was always that sort of implementation on a day-to-day basis growing up—and it just became a part of my life. And it really sparked my interest in the properties of ingredients. That curiosity, combined with always wanting to have a business where I did something creative and could work with my hands, added up. Food became that business for me. Even though I got a sociology degree in India, I came to the U.S. to go to the C.I.A. (Culinary Institute of America) in Hyde Park, New York.
If people ask me, “How Indian is your food?” I say I take Indian spices and mix them with what I feel is right. We like to describe ourselves as “a white woman wearing an Indian sari.” That’s the way our food is. The first base is always American French. It could be a pastry. It could be anything. One of the main reasons we call my restaurant Graffiti is because graffiti is an expressive form. It’s someone’s handwriting. In general, you don’t copy someone’s handwriting. It is just something that a person has and it is that person, personally. My food can be described as graffiti.
My moving from pastry to savory happened in an unusual way. It started when I began teaching cooking classes for children. I figured to just do pastry for kids would be too much, so I started including little savory items. The parents started asking me to do adult classes, too, so, I began teaching an adult class. Then before I knew it, I was asked to cater a wedding for a woman who used to work at Food Network. From there it escalated. It just grew little by little in different spheres.
I’m not a typical restaurateur, either. Maybe if I had had an investor, things would be easier. But being my own person allows me freedom. If I want to close the restaurant for three days—I close. If I want to open up for lunch one day, I will open for lunch. I don’t have to consult anyone. Maybe taking the conventional road could have been a better idea in some ways, but not so much as an artist’s way. I feel the same way in terms of the menu. I don’t have to have a big meeting over a dish. If I like it and my chef likes it, we are putting it on the menu.