(October 29, 2023) From chaat to vada pav and more, Chef Meherwan Irani’s restaurant chain called Chai Pani, is all about celebrating Indian street food with aplomb.
Pani puri, sev puri, dahi puri, vada pav, misal, bhajiyas – sounds like just a streetfood restaurant in India. This menu, however, belongs to Chef Meherwan Irani’s Chai Pani, in America’s Deep South, in Asheville, North Carolina.
In 2022, Meherwan’s flagship restaurant in Asheville, Chai Pani, was named Outstanding Restaurant by the James Beard Foundation, in the ‘Oscars’ of the culinary world. “It was jaw-dropping, honestly,” Chef Meherwan Irani smiles, as he chats with Global Indian. “To win the award for the Outstanding Restaurant, where the word Indian doesn’t even figure, was a shock. It means a lot because I got nominated five times for Best Chef but never got to the finals.” What’s more, Meherwan has just signed a deal for a cookbook with Penguin Random House’s division Tenspeed Press. Tentatively titled The No.1 Greatest Cookbook in the World, we expect it to put Indian street food on the global map, just like Meherwan has done in America.
Born in Ahmednagar, in Maharashtra, Irani went to the US for an MBA, then lived and worked with companies like Lexus and Mercedes Benz in the Bay area for 12 years. A desire to get out of the rat race made him and his American wife Molly relocate to Asheville in North Carolina, with their daughter Aria. This was way back in 2009, and it was a move that would forever change the course of their lives; and go on to significantly impact that of others as well.
The co-founder and CEO of the Chai Pani Group of Restaurants, says, “Life in San Francisco was too busy and too expensive. So we moved to North Carolina and having grown up at the hotel my parents had in Ahmednagar, I was familiar with the hospitality business. I wanted to start a restaurant; I made a list of my favourite street food based on what I had eaten in Mumbai and other cities. Then I created dishes, ran focus groups with white Americans for feedback and over a couple of hours one night, I created the entire menu for Chai Pani.”
Chai Pani Time
Meherwan called the restaurant Chai Pani because the phrase has multiple meanings in Indian culture and many layers, much the way the menu does. It literally means tea and water. While the common association is a small roadside snack with friends, or a small tip to grease the wheels, it mostly signifies hospitality and welcome (offering tea and water to guests in your home)!
Meherwan made frequent trips to India to figure out how the hawkers made bhel puri and other snacks. “There is no culinary school for vada pav, pav bhaji or bhel puri; or chai even. Also, I wanted to create food that was different, but not necessarily an acquired taste. The Indian food at restaurants is often too oily, too spicy and greasy and not how we make it at home. We give it a halka sa touch of spice and tadka and don’t drown it in chilli and ghee. I wanted to create flavour profiles that are universal, combinations that appealed, because with globalised palates, there was less fear of people not wanting to try the unknown.”
Elevating Street Food
Chai Pani essentially serves snacks you could get on the streets of Indian cities and meals you’d be served in someone’s home — what Meherwan felt were the most under-represented Indian foods in Western culture. Diners craved Chai Pani’s stereotype-shattering food, drinks and service, and this first-of-its-kind establishment has been recognised as sparking a revolution in Indian cuisine in America. He also insists that managing people is an art; one that is diligently taught to staff. He avers, “The philosophy at the centre of Chai Pani, which is the purpose of our existence, is that we don’t serve food, but serve people by serving food.”
Word spread and the local, predominantly white populace started frequenting Chai Pani. Now, every Friday through to Sunday, from 5 to 9 in the evenings, they queue up for pani puri and the restaurant averages anything between 3000 to 5000 of them being sold every week! Other popular items are vada pav, sev puri and dahi puri.
Chai Pani and the kebab and rolls restaurant that followed, Botiwalla, have décor inspired by the Irani cafés one sees in Mumbai. Old Hindi film posters on the walls add a dash of Bollywood, as does the music playing in the background. The atmosphere is mela-like, especially during pani puri time!
What makes this restaurant authentic all the way is Meherwan’s integrity and approach to food. He reveals, “We make the sev in-house, we even set the dahi ourselves for the raita and dahi puri; and teach our staff how to do it as well. We buy puris from Atlanta, from an ex-team member who wanted to start his own business.” The puris, he says, resemble “what you get at the Elco Market pani puri stall [a famous street food place in Bandra, Mumbai] and like them, we too serve our pani cold.” The green chutney is Parsi style and the tamarind chutney reminiscent of Mumbai. The vada pav is served with a mix of chutneys and fried green chillies, just like it is sold on the streets of Mumbai.
I love my India
Sticking to his Indian roots, Meherwan also serves Kingfisher and Haywards beer – both Indian brands and Old Monk rum, besides Thums Up. The cocktails here too have Indian flavour profiles, like a gin and cilantro cocktail and the Punjabi Porch Pounder which is gin, sage and Indian spices. The Tamarind Margarita is self-explanatory.
What started as one restaurant in 2009, is today a group of restaurants and includes Botiwalla which serves grilled kebabs, rolls, and more, along with the popular chaat items. Meherwan says, “We didn’t have the budget to expand though Chai Pani was self-funded. Family and friends like family came forward and expressed interest in our expansion plans. If you remember that scene in the movie Kal Ho Na Ho where friends come together to relaunch the Indian restaurant, it was exactly the same with us.”
Spicewalla is their retail brand of freshly crushed spices and blends – over a 100 of them and they include spice blends from across the world. Meherwan leads a growing team across several locations: Chai Pani Asheville, Chai Pani Decatur, Botiwalla Atlanta, Botiwalla Charlotte, and spice brand Spicewalla, which has two outposts in Asheville and Atlanta.
Intriguingly, although Chef Meherwan Irani is half-Parsi, the menus don’t quite include Parsi dishes, nor do eggs dominate the menu, given how much the Parsis love them. An acknowledgement of his Parsi heritage is the raspberry soda [also made in-house] and the Falooda at Chai Pani. He agrees, “Yes, I did think of including Parsi dishes but other than Kheema Pav, others didn’t work out. I do sneak in the Parsi dishes like Egg Bhurji, Akuri, Dhansak and Patra ni Machchi at special events and galas.”
The Gift of Giving
Through Chai Pani University, Meherwan and Molly provide formal training in leadership and management skills coaching to managers and employees who express an interest in future leadership positions. In 2018, the University launched an annual programme to send several of their employees to India for cultural immersion. Meherwan explains, “We pay for everything – and we take anything between eight to 15 employees twice every year. They love the visits, and many of them have come with us several times. Some have even learnt how to speak Hindi.”
As part of their visit, the team also goes to the hotel run by Meherwan’s parents. And they unanimously declare that meeting his parents and getting cooking tips from Meherwan’s Parsi mum is usually the highlight of the trip. “My mother is the heart and soul of why Chai Pani exists. Her cooking philosophy is all about balance – tradition and innovation.”
The co-founder couple are generous bosses in other ways too. He reveals, “We give away a certain percentage of our business to our staff – the managers and other employees, every year. That is so they have a sense of ownership. Our daughter Aria is now studying law, and we hope to bring her into the business someday.”
The Iranis also created Chai Pani Giving, an internal foundation dedicated to giving back and supporting causes related to hunger, poverty and socio-economic inequalities faced by immigrants, especially in the service and hospitality business. He says, “We believe that since our needs are taken care of, we need to do the next best thing and help the community. We conduct food drives at shelters for the homeless, provide support for education.” They have sent over 50 kids to school in the last seven years, and several to college.
Global Melting Pot
Speaking on global trends in Indian food, Chef Meherwan Irani says, “Regionality is gaining prominence. Unlike an all is one approach, the originality of each dish is the standpoint. In Mumbai for instance, there is a cultural coming together that is reflected in food. Take bhel puri – the murmura comes from Andhra, the sev from Gujarat, papdi from the North and chutneys from Maharashtra. But, if you look across cuisines, veganism, conscious eating, giving back to the planet through the way we eat is growing.”
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