(June 16, 2022) “Restaurants are so much greater than the sum of what’s inside the four walls. A restaurant has the power to transform the people that work there, the people that come in, transform the communities we are in, transform society,” said Chef Meherwan Irani, as his restaurant, Chai Pani, was named the US’ most Outstanding Restaurant at the James Beard Foundation Awards in Chicago. Born in London, chef Irani returned to India when he was a child and grew up in Maharashtra. An MBA program brought him to San Francisco and he has remained in the United States since, spending over a decade in car sales before giving it up to follow his dream.
Founded in 2009 in Asheville by Chef Meherwan Irani and his wife, Molly Irani, the Chai Pani Restaurant Group quickly garnered quite the reputation with its desi street food favourites, like aloo tikki chaat, vada pav, pav bhaji and chicken tikka rolls. Customers looking for a traditional meal won’t go home disappointed, there are several thalis on offer, including a Chettinad Thali from Tamil Nadu. Those with a more fusion palette can try the sweet potato chaat and the kale pakoras. “From Bombay to Buncombe and Asheville to Atlanta,” reads the ‘about’ page of the Chai Pani website. Today, the team is over 300 strong and Chef Irani is a prominent voice in the conversation around cultural exchange through food. In 2018, the Indian-origin chef was named as one of the ’31 People Who Are Changing The South’ by Time Magazine. Much of the inspiration came from Irani’s own longing for home-cooked food – he would wander through Indian stores in South Carolina, picking up all the spices he could find and trying, unsuccessfully to create a blend that compared somewhat with what he remembered from back home. When Chai Pani began, Irani’s mother arrived in the US to train the staff for two months, teaching them the complex, exacting art of working with Indian spices.
In 2012, the group opened the MG Road Bar & Lounge which has received media attention from around the world. Chai Pani Decatur came in 2013 in Decatur, Georgia. Known for its Pani Puri nights, it has been a staple on the ‘Best Restaurants in Atlanta’ list ever since it opened up. At Botiwalla, in Ponce City Market and Charlotte, Chef Irani returns to the kabab houses from his own childhood, as well as the many grills and rotisseries that pop up in Indian cities after sundown, where spicy stir fries and rolls see brisk business.
Chef Irani also branched out into Spicewalla, to supply fresh Indian spices across North Carolina, paying homage to his own childhood. At his grandmother’s house in Mumbai, the family would sit together in winter to make their own dhansak masala. “Whole spices were brought to our home, often in jute sacks from the spice merchants,” he says. “For days, the air would be heady with the scent of roasting coriander, mace, cumin and cinnamon. After the spices were roasted and cooled, we would blend and grind them in our old, large hand grinder using recipes written on scraps of paper that my grandmother would keep in a box in her dresser.” In 2019, Oprah Winfrey added Spicewalla to her list of favourite things. “That was full circle,” Irani said in an interview.
Chef Irani’s earliest lessons in the kitchen came from his mother. Growing up, he was exposed to a versatile mix of cuisines, from pastas and casseroles to chicken cutlets served with tomato ketchup – all homemade. “We never knew what would be on the table for lunch and dinner each day. She could make potatoes taste like masala, with mustard seeds and fresh limes, or roast them with rosemary and olive oil… She applied Indian spices to dishes without changing the DNA of it,” he told bon appetit.
After graduating with an MBA from the University of South Carolina, Chef Irani moved to San Francisco. There, he began working at Lexus dealership, spending over a decade selling cars. In 2009, Irani quit his sales job to open his first restaurant – Chai Pani, in downtown Asheville where he lived with his wife. Today, he has five James Beard nominations for Best Chef in the Southeast under his belt and his restaurants have been featured in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, GQ, Men’s Health, USA Today and Bon Appetite.
By Chef Irani’s side from the very start is his wife, Molly, who, unlike Irani, grew up in the restaurant business. Her parents owned a restaurant in the south-east (America) and Molly is no stranger to kitchens, chefs and restaurants. Having travelled to India for many years, she has brought rich and diverse experiences to the table at the Chai Pani Restaurant Group, where she is Hospitality Director & co-founder. Incidentally, Molly’s family restaurant is where the two first crossed paths. Chef Irani said in a 2020 interview with Garden & Gun that his first job was “waiting tables in Myrtle Beach at a French patisserie. I married the owner’s daughter, Molly.”
As is evident by now, Chef Irani’s food comes wrapped in stories, which are consumed with equal gusto. Through these stories, Chef Irani finds his own connection between Southern India, from where he hails, and the American deep South, where he now lives. Despite the fact that his restaurants have expanded to other states, Asheville is his home: “What if we did what we really wanted to do,” he once asked his wife, before the Chai Pani Restaurant Group began. “I honestly believe because we were in Asheville, we were able to answer that question, and Chai Pani was born.”