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May 17, 2018

How Chef Preeti Mistry Is Redefining Indian Flavours Under American Influence

Text by Sholeen Damarwala

She was one of the first early innovators of the movement that is now popularly known as Indian fusion

In a quiet corner of Oakland, California, filmmaker-turned-chef Preeti Mistry has been serving up a unique fusion of Indian American flavours for the past eight years. Despite a James Beard Award nomination and a vote of confidence from Anthony Bourdain (he devoted an entire segment to her restaurant in Parts Unknown), she’s not very well known outside the United States. But while you’re stuffing down those masala flavoured French fries paired with a “concept” take on bhel, you might want to spare a nod for the chef who was one of the first early innovators of the movement that is now popularly known as Indian fusion. First generation Indian American, openly gay and a woman chef – Mistry’s career is best understood in the context of breaking glass ceilings, constantly. “You can’t separate being brown, gay or a woman from each other,” she says, “but I take it as a blessing. Because that means no one expects me to succeed and hence, I don’t have anyone’s expectations to live up to but my own.”

After graduating from Le Cordon Bleu Culinary School in London, Mistry took on several gigs until she found a job as the head chef of the lauded cafeteria at Googleplex. In 2009, she was approached by Top Chef to compete on an international televised platform. What was supposed to be a moment of glory quickly turned “humiliating” and Mistry was booted out by episode three. Despite the emotional blow, Mistry chose resilience and a comeback, that has eventually set the tone for the rest of her career. “I could have stayed quiet and licked my wounds or I could use my 15 seconds of fame and do something,” she says. And so she did. In early 2012, Mistry launched an Indian food pop-up in the corner of a café in San Francisco. She started out serving three types of sandwiches, samosas and a lassi, soon adding a larger menu and eventually trading her tiny corner for her first brick and mortar restaurant. “Juhu Beach Club was my way of introducing Americans to a fresh experience and a different kind of Indian flavour,” she says. Inspired by a childhood summer spent soaking in the smells and sounds of Juhu Beach, Mistry’s restaurant took popular Indian snacks and translated them into culinary delights punctuated with a distinctly American sensibility. For instance, her famous “doswaffles” made from traditional dosa batter poured into a waffle iron and served with green chilli-infused fried chicken and spicy maple syrup was one such innovation that stood out in a market otherwise dominated with restaurants serving up naan and chicken curry. “I was never trying to do something that wasn’t me,” she says. Born in London and raised in a predominantly white neighbourhood in Ohio by traditional Gujarati parents, Mistry was merely translating her life experiences onto a plate.

After eight years of its buzzy existence, Mistry recently pulled down the shutters on Juhu Beach Club earlier this year. “When I started out I felt very inspired by the stories of first and second generation Asian American chefs like David Chang of Momofuku and Danny Bowien of Mission Chinese who were breaking barriers for Asian cuisine,” she says, “and I felt I wanted to do that for Indian food.” But with zero investors on board, Mistry ended up running the business on her own. “I was the plumber, waiter, dishwasher, HR person, everyone’s therapist, and still cooking seasonal, organic, interesting, creatively consistent, quality food every single night. It was exhausting,” she says, “that’s not how you build empires.”

Since closing her very first restaurant, Mistry has been busy promoting her first cookbook dedicated to the story of Juhu Beach Club, while simultaneously working towards establishing a larger management structure that would allow her the opportunity to just be a chef. She’s also busy running the very popular Navi Kitchen, “a tiny modern Indian pizzeria” where pesto is made from two kinds of fenugreek sourced from local farmers, pao bhaji is deconstructed as a topping, bacon is spiced with chai and pizzas are brushed off with traditional ghee. Interestingly enough, the café’s best-selling pizza is the Gujju Grateful that pays homage to her Gujarati roots. “Growing up I just wanted to be like everyone else and go home to meatloaf or tuna noodle casserole rather than dal bhaat rotli shaak. My Indian-ness made me stand out in a way that I was frustrated by it,” she says. The irony of building a career devoted to Indian flavours isn’t lost on Mistry. “When it came down to it, I realised I love Indian food and I’m very proud of my culture and heritage and I just want to showcase that in as many forms as possible.”

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