"For some people, maybe a six-hour work day is relaxing and a good thing, but I need a sixteen-hour work day on a constant basis. I thought, 'I should do this while it's hot.'"
For someone with his hands in so many projects (restaurants Graffiti and Mehtaphor, appearances on both Iron Chef America and The Next Iron Chef, a book, a catering company, several classes and two young ones at home), Chef Jehangir Mehta is incredibly calm, friendly, and focused. He excitedly talks about his restaurants' "New Years Dining Series," the enthusiasm of his family, and why he composed a raw oyster appetizer with pop rocks and grapefruit granita (he wanted to bring back to mind the excitement of childhood and the thrill of crashing waves).
We chatted with Chef Mehta about his dynamic plates, his Persian-Indian identity, and why he can't settle for a less-than-sixteen-hour day.
When you came to culinary school, what kind of chef did you envision yourself being? I felt having a culinary skill set and then doing pastry on top of it might be a really cool idea. So I started doing a lot of extra pastry classes at school. I only worked for about 7 months in a kitchen when Eric Ripert was consulting at my restaurant and said, "I'm going to open Jean-Georges, do you want to be on my pastry team?" Who would say no? It was a great opportunity and I was fortunate to have it.
At what point did you decide that you wanted to go back to savory? I was at Aix, which was doing well for a while, but then money wasn't really coming, so they really had to streamline the operation. So I was like, "I'm really fine just doing a book right now." But I'm also a person who needs a sixteen-hour day on a constant basis. And by that time I had started doing a lot of different things: an online business, classes for children, and catering. So even without a permanent job I thought, "maybe I should just see where this goes."
Your menus now have sort of an Indian/French base. What excites you about them? Getting just the right balance of ingredients and spices, then incorporating them into food in a way that people might not have thought of. For example, the pizza here is made with puff pastry. Pastry is such a strong part of my background so I thought it would be a good idea. I'm not using a regular sauce, or a typical flatbread, or a mozzarella cheese—and I'm still calling it a pizza. I'm not reinventing the wheel, but I'm thinking of those ways I like to add things to my food.
How has your culture and family background affected you style? Culturally it's in terms of taste. I like tamarind as a flavor, but in India you would never pair it with bacon; that is where I bring in my American side.
Would you specifically consider yourself an Indian chef? No. Jokingly we always say to people, "our food is a white lady wearing an Indian sari." There are accents of India, but the core is very American and French and anything else but Indian, for the simple reason that I have never worked in an Indian kitchen. So I don't think my base is so strong to say that; I don't want to be considered an Indian chef without good reason.
Why do you think there aren't more experimental Indian menus? I would say people do try, but it's a difficult culture to try to expand on. Some misconceptions are that Indian food can't be expensive, or "it's just too spicy," or that everyone in India is vegetarian. So I think to overcome all that and then say, "This is what new-age Indian food tastes like" is very hard.
Where do you see the state of Indian food going? I definitely think that it's going to be more and more visible. It seems every second television show has someone Indian. That exposure can develop a lot.
Were you thinking about that during your time on The Next Iron Chef? I think for that show it was very apparent that they needed someone of color. I don't say that just because I was in the mix—in the end two people were white and two weren't—but from the challenges that were posed to us: there were Mexican, Indian and Japanese challenges. It was definitely not a "white person challenge" overall. Of course if you don't deserve to be there, you won't be there, but they were at least trying to branch out.
You opened Graffiti in 2007 and then Mehtapor in 2010. What did you want to play with from one to the other? I was thinking, "if I had a bigger kitchen at Graffiti, what would I do?" Mehtaphor shows those dishes. At Graffiti there's two induction stoves, two rice cookers, and one oven, that's all. Here we have gas, a grill, and a fryer! It really became like, "wow, look at what we can do!" So it was the appliances that started defining my passion here.
So, what's coming up for you? We definitely are looking outside the city. Internally we are still growing too; we've always had our catering and event planning business, but we've really pushed it to a greater extent. And I like working in schools with children. I like it all.