Chef Profile: Chintan Pandya
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2022 print issue of Quench Magazine.
Since this article was originally published, Chef Pandya won the 2022 Best Chef award for New York State at the James Beard Foundation Awards.
Dubbed as one of New York City’s most exciting new restaurants, Dhamaka is changing all the rules.
Chef Chintan Pandya of New York’s buzziest new restaurant, Dhamaka, is the first to admit that Indian cuisine in North America is, well, shit.
“I was stunned when I moved here [in 2013] to see how bad the Indian food was,” he tells me over Zoom. “It was so shitty I was actually under a certain amount of depression [figuring out] why Indian food [was] so bad over here.” Travelling across the USA with business partner Roni Mazumdar—of Unapologetic Foods—Pandya experienced better quality ingredients. Stumped, the Indian-born chef pondered, “What is stopping us?”
An established chef, Pandya honed his skills at India’s super-luxe Oberoi Hotels, followed by a short stint at the one Michelin-starred Junoon before settling into New York City. For Pandya, the lack of formal training is partly to blame for the misrepresentation of Indian cuisine across the Atlantic. “There are chefs of Indian ethnicity and the chefs trained in Indian food—they are two different things,” he explains. “That’s why the food is lagging.” He later shares, “I think with ethnic foods, everybody’s so suppressed, they’re scared to cook it in the right way.”
Now, Dhamaka—a Hindi slang term meaning blast or explosion—is entering the mainstream with regional, home cooking in mind. “The entire concept of the restaurant is to have a blast of flavours when you enjoy the food. It’s all about being unpretentious, [and] being true-to-our-roots with what we eat and [how] our food is cooked.”
Ending 2021 with best new restaurant nods from New York Times, Esquire and Eater, you can safely say Dhamaka—located in Essex Market on the Lower East Side—is doing just that.
“We, [as Indians] try to do things that will impress others. I have seen a lot of talented Indian chefs use a burrata in their cooking—and they feel very proud about it.” While some may see this as innovation, Pandya disagrees. “Give me one Italian chef [using] paneer, and the answer is [none]. So, we [ask], how can we create the best paneer possible at Dhamaka?”
“Our philosophy is backwards,” he says, “we are trying to simplify Indian food as much as possible.” While Dhamaka’s executive chef aims to “simplify,” their off-the-beaten-path menu items are, in fact, thoughtfully complex.
Every ingredient—and item—on Dhamaka’s menu tells a story. The fragrant pilau (rice) pressure-cooked to order in 12 to 15 minutes; the paneer made daily using high-fat milk (which is pound for pound more expensive than goat); the baby shark Machar Jhol reminiscent of coastal Bengal; and the Champaran mutton—sourced from Arizona—cooked inside a sealed handi (earthenware pot) after 4 months of R&D for the clay pot alone. Most sought-after—and nearly impossible to order—is the Rajasthani Khar-gosh (or Junglee Maas): the hunter-inspired rabbit takes 48-hours to prepare, with just one serving up for grabs each night. Dhama-ka’s brilliance stems from its back-to-basics approach to focus on not only the ingredients’ quality—but their availability—to craft that now-famous explosion of flavour.
Uncompromising in its approach, the restaurant is rewriting the rules. Removing the build-your-own nonsense commonly found in Indian eateries west of India, Dhamaka has a strictly dine-in, no substitution, no modification—including spicing—policy. “We have been so insecure and apologetic about everything. [If] a customer complains [about spicing], what is the first thing you do? ‘I’m extremely sorry, sir. Let me change it for you—I’ll make it mild.’” For Pandya, “What we cook and what we serve is our belief. I don’t need to be apologetic about [it]—that’s my culture. It’s all about the representation of our culture, our philosophies and what we have grown up with.”
It’s a path paved by Indian-born American chefs, including Junoon’s Vikas Khanna, and the late Floyd Cardoz (formerly The Bombay Bread Bar and Top Chef Masters), but Pandya acknowledges the need for more. “For a cuisine to move forward or [for it] to become popular, one person or group won’t be able to impact it so much. We need 10 to 20 more groups [to] take the cuisine forward and push it as much as possible. Otherwise, it’s not going to move forward,” he says. “What I always [ask is] how can we make sure everybody takes a step forward?”
Perhaps then, Indian culture—including its under-appreciated cuisine—will receive its well-deserved North American spotlight. Until then? Well, this first-generation Indian will proudly—and rather excitedly—wait.
WHERE DO YOU LIVE:
I live in Jersey, in a small town called Sayreville, USA.
WHERE DID YOU GROW UP:
I grew up in Mumbai, India
FAVOURITE COMFORT FOOD:
My favourite comfort food is khichdi.
FAVOURITE INGREDIENT TO COOK WITH:
I love spinach. Actually, spinach [and] methi [fenugreek]—those are the things I love cooking. I just love eating greens.
BEST CHILDHOOD FOOD MEMORY:
I’m Gujarati. My grandmother or mother would make daal dohkli on Sundays. Daal is lentils, and dhokli is like a dough that is [cooked] inside the daal. I never liked the dhokli, so my grandma would make something like an Indian version of ravioli with jaggery [a type of cane sugar] stuffed inside it. Those were only for me, so separately cooked by my grandma.
YOUR GO-TO RESTAURANT THAT NEVER DISAPPOINTS:
I’m a very simple eater, to be honest. I have specific restaurants for specific things. There’s a restaurant called Spice Symphony in New York, so when I want Indo-Chinese food I go there.When I want to eat [the Indian street snack] chaat, I like a place called Kailash Parbat. For Thai, there’s Ayada Thai, and for cheesecake, I like Veniero’s Pasticceria and Caffe.
WHO IS YOUR MOST SIGNIFICANT CULINARY INFLUENCE:
Chef Baranidharan Pacha was my teacher, and then I worked under [him]. He was my biggest influence actually, a mentor that I looked up to. But there are different kinds of influences: those smaller [street food stall vendors] influenced me a lot because [of how] they would [cook] consistently, day-in-day-out.
WHAT DO YOU DRINK AT HOME:
I start my day with masala chai—I love masala chai! I cannot leave my house without drinking [at least] three cups of masala tea. Once in a while, I’ll drink red wine [like Napa Cabernet Sauvignon].
THE MUSIC YOU LISTEN TO WHILE YOU COOK:
I don’t listen to any music. When you are in a kitchen, you have to communicate; you have to do things, so I avoid it. But when I’m driving or on my own, I listen to a lot of Bollywood music.
WHEN DID YOU START COOKING:
[India is] not like other countries where you can start cooking at the age of 15 or 16—it’s all about education. So, even if you want to become a chef, you need to do that schooling [fi rst]. I did my three-year diploma, then I was part of Oberoi Hotels. They have a management school— the Oberoi Centre of Learning and Development—so I was a part of that from 2001 to 2003. That’s when the entire journey started—I’ve been cooking [for] 21 years now.
YOUR FAVOURITE CULINARY REGION IN INDIA:
I love food from the southern part of India, so I love Kerala.
FAVOURITE DISH ON THE DHAMAKA MENU: There’s a dish called Paplet (Pomfret) Fry. This [dish] is from Mumbai, so it’s very nostalgic for me. It’s such a simple dish: it has [a marinade of] ginger/garlic paste, red chilli powder, some turmeric, lemon juice, salt; a spice crust, then deep-fried. You serve it with pickled onions and [green] chutney.
VISION FOR THE FUTURE:
To elevate Indian food further. Our business [strives to] keep pushing forward to get different aspects of regional food into the mainstream American population. Whatever we do, the financial economics of Indian restaurants will never be able to compete with a French, Italian or Japanese restaurant. The same people willing to pay, let’s say, $150 a person in an Italian or French restaurant, won’t be willing to pay that at an Indian restaurant. Our vision is how do we break that mold and make people realize that [Indian cuisine] is not as simple as buffet or takeout food—there’s a lot of intricacies, flavour profiles and depth to the dishes.
Click here for Chef Pandya’s recipes for Gurda Kapoora and Doh Khleh.