Chintan Pandya is a champion of regional Indian cuisine, showcasing South Asian flavors at his mini empire of New York restaurants — but he wasn’t always dedicated to the cooking of his homeland. As a culinary student in Mumbai, the chef wanted to focus on Italian fare or pastries. It wasn’t until a training program placed him in an Indian restaurant that he examined the nuances of his native food.
Two decades and many restaurants later, Pandya is the chef-partner behind mega-success Unapologetic Foods. The hospitality group, which he developed with restaurateur Roni Mazumdar, includes a haven of Indian home cooking at Long Island City’s Adda, Southern Indian eatery Semma in Greenwich Village, and Lower East Side provincial Indian hotspot Dhamaka. In addition to these celebrated restaurants, the duo and their team also run fast-casual fried chicken concept Rowdy Rooster, the Biryani Bol delivery operation, and immersive virtual reality dining experience Aerobanquets RMX.
With a James Beard award for best chef in New York state and even more openings on the horizon for the restaurant group, Pandya discusses unloading his fear of failure, juggling small businesses, and challenging perceptions of Indian food in America.
Eater: What did you originally want to do when you started your career?
Chintan Pandya: I genuinely love to eat. I always wanted to be a chef so I could eat as much as I wanted and not have to pay money.
Did you go to culinary school or college?
In India, the education system is very different from what it is in America. If you want to become a chef, you have to do culinary school, so I did that for three years. I strongly recommend it, but I wish I had been more focused on learning about regional Indian food, which I specialized in later on. Then I was a part of an institution called the Center of Learning and Development, which is a master’s program. The unique thing about this program is that they pay you to be there. You don’t pay them fees.
What was the biggest challenge you faced when you were starting out in the industry?
I grew up in a vegetarian household and never cooked any meat, poultry, or seafood until I joined culinary school. That was my biggest hurdle while starting out.
What was your first job? What did it involve?
My first job was in a hotel called the Oberoi Grand in Kolkata. I was an on-the-job trainee. We were trained in all the different sections of the kitchen and learned the day-to-day operations of different departments. I actually wanted to specialize in Italian cuisine or be a pastry chef, but they didn’t have [those] openings and they felt that I would be most suitable for an Indian restaurant. That’s how I became an Indian chef.
Did you have any setbacks? What were they?
I’ve experienced multiple setbacks in my life and they have made me stronger. I always learn from my mistakes. In 2008, I quit hotels and took a job as a food and beverage manager at an international airline in India. That was very boring because it was a desk job and not an actual cooking job; I was only there for a year. Then I got an opportunity to move to Singapore and serve as a chef-partner in a fine dining restaurant. I was there from 2009 until 2013, when I came to the U.S., where I started off in Cleveland working for a company as a culinary director.
Then I moved to Atlanta because I wanted to do something on my own. Atlanta looked like a phenomenal market for Indian food, but it wasn’t. The market was not ready for it. It was a very big setback for me. I lost a certain amount of time, money, effort, everything. That’s how I ended up in New York.
What was the turning point that led to where you are now?
When you work in fine dining restaurants, there’s a specific mindset you have. There are times when you cook something because that’s what people are looking for. Around 2014 is when I realized I need to cook things that make me happy. The day I lost the fear of failure has been the biggest turning point of my life. I started cooking what I love, rather than what people want me to cook.
What does your job involve? What’s your favorite part about it?
My favorite thing about my days is that they are never the same or predictable. I’m in charge of the creative and culinary vision for the company, with a focus on the day-to-day operations. I’m mostly in the kitchens, but which kitchen depends on what’s happening within the company.
Any time we open something new, my job is the culinary part of it, the menu and the operations. That is my baby. The fried chicken concept, the Rowdy Rooster, is the newest place right now. I’m stationed there until it settles down and then I move on to the next thing.
What would surprise people about your job?
I work as a delivery person some days, moving stuff from one restaurant to the other. We are a very small company and don’t have many people, so we do a lot of stuff on our own. My wife and daughter complain that my car smells like food all the time.
How did the pandemic affect your career?
The pandemic was the busiest time in my life. We decided not to shut down our restaurants, even in the peak. A lot of people were scared to come to work, but we kept an open door for everybody that wanted to work and make deliveries. We still paid their regular salaries. There was such a shortage of staff, so we were all hands on deck. We were making 2,700 meal boxes a day.
Also, Dhamaka was actually supposed to open in May or June 2020. Obviously because of the pandemic it didn’t happen. The construction stopped midway, which caused a lot of financial stress, but we decided to just keep on fighting. We finally opened in February 2021.
Do you have, or did you ever have, a mentor in your field?
The most important mentor has been my teacher, Chef Baranidharan Pacha, who has mentored me over the last 22 years. I still go back to him for advice.
How are you making change in your industry?
We are changing the perception of Indian food in the American market and serving it in the most unapologetic way. India has a population of 1.4 billion, but the representation of Indian food in America has been limited to six or seven dishes. We felt very insulted and decided to challenge that. We want everybody to be proud of Indian food. That is why we’re giving people the opportunity to explore regional Indian food.
What advice would you give someone who wants your job?
Keep working harder and don’t worry about the final result. You need perseverance and you have to believe in something. You have to be very committed to your vision and be persistent about it. Just keep focusing on it. I always say that if you work on your product, everything else will fall [into place] around it.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Morgan Goldberg is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.