Rahul Akerkar, chef/owner of Bombay's world-ranked Indigo restaurant worked a number of jobs in NYC kitchens while working through a Master's in biomedical engineering from Columbia University. This, of course, was before he ran a restaurant empire.
When I asked for a gritty story from a NYC kitchen, circa 1980, he granted me two. I actually could have listened all afternoon, but it was probably about 3 a.m. his time, also known as "chef's bedtime." You read that right, this Indian-American worked in a Native American restaurant. The bonus story's a doozy, too.
I worked as a chef at New York's first Native American restaurant, Silverbird's. The owner, this guy Silverbird, was half-Apache and half-Navajo and his wife was German. Along with a couple of sons, they used to be a Vegas act, then he decided to open a restaurant in New York City.
We'd cook buffalo and possum, rattlesnake, rabbit, gator, all in the traditional way. We didn't use black pepper, we used spices that were indigious to the U.S., like pollen and sage, and I was their authentic Indian-American chef. HA!
Then I worked at a place called Wings on Wooster — at the time it was a very hot restaurant, all the Broadway stars and news anchors came and it was owned by the Jewish mafia, as far as I knew. The last order was at 2 a.m., the kitchen closed by 4. I lived all the way up on 116th, so I'd just spend the night at the restaurant so I could make brunch and dinner after (taking breaks to do my fluid dynamics homework).
So I'm doing brunch and the executive chef comes over and says, "Rahul, the owners are outside and want to talk to you." I go to the table, and this guy's out of Goodfellas — white shoes, white pants, gold chain, hairy chest and his whole entourage is at the table. He says, "So. You're from India." And I said yeah. "You're a Jew." And I said yeah. "I've never met an Indian-Jew before. Tell me about it." So I started telling him about it and he asked, "You go to Columbia? Are you all paid up this semester?" I said "no, which is why I'm working here." He asked how short I was, I told him, then he reached into his pocket, pulled out a wad, peeled off $5,000 and said "go pay your tuition."
I went the next day to the bursar and said I'd like to pay the rest of my fees. She asked how, I said "cash," and handed her the wad. She didn't ask any questions, those days were a lot different.
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