Nira Kehar, the Montreal-born chef/owner of award-winning New Delhi restaurant Chez Nini, is one of a kind. Seriously, there are no other young female Indian-Canadian classically trained chefs launching their own genre-defying, Montreal-inspired (read: largely meat-based) culinary experiences in Delhi right now. Go ahead and check, but you won’t find anyone else serving up high-end poutine or fried poached egg salad around those parts.
Inspired by the ancient Indian practice of Ayurveda, which encourages balance, Kehar’s mantra for cooking, eating, drinking and general living is “mindfulness.” Mindful shopping, cooking and consuming, and especially mindful presentation — something she knocked out of the park at the James Beard House, where she cooked a few weeks ago as the historic venue’s first female chef/restaurant owner from India.
Her latest project: a handmade coffee table book with an “artistic narrative,” called Eating Stories, which everyone at the Beard House that evening received. Full of poems, sketches, photographs and essays, it’s something every brave food enthusiast should own. Sadly, it hasn’t been published and you can pry my copy out of my cold, dead hands, but check out a few highlights in the photos below.
This book is really beautiful, and it’s one of those things where you can tell by the cover it’s going to an adventure.
It’s all hand-done in India. A lot of the biggest publishers print with expensive material. I asked this printing company to go back and make it look more rustic and hand-bound. The writing part took a lot of courage. When you’re writing, you don’t know who’s going to be reading it. So it took a lot out of me actually, then I had a really nice friend be like, “this is crap.”
That’s probably a good thing for a really nice friend to say, if you’re talking about something this personal.
It was the best thing. At first, it was like a bash to the chest, and then I realized it felt super-censored and too careful — it wasn’t what what I wanted it to be. I felt that if I defined it or said it explicitly, I would become restricted to that, and I don’t want to be boxed into a category.
Where did the design on the cover come from? I noticed it’s also embroidered onto your aprons.
It’s from Connaught Place in the central part of Delhi, which was the old British commercial part. Delhi doesn’t really have a center, it’s just kind of a huge suburb. Within it, there are a lot of children living on the street. I’m always hunting for little treasures in the city, and there’s one underpass where you find kids who don’t have books or pencils writing on the walls. I went and interacted with them — and, you know, they’re very aggressive and they beg — but as soon as you take an interest in their life and treat them like children, they get so excited. I started taking pictures of their drawings, and they were ecstatic and started to explain what they were drawing. I told them I was putting their pictures in my book, and they got so excited. That underpass is like an entire world of children’s drawings.
What inspired you to hand out rakhis (red thread bracelets) at the reception and hang kites from the ceiling? I’ve never seen an art installation at the Beard House before.
I literally never grew up Indian, no Diwali, no Independence Day — valuewise, maybe, to some level, but it’s been a long journey between where I came from and where I am now. I wanted everyone to come and feel like they were all part of this big story we’re all sitting around eating and telling it. So for me, it was more than just a rakhi, it was a thread that bound everybody together in an auspicious welcoming, because hospitality is so important in India.
The kites were effort-ful to bring because they rip easily, so we had to kind of sous-vide pack them so they wouldn’t be pierced. The artist who I worked on this book with hung them up with my cousins this morning. It took a while.
Those kites take me right to Mumbai, where there are always a dozen or so in the sky.
For me, it’s all about the senses, visually or otherwise, except sound and taste is something that I had previously never made a connection with, so I recorded ten sounds in Delhi, developed flavors for them and called it “When We Had Time.” I’m telling you this because it was supposed to happen at the Beard dinner, too, but we ran out of time. So these posh Delhi people were listening to these sounds, then eating the flavors of traffic, eating the flavors of monsoon. It was completely interactive.
What’s the flavor of the monsoon?
I made a jelly which was very musky with a hint of watermelon and rose and it was scented with…I would almost say a “polluted” smell.
I was gonna say rose and garbage water, yeah.
It’s funny cause that is what it first tastes like, and it’s interesting when the jelly melts in your mouth. It’s like when the rain starts to fall, then 15 minutes later, you smell this amazing freshness. One man threw his earphones down and was like, “I’m so disturbed, you think we’re children!” But, that was fine, because I did it to see what came out of people. Those are not things you usually connect — your brain doesn’t wire together tastes and sounds.
No matter how delicious they smelled, I was surprised to see people pass on the the fried lamb brains at the cocktail reception. $150+ for dinner, and you skip the brains?
Food is really personal. You could be able to eat tripe but not brain. Those are boundaries that I don’t want cross. Actually, some chefs were like, “Don’t write brain, just write lamb popcorn.” But, I would never put something into someone’s system they didn’t want — it’s not a fair thing to cross someone’s boundary. That’s the idea of mindfulness. Whoever did get to enjoy it is good enough for me. It was a long process for that brain. I had to cut through skulls.
Yeah, I got the heads and chopped through the skulls myself.
Did you just have like a mountain of lamb skulls?
Yeah! I literally carried them over from Chelsea Market — they ordered them specially for me, which was really nice of them. And then I went and bought 14 more brains. For the “popcorn,” you have to soak the brains in milk for at least 12 hours. I try to do it for 18. I mean, it’s disgusting, but it really drains out the blood.
So your food is not Indian food. How do you describe it?
To call myself a French chef would be inaccurate. To call myself an Indian chef would be completely stupid, because I don’t even make Indian food. But I like to absorb my environment, and make what I can out of that. I use the word “mindful” a lot, and I don’t even want that to be taken literally. As soon as a chef or anybody for that matter starts to categorize your style, you limit yourself. I’ve been going to every farmer’s market I can find in New York and speaking to every chef. I spoke to everyone about what they like to eat, because I never really fed people here. So maybe you could say my style is artistic and personal. There’s a lot of reflection and retrospection.
What’s a classic Indian dish that has inspired the way you cook?
I’ll never forget my first phuchki, it’s this wafer you put chickpeas and potatoes into, then dip in spicy water.
Oh, pani puri!
Yes, in Calcutta they call it a phuchki. In the foreword of my book, a friend writes about the first experience of eating one. There’s crunchy and spicy, there’s a little bit of sweet because you have tamarind purée, then the chickpea gives you what a cheese would usually give you. The guy — I used to go to the same guy until I got violently ill — he knew how to prepare it just for me, and my nickname became phuchki. For me, it’s poetic.
There’s even something poetic about getting sick afterwards, ‘cause it’s not going to make you stop eating it.
You will go back for more. Even post-giardia, or whatever the hell you get. And their hands are dirty, their nails are all crusty, they look like they haven’t showered in a very long time but you’re just like…
Yeah, sometimes their fingers are missing, okay? It is not a pretty thing.
I love that you know that. But those flavors, you can’t compete with the product.
Speaking of crazy things, you’ve decided to bring brunch to a city that couldn’t care less about fancy egg dishes. How’s it going? Are Indians ordering Bloody Marys?
Everything we’ve done has come with so much resistance. I always say what seems like the worst thing that could be possibly happening to you is the absolute best thing. It’s not like I look for resistance or controversy, but people say to me, “You’re doing brunch in Delhi? It’s never going to work.” I’ve found that in India, everyone wants to contradict in order to be “part of it.” They feel like if they’re contradicting, they’re teaching you something important. So when I was starting brunch, people said, “Nobody in Delhi is going to wake up on Sunday, no one likes eggs, no one likes breakfast, who are you, who do you think you are, why do you think you can start brunch in this country when no one else has?” I was like, that doesn’t even make any sense!
Right now in cities, if there is brunch, it’s usually in a hotel and it’s a buffet. I do it fresh to order. Now our brunch is buzzing with people, we do live music, we do eggs Benedict with pork belly slices and Hollandaise, all kinds of fun things. People who didn’t know about brunch are crazy about it. As for the Bloodies? They love spice, so it’s perfect — we even make our own celery salt.
What other food trend has hit Indian cities in a surprising way?
Yeah, for a while. But I think it’s getting better now. We do red velvet at the restaurant just as a fun, silly thing. But it’s a serious money-making machine. We did cronuts for fun, too, for a little while.
If somebody told you you were going to an Indian fusion restaurant here in New York, what would you expect and would you maybe suggest Italian food instead?
Yes, I definitely would. I’m not down with fusion, I think it’s contrived. Again, that’s assigning a category to something, which I try not to do, and that’s a very weird category.
Back to that Beard dinner: how proud was your dad? He was shaking everybody’s hand, and putting his arm around people and taking pictures, he looked like he was having the time of his life.
He was? Okay, good! I didn’t get to see all of that. He was really tired by the time I got to him. I’m like, “Aren’t you gonna tell me you’re proud of me or something?” He was just like “whatever.” It’s funny because I used to be an engineer and when I changed course to become a chef it took him a while to be okay with it, but he totally got on board and my parents have been super-supportive.
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