Meal celebrates what it means to be a chef of Indian descent in a changing South

Molly Milroy/Chai Pani Restaurant Group

Story updated March 11 with a correction. See story for details.

The celebrated dinner series known as Brown in the South will make Raleigh’s Garland restaurant its next stop, showcasing what it means to be a Southern chef of Indian descent.

The dinner series, organized by the Southern Foodways Alliance, was started a year ago by Asheville chef Meherwan Irani of Chai Pani in Asheville and chef Vish Bhatt of Oxford, Miss. They called on Raleigh’s Cheetie Kumar, Maneet Chauhan of Nashville and Asha Gomez of Atlanta to share interpretations of Indian cuisine created from ingredients and experiences living in the South.

“We thought, how is it all these Indian chefs, who are up and coming and pushing food in a new direction are all cooking in the South?” Irani said in a phone interview. “We’re not in New York, or Los Angeles or San Francisco. This is where we are. Not only are we here, we’re celebrated, successful, accepted. At what point do you think of yourself as Southern?”

The Raleigh Brown in the South event, called the “Holi Grail,” after the Indian festival of spring and color, will be held Sunday, March 24, in Kumar’s restaurant, Garland, and upstairs music venue, Kings, on West Martin Street.

The event will include the five original chefs and five additions, including locals Vimala Rajendran of Vimala’s Curryblossom Cafe in Chapel Hill; BJ Patel and Nick Singh of Durham’s Viceroy; as well as Farhan Momin of Atlanta and Fox’s “MasterChef” Season 9; Samantha Fore of Tuk Tuk Sri Lankan Bites in Louisville; and Sunny Baweja of Lehja in Richmond, Va.

The timing of the Raleigh Brown in the South dinner makes it a star-studded affair. Four of the participating chefs are recent James Beard Award semifinalists: Kumar and Irani for Best Chef: Southeast, Sandeep “Sunny” Baweja of Lehja in Richmond, Va for Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic and Bhatt for Best Chef: South for his restaurant Snackbar.

The dinner will feature 10 chefs preparing 10 dishes, some at Kings and some at Garland.

A cocktail is included with the ticket. Kumar said the traditional drink of Holi is the Bhang Lassi, a milkshake-like drink mixed with cannabis. She said the event’s drink is still being developed, but could perhaps include CBD, the non-psychoactive derivation of marijuana as a nod to the Bhang.

Kumar said she first thought about hosting a wine dinner for her turn with a Brown in the South event, but quickly moved to the idea of celebrating the Holi festival.

“The Holi festival is so much about a street vibe; it’s the most fun day of the year from what I remember,” Kumar said.

The Brown in the South series was highlighted over the summer in Time magazine’s South issue, with Irani and the other chefs celebrated as some of the minds shifting our idea of Southern food. The chefs, all of Indian descent, ground their cooking in Southern ingredients, sometimes recreating versions of classic dishes, sometimes inventing something new.

Kumar credits the Southern Foodways Alliance for creating a space where chefs of Indian descent could share their interpretations and experiences cooking in a region known more for grits and gravy than curry and pakora.

“Without the SFA, I don’t think we would have had such an organized format; they gave us permission to have a community,” Kumar said. “It’s easy as chefs to work in a vacuum and have thoughts and feelings on our own, but this brought us together. It’s been one of the most meaningful experiences I’ve ever had. Not just as a chef, but period.”

Irani said two years ago he didn’t necessarily consider himself a Southerner or a Southern chef. His flagship restaurant Chai Pani turns 10 this year and is a cornerstone in Asheville’s current food scene. But the South was not at the forefront of his mind. He feels it’s as much his obligation to embrace as it is for the region to embrace him.

“Quite often immigrants want to stand apart, and there’s nothing wrong with being proud of our history and heritage and traditions,” Irani said. “For people like us, we need to be active Southerners, that’s what will change the South. We need to claim the South. It’s not something new, we’re already accepted.”

At Garland, Kumar takes a global view that often begins in India, built around and inspired by seasonal North Carolina products. It’s not about expanding Southern food, Kumar explains, it’s about acknowledging what’s been here all along, the traditions and events that have led to what we know today as Southern food, as well as the evolution of the region.

“It becomes lumped in as one massive thing: Southern food,” Kumar said. “Southern food has always been complicated and growing and changing. Now people feel they have permission and a right to be open and have this discussion.”

Tickets for the Holi Grail are $55 and include all 10 bites and a cocktail. To purchase tickets, or for more information, visit Garland is at 14 W. Martin St., Raleigh.

There are four James Beard semifinalists taking part in the event. A previous version of this story incorrectly said there are three.
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Drew Jackson writes about restaurants and dining for The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun, covering the food scene in the Triangle and North Carolina.