Growing up as one of three or four Indian families in Louisville, Kentucky gave Akhtar Nawab a unique view about culture and his place in it. His mother, whom he calls Ammi, had definite ideas about what was and wasn’t proper, and that included having her son help around the house. A lot. From an early age, Nawab chose to help out in the kitchen. His reward? Learning from his mother, someone he calls a “truly talented cook,” and of course, eating the delicious fruits of his and his family’s combined labor.
Fast forward a few years, and the twenty year old Nawab found himself looking to earn some money. He got a job at a local family style restaurant in Louisville, an experience that cemented his interest in kitchen life, a creative, energetic environment where he felt comfortable. Next up was a move to San Francisco to attend the California Culinary Academy, followed by a stint working under Chef Loretta Keller at Bizou, a stage at Jardinière and then at La Folie, which eventually led to another big career move. This time: New York City.
In 1998, he joined the Gramercy Tavern team, led by celebrity chef Tom Colicchio. By 2001, he was Colicchio’s sous chef at Craft; a restaurant that went on to receive three stars from the New York Times in 2001 and was selected “Best New Restaurant” by the James Beard Foundation in 2002.
In 2008, Nawab decided to go solo, opening Elettaria, a restaurant featuring seasonal American ingredients prepared with the Indian spices and flavor combinations he grew up with. In 2009, Akhtar appeared on the Food Network’s “Iron Chef America,” and was included in Coco: 10 of the World’s Greatest Chefs, 100 Emerging Culinary Stars (Phaidon, 2009), in which Nawab was chosen as one of the top ten emerging chef talents in the U.S. by Mario Batali.
Nowadays, you’ll find Nawab exploring the layered, complex flavors of Mexican food, which in many ways, mirror his Indian roots. In 2014, he teamed up as partner with the Choza Taqueria team, opening stores in the Gotham West Market, World Trade Center and the Pizitz in Birmingham, Alabama. Add to that a new health food company called Indie Fresh, also in Gotham West Market and Chelsea Market, and his newest project, Alta Calidad (or ‘high quality’ in Spanish) is slated to open in Brooklyn in March 2017.
We talk to Nawab about his culinary trajectory, what he likes to make for friends when entertaining and his biggest fan: his daughter Ela.
You’ve worked with some big names in the food world, from Loretta Keller to Tom Colicchio. Who would you say helped shape you the most professionally?
So tough to answer, I learned so much from all of them. I have been fortunate to work with and for some of the greats. I worked for Chef Colicchio for 8 years. I learned technique, management, organization, and volume. He is an excellent chef. Chef Loretta is family. We have traveled all over together and she has taught me so much about food and its origins. She is more knowledgeable about food and its environment than anyone I know. She taught me how to treat ingredients in the simplest and purest form and get the best out of them.
Tell us about Elettaria…what does the name mean and what did the restaurant mean to you?
Elettaria is Latin for cardamom. Really though, it was named after my daughter Ela. It was my first restaurant. It was my version of an American restaurant through an Indian lens. We opened at the worst time…2008. We gave it our best but I didn’t have the business experience necessary to push through the challenges we were facing. It did prepare me for business in NYC in a way I never would have been otherwise.
You appeared on the iconic Iron Chef program – was it as nerve-wracking as it looks?
It is stressful for sure. I had fun though. I have always been comfortable running around like a maniac doing what I love to do. We definitely saw an uptick in business at Elettaria. I am still sore about losing, though.
Who could blame you! You’re now partnered with the Choza Taqueria team in NYC and soon you’ll be opening the new Alta Calidad – another Mexican concept. What is it about Mexican food that has grasped your attention?
After Elettaria closed, I took a small break to recover, and when I chose to get back into cooking, I wanted to work on something different and get back into a learning position again. Mexican food presented itself, and I jumped on it. After spending some time with the ingredients, I found so many similarities with the Indian cooking I grew up with that it felt natural and familiar.
Some of the moles or salsas incorporate similar ingredients and techniques. At Choza we make a chickpea and mushroom guisado for a taco that shares some common Indian ingredients: cinnamon, cloves, black pepper, and banana leaves.
How often do you cook at home?
In some form, everyday. I love to cook at home. I have a ton of tools so it does make it easy… Sometimes though, I will grab something to eat at one of my places, Choza or Indie Fresh.
How fancy do you get when you’re cooking at home for the family?
Not too fancy. If Ela and I are eating together it is often two separate meals, mostly so I don’t end up eating pasta. Ela is a nut for cacio e pepe, so I will often add broccoli to it, or I will make channa lentils with black cumin and ginger. For me, it’s often healthier fare. Lots of lentils, eggs, quinoa, avocados, sweet potatoes, greens.
Top 3 Nawab dishes that the fam always requests?
Cacio e pepe, channa lentils, and keema, a Persian stew of spices, lean ground meat, and ginger.
What’s typically in your pantry?
Sriracha (I still love it, but use it sparingly these days), Indian spices, coconut oil, kimchi base (secret stuff), channa or tur lentils, gluten free oatmeal, dried mangoes, plant protein powder, pistachios, almond butter, almond milk, and harissa.
When I’m hungry, I always grab…
A piece of fruit and generous amount of almond butter covering it.
My favourite spice to cook with is…
If I were anything other than a chef, I’d be a…
Easy. Bass guitar sub for Geddy Lee of RUSH. I have been playing bass guitar since I was 13 and listening to RUSH about that long as well.
Your daughter says she wants to be a chef too, just like you. You tell her…
Immediate, aggressive, extensive shock psychotherapy. Honestly, that’s only because I know how physical that job is. Not everyone knows that aspect of it. But if after she knew it and still chose it, she could have a good teacher in her Dad.
Most underrated cuisine…
Indian 100%, although improving.
Entertaining at home, to me is…
Family style, lots of different cuisines, friends.
Photos by Alex Rivera