They say serendipity is often the most wonderful way of things coming to be. In the case of chef Meherwan Irani, the founder of ‘Chai Pani’ in Asheville, USA, it was a vision that he had in the middle of the night.
It was the year 1990.
A young boy of 20 from Ahmednagar, Maharashtra, decided to move to the United States for his MBA degree. Before moving continents, however, Meherwan wanted to satisfy his craving for Indian street food one last time, as he knew he would dearly miss it when he made the transition.
So he went all out and gorged on the papdi chaat and bhel he could possibly find. Street food, you see, was Meherwan’s weakness, and he couldn’t bear the thought of leaving it all behind. But, as this world-famous chef tells The Better India, life has a funny way of things working out.
‘I woke up in the middle of the night and had an entire plan charted out.’
During his MBA, Meherwan met his soon-to-be wife Molly, while she was waiting tables at her parents’ restaurant in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. It was love at first sight, and the duo soon went on to get married and have a child.
In 2005, the family moved to Asheville, where Meherwan was with Lexus and Mercedes-Benz in management positions. Life was good and he was content.
But, things were soon about to change.
As the year 2009 dawned, it brought with it crises in the United States. The workforce was reeling from the catastrophic effects of the economic meltdown, coupled with a deep recession.
Like every employee in the country, Meherwan was fearful. One night during these troubled times, he woke up with a plan.
“I was desperate for a viable career switch. It was the middle of the night and I just seemed to have the vision for my future restaurant, Chai Pani, all planned out in my head.”
The idea, he says, was a simple one — to introduce America to the Indian street food that he had grown up eating and loving. However, for a corporate employee to shift professions wasn’t an easy task. But he found support in his wife Molly.
“Despite not having much professional culinary experience, Molly and I put together a profitable business plan that very night,” he recounts. “The next day, we took this plan to banks, private lenders, and credit unions.”
But, times were tough and no one wanted to support a new venture built on a “high-risk and far-fetched idea”. The couple was turned down by everyone they approached. But if Meherwan had learnt anything, it is that when everything goes south, believing in the dream is what makes it come true.
Funding the cooking business with love
“Molly and I wrote an open letter to family and friends and shared both our hearts as well as our wild idea. We knew we weren’t presenting an amazing investment but we really believed in our plan, and the money started to come — from friends, from family, from strangers,” says Meherwan.
In the span of 45 days, love started pouring in and the couple managed to raise $75,000. In 2009, Chai Pani saw the light of day with a menu that had what Meherwan terms the “most democratic, egalitarian, approachable, affordable, and pan-Indian cuisine of India” — chaat.
As people from in and around Asheville began frequenting the place, the popularity of the dishes grew. Meherwan was amazed at how loved Indian street food really was. So, in 2013, having tasted immense success in the first branch of the restaurant, he opened another branch in Atlanta.
So loved was Chai Pani that it went on to win the 2022 James Beard Award for America’s ‘Outstanding Restaurant’.
This, says the chef, was a memorable moment.
He adds, “When I won the award for outstanding restaurant, it meant so much more than if I’d won just as a chef. This is because the award acknowledges everyone who works to make a restaurant exist.”
Rightly so, for anyone who stops by Chai Pani, a fascinating sight beholds them. Crowds swell as people wait to get a seat at the restaurant, which is filled with the aromas of keema, chicken tikka, uttapams, and more.
And standing proud at the door, you’ll find 52-year-old Meherwan, ready to welcome more guests and treat them to his specialities. “Today, in retrospect,” he says, “taking the leap into unfamiliar territory and starting my own venture is one of the best things I have ever done.”
Reminiscing India in every bite
As part of Chai Pani’s menu, there are Indian snacks and food you’d typically find on the streets here, being sold at affordable prices. What sets them apart is that they incorporate the true taste of India, with their desi tadkas.
While the sev batata dahi puri and vada pav have a fan following of their own, the most popular dish, as you may have guessed, is the pani puri. Queues wait their turn to have the golgappas drenched in the spicy and sweet chutneys.
And this makes the chef’s day. “I felt Indian street food was one of the most underrepresented foods in Western culture. Diners craved the stereotype-shattering food, drinks and service of Chai Pani, and this crafted our success story.”
He adds that guests have often told him how the restaurant is recognised as “sparking a revolution in Indian cuisine in America”. He now feels the circle is complete, as this is the aim he set out with.
“I want to show our guests that Indian food is so much more diverse, interesting, unexpected, and personal than a handful of regional cuisines that have been popularised so far,” he says. “To me, there is no other food that captures the essence of India like street food — chaotic, colourful, innovative, vibrant, joyful, complex, and of course, delicious.”
So while, street food lovers gorge on tangy, crunchy, spicy bhel puri or satisfy their sweet cravings with a dahi puri or the humble aloo tikki chaat, the menu also caters to non-veg aficionados. There’s keema pav, chicken tikka, and even some quirky dishes such as kale pakoras and matchstick okra fries.
The prices of the dishes range from $9 to upto $18 and are described as “incredibly over the top delicious” by guests. Reviews also read that the food is “every minute worth the wait”. Chai Pani serves around 1,000 customers on a busy day, and guests advise to “reach on time if you want to get a space to sit”.
But curating a successful venture hasn’t been easy.
“Opening the restaurant in a recession taught us how to make do with less and create a menu that was affordable and smartly developed,” says Meherwan, pointing to the challenges he came across while starting. “Our strategy helped keep our cost of goods down while also using high-quality ingredients.”
What worked most for them was staying authentic, according to Chef Irani. “We ensured that we stayed true to the concept of Indian street food, which is meant to be affordable and approachable to everybody.”
“I’m so proud that Indian food and specifically street food is being recognised on a national and global level.”
Edited by Divya Sethu