Paulraj Karuppasamy’s food story doesn’t begin with a sweet or savory memory from childhood that led him into the kitchen, or from dishwasher to a hardboiled apprenticeship in a Michelin-starred restaurant in Europe. With no plans of becoming a chef or cook, Paulraj’s trajectory from working the line in a cruise ship kitchen to the chef/owner of Paper Dosa in Santa Fe was not by design, but rather the serendipitous happenstance of overhearing the name of a friend from his past spoken in a bar half way around the world.
With humility and grace, the need to survive and help his family, all the while carrying the family’s dream of emigrating to the U.S., Paulraj caught the spice route from India to America. His is a story of courage and survival. We got to talking.
Mark: Living in a foreign country with different ingredients and food customs, how has cooking the foods of your village helped maintain the emotional link to your heritage?
Paulraj: Just eating a food like Rasam, I connect with my mom. I would ask her for some of her recipes when I wanted to cook certain foods I remember from the village.
Once I finish my shift, eating my dinner, whether it is the Pepper Chicken, or it’s a new curry, I’ll be reminded of my friend [from Dosa]. Whenever I eat that food, it reconnects me with family, friends and then memories come. When I started working in San Francisco, I asked my mom how to make Rasam and I just followed her recipe. When I think about those things, not just with my mom’s cooking, I feel connected. Also, some of the dishes I got from her, I put on our specials menu.
Mark: How do you think your parents felt about you leaving India?
Paulraj: It was always my father’s dream to have his three sons work abroad. Because I am the eldest son, I had to start earning for my family. When I was able to go the United States, my family was proud and happy. But at the same time, they are sad and missed me. I talk with my family every day. On my way to work, I like to talk to my mom before she goes to bed. I will call her and tell her some good things so she will have a good night’s sleep. It’s bittersweet; my family is happy that I am doing well, but they miss me.
Mark: Were you the one in your family who carried the dream of going to America?
Paulraj: For me, the bottom line is I don’t want my dad to suffer now that he is in his retirement. I don’t want any family members to suffer while I’m able to work. I have three siblings; the financial struggle is always there. I want to safeguard them. I’m OK with whatever I have in this country. So when I see that land of opportunity is in America, as long as you work hard, you can help everyone in your family because the currency here is different than in India—I cannot help an American, but I can help my family in India because the currency is different. They don’t need so much. It was my uttermost aim to help my family, and I still help them.
Mark: What is an essential quality of a cook/chef?
Paulraj: Discipline and consistency in what you’re making, and respecting everyone—respecting all people, every human being, and giving the thankfulness to everyone who works with you. As a chef, when I finish my work I go and say to everyone: Thanks, and good night. [Whether] it’s slow and not busy, if it’s busy, it’s going to be the same respect. Patience is critical. As a chef, I have a lot of pressure. Some things I will have to let it go. I cannot be really hard on some people when they make some mistakes, because some can be quick learners, some will be slow learners. So these are all things I need for myself to grow. Still I’m learning. Still I have to grow in a lot of ways.
Mark: Did you grow up with a love of food, wanting to become a chef?
Paulraj: I had no desire or intention to be a cook or a chef. When I was younger, my goal was to earn money so I could help my mom, dad and my whole family. I wanted to earn fast. All I wanted to do is finish the degree, and I want to go abroad and work—that was my plan, and why I originally came to this country. I didn’t plan anything beyond that. I can come to this country and earn money to help my brother, and I planned to leave after two years, that was the only plan. When I came to San Francisco, I started working for the South Indian restaurant Dosa. Then I learned a lot of things. I didn’t know how to cook South Indian food until I went to help my friend [at Dosa] in San Francisco.
I gave money to all in my family, my parents, brothers and sister. In San Francisco, I earned $2,200 a month with room and board, and on the ship I was only earning $700 a month. I’d send $1,000 to my brother and $1,000 to my mom and dad, and I kept $200.
Mark: So how did you become a chef?
Paulraj: I was working on Carnival Cruise lines on the line in the kitchen, figuring out what I wanted to do, when I heard some crewmembers talking about someone I knew from The Maldives. I tracked him down in San Francisco and he asked me to come help him at Dosa, a new Southern Indian restaurant, and this opportunity is how I came to work in America.
My friend at Dosa taught me––he’s a very talented chef. [Back then,] I’m new to this country; I had no other skills to make a living, he taught me everything within three months. I learned quickly. I knew the taste of the food, because it is my native cuisine. He was a great teacher and taught me really really good; we’re still in touch.
Within three, months we got included in the 10 best restaurants of San Francisco. We opened in November and by February or March, we were chosen by Michael Bauer, food critic for The San Francisco Chronicle. That encouraged me. I’m thinking our food has so much value. So I want to go deep and see and learn and I had great opportunities to learn from many of the South Indian cooks who came into our kitchen. They all came from the cooking line––I didn’t come from the cooking line.
Mark: How did your experience at Dosa change you?
Paulraj: It has given me everything in my life. My wife. My start as a chef. It has given me everything; it is kind of my home. This is what I said to my boss. He was concerned and he asked me, and I said, “Anjahn, I spend my time in the kitchen, I go to my home and I sleep, then I come and work in this kitchen––so kitchen is my home, no need to worry about anything.” So that’s how I see it. Yes, Dosa has given me everything. Only regret is they didn’t give some recognition, that’s it. I don’t have anything else against them.
Mark: It is said the state in India that you’re from, Tamil Nadu, is famous for its deep belief that “serving food to others is a service to humanity.”
Paulraj: Absolutely. This is going on in my mind the last few days––this new menu, I really love this menu, what we changed. I don’t want to reduce my cost on anything; I want to give more to people. This is the one opportunity I have to serve the people, because before, I was struggling just to survive; now I am more than happy to help a lot of people.
What happens is that comes to the point of Tamil Nadu, people…share what they have. If someone is asking, “I don’t have food,” there is always someone [who says,] “I can give you food.” Our tradition is, whoever comes to our house is to be given water immediately. We will not ask if you need water; all Tamil Nadu houses will give water immediately.
Everyone who works here is paid, apart from the waiters, more than the minimum wage, and I feel grateful to see how awesome the team is. In a successful restaurant, what we see is the teamwork. It’s not about just one cook or me. It’s like a chain where all the links have to work well together. What happens from the dishwasher to the host, everyone works as a wonderful team. So a lot of the credit goes to my wife Nelle as well, because she’s the one that does a lot of the work in the front. I know very little Spanish, I need to learn more, and Nelle is helping me with that. I am proud of what is happening to give the jobs, and pretty much everyone is happy.
Mark: Are you happy?
Paulraj: I’m beyond happy, I am blessed. It’s constant hard work. Constantly I will be looking for ingredients; it’s very difficult for a South Indian restaurant like mine to get some of the ingredients I need in Santa Fe. So many ingredients I have to struggle to find. Towards the end, when you conclude the day, there is a lot of happiness, because once I was jobless for four or five months, so I know. What happens, my heart is happy, I’m glad I can give a job to this many people, and they’re happy and the customers are happy. When I see them, I want to give a good product to them. I feel so grateful to be in this country after this process. What I have is so much.
Mark: Is there a dish you created or a moment when you began to see yourself as the chef you wanted to be?
Paulraj: [Food critic] Michael Bauer asked three chefs from some of the top restaurants in San Francisco to come up with a dish using five ingredients: okra, halibut, corn, heirloom tomato and arugula. My former employer at Dosa asked me to come up with a dish. I came up with halibut in an arugula sauce with heirloom tomato, corn rice and okra chips. My dish was well received and included in The Chronicle’s feature spread highlighting the three chef’s dishes, along with pictures and the recipes, as well as the various approaches and difficulties each of us encountered with the variety of required components in the dish. I then realized I might be able to make it as a chef.
Mark: Do you have any culinary heroes?
Paulraj: At the [SF] Chefs 2011 Grand Tasting event, top chefs from local restaurants gathered to demonstrate and prepare one item in front of a large crowd and cameras. I was demonstrating Pomegranate Tamarind Chutney in the grand-tasting tent. I met Gary Danko and Joanne Weir who were supposed to do a demo after me. They saw I was so nervous and both of them were very sweet and encouraging to me. At that time, I felt I was a nobody. I was there among the biggest chefs in the Bay Area. I saw how supportive, down-to-earth and humble they were. This taught me to be true to my nature and to be kind to everyone.
Mark: How do you track down a new dish or flavor combination?
Paulraj: I love to taste good food from other chefs. It excites and inspires me to see how they put different ingredients together. But what really inspires me are vegetables. I was brought up as a vegetarian. I love to get okra at the farmers’ market and make my mom’s Sambar with it. In our village, I would go to the Sunday market with my dad who is really good at picking out the best fruits and vegetables. I learned a lot from him. South Indian cooking is all about vegetables, and I love that.
Mark: What mishap or disappointment led to a turning point, a breakthrough for you?
Paulraj: I had a really nice job at Residency Towers in Coimbatore, my hometown. It was a great job close to my home and good pay. I learned a lot, and there was potential to grow. I left that job to try to get a position on a cruise ship. When I didn’t get the visa to join the ship, I became jobless. I felt I made a big mistake and couldn’t get a job for eight months. I was full of regrets, and everyone in my village judged me. My father was really hard on me. I tried to get any work I could. I was looking to work all over the world, even Iraq during the war. I went to Bombay and stayed there to apply for another visa. I lived with 20 other men in one room. We were all trying to get something. The first and second time I applied for the visa, I was rejected. Everyone said to me, “No one ever gets a visa on the third time.” I called my dad and he said, “Do it! You will get it this time, just try again.” So even though I felt totally hopeless, I did it. I got it! That visa eventually took me to San Francisco, where I helped start Dosa.
Mark: Arranged marriages are still customary in your village, yet you married for love. How did your family react?
Paulraj: We met when we worked together at Dosa and started dating a year or so later. I told my mom and dad I had fallen in love with Nelle. My dad was not very accepting, but my mom said that’s fine as long as she is good for you. If she is good and you love her, then that’s fine. Slowly, my dad accepted it. Then, when they both accepted it, we got married in 2007.
Mark: Do you ever refer to cookbooks?
Paulraj: No I don’t. I haven’t in a long time. What happens is each and every time you make a dish, you get something useful. You learn from it. It’s about how you cook the rice and how much water you use for that particular rice and how you cook other meat when you cook with the rice. So that’s kind of an art.
Mark: For your last meal, what would you want to eat?
Paulraj: Yogurt rice and citron pickle.
Mark: Who would be in attendance?
Paulraj: My wife and son, extended family, Mom and Dad, my siblings. I cannot dream like every American can dream because I cannot get my brother or sister here as I want. Still, I can enjoy whatever I can enjoy here, but I cannot get them easily here. So what happens is there is always an obstacle there for me. My brother tried to get a visa to come here as a tourist and was denied two times, but they gave the visa for my mom and dad as a tourist. So it’s a tricky country to come to. You can go to any other part of the world, but you cannot come to this country as a middle-class person from India, it’s difficult. I want to show to my brother and my mom and dad what I’ve accomplished in this country. My parents have a visa now, so hopefully they will visit next year.
Mark: I like this this quote from Chef Edward Lee,“What I cook is who I am.”As a chef from South India how do you relate to that?
Paulraj: I try to give the best to people; I try to serve the best. I see everything as a challenge, everything, what you do in the restaurant [in the kitchen] is a challenge. Try to do the best with what you have. What I think is: Try to do what the heart is saying—do your best.
by Mark Oppenheimer