At the Table, Raaga

by Chef Johnny Vee

I have always considered myself an Anglophile of sorts, since I first went to Leeds, England, to restaurant college, circa 1974. I loved how different it was from America, how the land of our forefathers seemed so parochial compared to the aggressive hustle and bustle of the U.S.A. While living there I marveled how this relatively small country had at one time practically ruled the world.

Most surprising to me still is the stronghold Britain had over the gigantic country of India. After meeting the disarmingly charming and charismatic Paddy Rawal, owner and chef of Santa Fe’s spanking new  Raaga Fine Indian Dining, I have a feeling that had the British Empire come up against this dynamic businessman and culinary wizard, India’s independence might have come decades earlier. Lucky for the Brits, Paddy wasn’t born yet to stand beside Gandhi; lucky for us Santa Feans, he has arrived in our midst to teach us a new way to think about his exotic native cuisine.

On my first visit to Raaga, I immediately felt something exciting was going on. The buzz in the small space, which formerly housed Mauka, was palpable. The heady fragrances emanating from the kitchen set my mouth watering. The large menu boasted many dishes I did recognize—tandoori, biryani, vindaloo, rogan josh, raita—but there was also a myriad more I had never seen. I had a vegetarian in tow, and she was delighted with the plethora of non-meat options available.

The service was fantastic. Our waiter, Salim, looked after our needs in an Old World–style not often found in American eateries. He practically bowed with each deftly executed move, dishing up rice and curries with silver-service aplomb, chattering away happily about the food and spices while adjusting our plates and making room on the table for more goodies. Soon a handsome gentleman in a chef’s coat stopped by the table to welcome us—Chef Paddy. He possessed such charm and ease in conversation, I couldn’t believe he was the chef of a restaurant that had only been open a week. The twinkle in his eye and the grin on his face made us immediately feel like family and fans.

So impressed was I with our meal that I returned the very next night with a larger group of friends. Immediately Paddy greeted me by name. The place was packed with foodies I recognized from other restaurants and my cooking classes. Salim promptly kicked into action. Paddy went about wooing my new guests with descriptions of dishes and samples of house specialties.  The guy clearly was a pro; I couldn’t wait to interview him.

It took a few weeks to coordinate our schedule. Paddy has a second restaurant in East Lansing, Michigan, called Mumbai, and he commutes back and forth between the two locations. In the interim, while he was away, I had two more meals at Raaga, including a terrific buffet brunch that beat all under-$10 deals of its kind. Each time I or any of my other friends returned, Paddy spoke to us by name.

I arrive for our chat just as lunch is finishing. True to form, Paddy insists that I get some food from the buffet. It doesn’t take any persuading, and I help myself to various wonderfully seasoned dishes. A fresh batch of naan arrives from the kitchen.

“How is the business going?” I start.

“We are very busy, very busy. We may have to expand next door,” Paddy replies with pride.

“I don’t know how you do it,” I retort, “especially with going back and forth between Michigan and here.”

“You know, John, I come from the  corporate world. My father always said, ‘If you make up your mind to do something, you have to do it with commitment and passion.’” As we chat for the next hour, I can see that passion burning in Paddy’s dark eyes.

When I ask Paddy to tell me how he got into the business, he is ready with his story. It is peppered with exact dates and the days, months and years of each stop along the way. He begins with, “I came to this country with $100 in my pocket. I first moved to Toronto, where I had a cousin living. Right away she started trying to convince me that we should open a restaurant there, but I wanted to go to America, to this great country. I took a Greyhound bus to Michigan, because I had a family friend there.”

His memory for detail extends to recollections of his work history. I was surprised to learn that Paddy’s résumé includes stints with Dunkin’ Donuts, the food service department of a Detroit car manufacturer, Olive Garden, and Arby’s. At each stopover he picked up invaluable experience that got him to where he is today.

Born in Bombay, India, and one of five children, Paddy led a somewhat charmed childhood. “Dad was a senior officer in the Indian Army, so we always lived in government-owned homes in posh neighborhoods. Our neighbors were rich, but we were not. My mother did all of the cooking, and I was always watching her. Every night my father would come home, and we would eat together at a big family table. In India the women do all of the food preparation. I felt terrible about how hard she worked, so when I was ten I started helping her every Sunday. I wanted her to sit down and eat before I did. Both my mother and my father had great faith in their children.”

The dishes Paddy observed and eventually helped his mother prepare became the basis for the wonders he offers at both his restaurants. “What I learned at culinary school was the importance of balance in ingredients. We learned all the French sauces and had a wonderful old Indian chef instructor who taught me more about my cuisine.”

Throughout our conversation he pauses and pointedly delivers the mantras that have driven his career: “If that guy can do it, I can do it,” “Never be greedy,” “Make friends and followers every day,” and “Without hard work nothing happens.”

“My first job I was paid $50 a week,” he continues. “Can you believe that? I started managing a friend’s four Dunkin’ Donuts shops, but before I started I had to attend Dunkin’ University. The friend was going to sponsor me for my immigration status, and my application was in. Then 9/11 happened and the processing stopped. I spent four years in limbo. It took nearly six years before I opened my own place, Mumbai, in East Lansing.”

Mumbai took off, and Paddy became a much sought-after restaurateur. “After two years, two fans of the restaurant who had become friends came to me and said they were moving to Santa Fe, and that I should open a restaurant there. I came to visit Santa Fe in December 2010, ate at many local restaurants to see what my competition would be and said to myself that I have to open something in this beautiful place. We looked at a few spaces, and when I saw this space I said, ‘Stop, I’ll take it.’ We took over the lease on March 22 and opened April 1.”

I ask him about how he comes up with his menus and what he feels he can teach us Santa Feans about Indian cookery. “I like to cook what my mom cooked and keep it simple. ‘Curry’ is a generic word. There is a great misconception that all Indian food is hot and spicy and causes indigestion. That is not true. The use of spices is very complex. The cuisine is very regional. My menu is ninety percent Northern, five percent Southern, which is very hot, and five percent Eastern, which includes the use of a lot of mustard seed. I strive to make each dish fresh, flavorful, simple, delicious and tasty.”

He continues, “India is a country of strong religious beliefs and superstitions. Some of the people eat meat but no fish. The Muslims eat beef but no pork. The Hindus, those that are not vegetarian, eat pork but no beef, and some Indians refuse to eat root vegetables because they are a bad omen. Some meat-eating communities do not eat fish, for it is considered dirty, while other vegetarian communities do not mind fish, calling it a vegetable of the sea, because it is cold-blooded. Yet others do not eat brightly colored vegetables, such as carrots or tomatoes, for they are supposed to excite passion. In the South, coconut milk is widely used in the cooking.” I am loving my education of the culinary culture of this massive nation.

“What are the three most important spices you cook with?” I inquire.

“Cumin, turmeric and cinnamon,” he replies, “but my favorite spice is green cardamom.”

“Any ingredients you don’t like?”

“Hmm. I really don’t like raw mushrooms.”

For dessert, Salim brings me a bowl of the dumpling-like Honey Soaked Milk Puffs (prepared, according to the menu, “Jamun” style). A mango lassi makes a luscious second treat.

We discuss the spiritual aspects often associated with Santa Fe.

“My Mom was like a priestess to us kids. I feel like I will spend my life living up to her qualities. I am not really a practicing Hindu.” As Paddy recalls moments of his childhood, he temporarily leaves behind his outgoing personality and becomes quiet. Clearly his parents had the greatest impact on how he developed as a chef and a man.

As I get up to leave Paddy finishes with, “One of my early chef mentors, who was German, always said to me that life is like a cake, and you can’t have it half-baked.” Talking to this passionate entrepreneur and dining on his cooking, I am struck by one thought–that whatever Paddy does, he does completely. There is nothing half-baked about this fully realized chef and restaurateur. I can’t wait to see what he whips up next!

Story by Chef Johnny Vee

 


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