Grilled In a Minute: Gaurav Anand
Julie Mautner / January 13th, 2013
Gaurav Anand is the chef/owner of three highly successful Indian restaurants in Manhattan, the newest of which, Moti Mahal Delux, received two stars from the New York Times just six months after it opened. Not bad for someone with no formal culinary training, who landed on these shores just seven years ago.
Born in New Delhi in 1981, Anand earned his undergrad degree in business and planned on a law career; after graduation, he went to work in a local law firm. Then one day his brother, Saurabh, a caterer and restaurateur, asked him to help with a party, and Anand loved the work. “After my first day in the kitchen,” he says, “there was no return.” Anxious to learn to cook, he trained with top chefs in Delhi and Punjab.
Anand came to New York City in 2006 and opened Bhatti Indian Grill in the neighborhood known as Curry Hill. Bhatti earned a number of accolades quickly, including “Best Indian Restaurant in New York City” (Open Table, Diners' Choice, 2012). A second restaurant, Desi Galli, an Indian street food concept, followed in mid May 2012.
In July 2012, the Anand brothers (Saurabh still lives in India but is Gaurav’s business partner) opened their third restaurant, Moti Mahal Delux, the first U.S. location of a popular New Delhi–based chain with more than 100 locations in India, Nepal, and London. It’s definitely more upscale than the two previous restaurants but still quite a bit cheaper than equivalent spots around town.
“New York has seen dosa joints and chicken tikka masala galore,” Anand says, “And very fine dining Indian with elaborate chandeliers and fancy cocktails. We see this as a happy medium between the two…with refinement, sophistication, and authenticity.”
Checks average around $11 for lunch (due to lunch specials). At dinner, apps range from $6.95 to $9.95, with clay oven items from $8.95 to $22.95. Entrées are $12.95 to $17.95.
The Mughlai cuisine at Moti Mahal Delux is based on dishes created “by royal chefs in the imperial kitchens of the Mughal Empire.” The cuisine is known to be rich but well balanced, with subtle spicing and layered flavors. Signature dishes at Moti Mahal Delux include tandoori chicken, butter chicken (marinated in yogurt and sauced with sweet tomato puree), curry (goat brain, chicken, crab, or shrimp), and black lentil kaali daal. To learn the dishes, Anand and his cooks flew to India to train under the chain’s executive chef.
The Anand brothers are now the global franchisers of Moti Mahal Delux, with the Upper East Side location serving as the flagship for additional U.S. locations to come. In the future they plan expansion into Washington, D.C., Dallas, and Chicago, for starters. “These are all hot spots for Indian cuisine,” Anand says, “and have the need for a restaurant of this nature.”
Gaurav and his wife, Shagun, live in New York City and have no children but one Yorkie named Gucci.
Moti Mahal Delux, your third restaurant, was a bit of a departure for you, what with it being a franchise, a chain. Why did you choose this route?
I came to New York six years ago with dreams of being a restaurateur. How I would do that, I had little idea. My first two restaurants were a big success and when the opportunity of opening a franchise of one of the oldest, most credited and celebrated Indian restaurants in the world presented itself, I was humbled and jumped at the offer. I grew up eating this food, and what better way for me to expand my career than to learn how to make this food, and open a restaurant with the same name.
How many more units do you plan to open?
Undecided! We’re still on cloud nine with Pete Well’s two-star review. We’ll expand, but right now, we’re new and need to establish ourselves and live up to the review. When people on the West Coast start talking about Moti Mahal and have the urge to fly to NYC to eat the food, then we’ll expand! Until then, we’ll make sure our flagship on 63rd Street and first Avenue is well taken care of. I don’t want my focus to be distracted for now.
What was your family’s approach to food when you were a child? Are your people foodies?
My parents never stopped us from eating anything. It was always dinners out at different restaurants, travels all over India, and exploration of cuisines. Nothing was off the menu for us.
What first brought you to New York from New Delhi?
The love of my life, who is now my wife, Shagun. She was here in NYC studying, and I followed her. I landed at JFK with two suitcases and a lot of dreams. I had to prove myself to her, her family, and myself. So I decided that NYC was where I would become somebody.
As a young chef/restaurateur new to America, what was the biggest adjustment/difficulty for you?
It was learning the ropes of the business, how to operate a restaurant in one of the toughest and most competitive cities in the world. It was also about changing the mindset of the public and the cooks. They wanted shortcuts. For example, they wanted to use purees and pastes instead of fresh tomatoes. The public was used to either fusion Indian cooking or inauthentic Indian food. I had to find a balance of authenticity and genuineness, while maintaining a price point that would allow repeat customers.
Are you able to get the ingredients you need/want here in the U.S.?
Some of them, but some of our special spice blends and signature spices are imported from India, along with the butter that we use in our signature butter chicken dish at Moti Mahal Delux. It’s Amul butter, imported from India. You can’t find that flavor here!
What aspect of the restaurant business do you love the most?
Satisfied customers and playing with flavors. I like to experiment with nontraditional ingredients and mix them with authentic spices. For example, at Moti Mahal Delux, you’ll find a dish with broccoli and saffron sauce. Broccoli is not traditional Indian but saffron is.
And what’s your least favorite part of the business?
Angry customers and negative reviews. People sometimes lack patience. They get irritated when they have to wait for a table for five minutes or don’t get a refill of water on time—situations that are sometimes out of my control. After five years in the business, I’ve realized that you can’t please everyone. There will be some who love your food and some who won’t. What can you do? I do my best to give people amazing experiences, but at the end of the day, it’s their opinion.
What’s the one thing in your kitchen(s) you couldn’t live without?
My spice box! It’s a complicated mix of about 20 to 30 spices, and the only way to distinguish them is by smell. They all look and feel the same and are the centerpiece of all my dishes.
What was the best day of your culinary career so far?
My two-star review in the New York Times. I felt that was a big accomplishment for me, my hard work had paid off, and my wife and family were so proud. I couldn’t have asked for more. Now I wake up every day striving to maintain that standard.
And the worst day?
Every day is a challenge—so unpredictable and so uncertain. You take each day with a grain of salt and know that tomorrow all will be OK. So no specific worst day yet…and I hope there aren’t any in the future!
What one character trait is most responsible for your success?
Persistence and hard work…it always pays. You just have to believe in yourself and have a dream. The rest will come.
What’s your favorite comfort food?
My wife’s cooking. It’s simple, stress-free, and homey. And that’s what I take back to my kitchens. Cooking should be a pleasure, not a pain. Simple daal (lentils), home-cooked vegetables like okra and eggplant…that are not too complicated but bursting with flavor. You don’t need fancy ingredients to make amazing food. You need simplicity, elegance, and passion to make great food. Love and patience!
What’s the best advice you ever received?
Believe in yourself, be honest, and never give up, come what may. There is always light at the end of the tunnel. The journey and the destination both matter.
Professional goal/fantasy not yet attained?
Making myself and my restaurant a brand name, a name that’s recognized in the food industry.
With three restaurants to run, you must not be doing so much cooking anymore. Do you miss it?
I spend about 16 to 20 hours in my kitchens every week. I have to, to keep the staff on their toes, to keep myself on my toes. And to never forget why I first moved to Manhattan. Cooking is my passion. The fact that I’ve opened three restaurants in five years is a bonus. But cooking is what I like to do, and that is what I want to do forever.
If you were to close your restaurant(s) today, what would you do tomorrow? Next month? Next year?
Running restaurants is what I know, I love, and I do best. I'd be lost without my restaurants!