Meherwan Irani, Chai Pani Group
What does authentic mean? And what is the responsibility of the consumer of the art versus that of the artist? I heard those discussions in my graduate school literature classes years ago, and really, they bear out in discussions of food as well. Case in point, this chat with Meherwan Irani, two-time James Beard chef semifinalist with five restaurants in Asheville, NC, Atlanta, and Decatur, GA. He made his name with Chai Pani in Asheville, which enthusiastically celebrates Indian street food, and so you don’t want to miss the part of this discussion where he explains some iconic dishes he serves. We chatted during the Highlands Food & Wine Festival on a day it was 38 degrees at noon, and he and his staff served a lamb chili to a crowd that went through 500 portions in under two hours. I’ll bet a lot of those people didn’t even ask what the name of the dish was, they’d just heard it was good. And for Irani, I bet that omission probably didn’t ruin his day. He sees his role, or at least a role he’s adopted, as that of ambassador for intense Indian flavors that are well-crafted but not intimidating. It’s the idea behind his newest venture, Spicewalla too, which aims to serve both chefs and home cooks and provide the freshness for the Indian spice pantry about which Irani is so passionate. It’s just another example of a man who is constantly considering his role in the communities he serves, in the larger idea of American cooking, and in continuing to create what he calls a “pop of something happening” in the way Indian food is being interpreted here. My South happily encompasses this too, and I am always at the ready to sop my plate of curry with a piece of naan.