I first heard of Neela when a friend of mine did some very beneficial math. Michele Paniz, my friend & Neela’s daughter-in-law, cleverly saw the advantages of having a renowned-chef, restauranteur and author for a mother-in-law, and an aspiring cookbook author, food blogging, writing and photographing friend (me). Put two and two together and something good was bound to happen! Michele dropped off a copy of Neela’s latest book, The New Indian Slow Cooker, at my house. I sat on it for many days. Ok, a couple of weeks if I’m honest. I was intimidated but I didn’t know why. Was it the new variety of exotic spices? What do you do with a cardamon pod?? Would I be able to do Neela’s recipes justice? I knew I’d be meeting her and I couldn’t let her down. Maybe I simply couldn’t choose a dish to start with – they all looked so amazing I didn’t know where to begin. I bucked up. I got out my slow cooker and I left the house. No, really, I had to go buy a collection of Indian spices, so I left the house.
The minute I started my adventure down the road of Indian cooking, I’ve been rewarded ten-fold and have enjoyed every step of the way. I cannot recommend Neela’s new book and making Indian cuisine at home more. I’ve dog-eared nearly every page in the book. Today, I had the chance to sit down with Neela and find out more about how she arrived at success through her heritage of India.
I am greeted by a large golden retriever. I like this house already. Thinking I was here just for a spot of tea and a quick talk, I was thrilled to learn that Neela is actually going to cook for me! She’s making a lovely flaked rice and potato dish typically served at an Indian brunch. This is the real deal!! Score!
“I never plan, I am a ‘day-of’ cook”, says Neela. I go to the market practically everyday because I don’t want to be restricted to what’s in the kitchen. I want to have either a thought or a visual attraction or a craving.”
Effortlessly, Neela pinches at seeds and spices from her Masala Dabba (the round stainless steel tin meant for easy access to a large variety of frequently-used spices and safe, dry storage,) guess-timating the amounts that only one who is “well-seasoned” can do. Neela started her culinary professional life after a successful career in banking. It was 1985 and she was 38 years old. After a frustrating time in her office job, and a friend’s direction, she opened her first restaurant, Chutney’s. As Michele puts it, “She in an inspiration in being able to reinvent yourself”. Chutney’s brought Indian food to mainstream American eating. Based on the “La Salsa” chain restaurant concept of providing a main dish (tacos) and a salsa bar, Chutney’s provided Tandoori chicken and a chutney bar. “And that began my passion of chutney” says Neela.
After Chutney’s life ran its course, Neela found a new partner and opened The Bombay Cafe. Both restaurants were hugely successful and led to the publishing of her first book, The Bombay Cafe. “I would still tell anyone and everyone who is looking to get into Indian cooking– go buy the cookbook (Bombay Cafe), buy it used, messed up… It is the best ABC’s of Indian cooking. It is simple writing. It is straight-forward. I have improved on a lot of those recipes since because that’s what I am. I am a chef. I am always looking to do better.”
Ragan: Did you ever experience any adversity for not having a culinary education?
Neela: Not at all. My food spoke for itself. And, because I also learned a lot of the ABC’s of cooking by watching the masters, Julia Child, Jacques Pepin, Graham Kerr. These were the three people who were on food television when I first came to this country. I was hooked, I still love food tv today.”
But, I still hadn’t gotten to my most important question. I wanted to know, “What was it like to hold your first published book in your hands?”
“When the book arrived, I was sitting on my bed. There was a package that had been delivered. I opened it, looked at it, and I was speechless. It was amazing because my mother – who was a very strong influence in my life – had always wanted for me to be something in life. Not just to be married and a housewife and a mother. Everybody gets to do that – was her thinking – but everybody doesn’t get to be somebody. And, I know she was proud of the fact that I’d worked in banking, she was proud of the fact that I’d opened the restaurants, she was proud of all of these articles I would send her of the rave reviews and praises and things like that, but it wasn’t until she saw the book – then, I had made it.”
Indeed you have Neela. You are an inspiration to me and many cooks, chefs, writers, and anyone who dares to follow their own passions and seek greatness. Thank you for sharing your story and your time with us.
Now people…go buy this book. Take on something new and enjoy the experience!
Special Thanks to Michele Paniz for making the introduction and believing I could do her mother-in-law justice!
Please also check out Michele’s Photography lifestyle & portrait website– this family is uberly talented!!
by Neela Paniz (for more on Neela, click her name!)