|Photo by Louis Vest
Anita Jaisinghani is the Chef/Owner of two award-winning restaurants in Houston. Raised in India and trained as a micro-biologist, Anita came to Houston via Canada in 1990. Having been a stay-at-home mother for her two young children, she gradually developed her love of food into a very successful career, starting out as a pastry cook at Houston’s famous Café Annie, then with her own restaurants, Indika in Montrose and Pondicheri in River Oaks. With both menus, Anita combines the complexities of Indian cuisine with the goodness of fresh Texas ingredients.
What’s your story, Anita?
I have always loved food. As a teenager I wanted to learn more but Indian food is possibly the most undocumented undisciplined cuisine there is. People just do their own thing. There is no prescribed way to make anything in India and every dish has a different version in every family. The one culinary school in India is in Mumbai and it’s more of a catering college so my parents asked me, “Why would you go to cooking school?” All my family were professionals and very respectable, we employed a cook at home, so in the end I went into micro-biology.
I left India and moved to Canada in 1980 and I loved it there. I have a degree in microbiology, I was working towards becoming a pathologist and my daughter was born there in 1988. We moved to Houston in 1990 and my son was born here so I was a stay-at-home mom for about four or five years.
But I still had this affinity for food and I began to play with it more and more when I got to Houston. I had some friends from Morocco, from France and from Holland. Talking and making food with them was a great influence about food on me. We opened up a little catering business out of our homes and that did well, with some very high-end clients in town. Then I opened up a little business selling sauces to Whole Foods. I did start to study at the restaurant and hotel management school at the University of Houston, but when you are older than most of the students, you get most of it so fast and I just felt that I could learn all that I wanted to learn through real-life experience instead.
I wanted to work in a restaurant, so I looked at the list of Houston restaurants and said to myself, “What is the number one restaurant in the city? Café Annie? Let’s go there!” I sent my résumé to them and they let me come in for a day’s trial. I had the wrong shoes on and the wrong clothes and the guy who had to spend the day with me, the seafood cook, had me down as some wannabe and told them, “Don’t take her.” But there was a pastry chef there at the time who had been watching me on the other side of the restaurant and she said, “If you want to come and work in pastry, you can come and work for me.” I said, “I’ll work for free for you, just let me in the kitchen!”. I started working for Café Annie for free for two days a week - with the right shoes and the right clothes, of course – and within a month, they offered me a job. It was part-time as a pastry cook. My husband couldn’t understand it. We paid our maid more per hour than I was earning, but to me it was like gold.
I worked at Café Annie for about two years. They did offer me the job of Pastry Chef, but I turned it down because I didn’t want the responsibility, and also I’ve never had a sweet tooth. We have these sweet cookies which we serve at Indika at the end of the meal and that was the only thing that I knew how to make really well when I walked into Café Annie. Then, when I started looking at locations for my own place, they gave me a lot of support and at the end of my two years working there, I brought them a plate of those cookies as a gift. Chef Robert Del Grande immediately said, “I want the recipe!”
We opened Indika in 2002 and I ran it for about ten years, but I wanted to do a restaurant which would take food to more of a street level. I wanted a mass appeal restaurant without compromising on the authenticity of the cuisine, not just keeping it traditional, I wanted to add a creative touch. That’s what I’ve tried to do here at Pondicheri. I opened here on March 1st, 2011, so I’ve been here just over two years.
Of course, I have a crew at each restaurant that I have trained very carefully so I can spend about two days each week in the kitchen at Pondicheri and two days at Indika. Outside of that, there is a lot of other stuff that I end up doing, but I am trying to delegate more and more of that. I try to focus as much on the food as I can. It’s a balancing act, knowing how to delegate, and knowing how to train other people is something I’ve learned on the way.
With my children, I made a very strong decision to put family first, though my kids might disagree with me on this! Within a year of opening Indika I got a divorce, so I was pretty much a single mom with two kids of 12 and 14. That’s a tough age to be a single mom, but we lived within a block of the old Indika location in Memorial and those were some of my best years, you know, and my kids turned out great. I had a few rules that I followed as a mother. I ate breakfast with my kids and that was our time together, an hour every morning and I would make them whatever they wanted. Then I was always at home when they came back from school at 3.30. That was the middle of my working day anyway, so when they came home we all had a snack and a drink together and would talk about our day. Then I would go back to Indika at about 6.30 or 7pm and come home at ten or eleven. They were home alone most evenings, but I had Sundays and Mondays off because we were closed. Sometimes they would walk over to the restaurant and we would eat dinner together too if I wasn’t too busy. Other than that, I stayed on top of things as best I could.
Why do you do what you do?
I am such a big lover of everything I grew up with in India, though I didn’t realize that until I left. I couldn’t wait to come to America and to try all the new food. In fact, my first week in Canada was spent in the supermarket examining the food – it looked like art! In India, if you visit the markets, they are very visceral, you can smell and feel everything. Here, everything was so beautifully packed and presented, and I thought it was so clever. It took me a few months to ask myself, “Why doesn’t it taste as good?” At first I denied that there was a difference, but when I went back after my first year away and had some chicken at my mother’s house, it tasted simply amazing! This was in the early 80s and the chickens over here were already being pumped up with stuff, unlike the scrawny chickens we would eat in India. The bananas over there might be spotty, but they tasted so much better in India than they did over here.
That’s really what made me look at food and ask why does it all taste so different in India than here? At first, I used spices as a way of masking the inherent taste that I didn’t like about American and Canadian food. At that point, I had never heard of organic or of national/local because that was just how we lived in India, it wasn’t special, that’s just the way it was. So that took me some understanding.
I used to talk about opening a restaurant when I was a young mother, but I never thought that I’d actually do it. I was going to work as a micro-biologist! By the time I came to the US, however, I loved to entertain. I could make a dinner party for forty people, cooking all day. It would be the most seamless party you’d ever been to because all the food would be perfectly done and that just came easy to me. I loved the organizational skills to run a dinner party. I wondered how I could take that up to the next step and do it in a restaurant and that became my journey of reinterpreting Indian food.
My parents were from a small province called Sindh which now only exists as part of Pakistan, so my food is different from most Indian food that you taste, although I love all Indian food and I try to represent the country as best I can. I bring in local Texas ingredients because asking me to cook in Houston without using local ingredients is like asking me live here without breathing the air. I have to use what I have close by. Indians do a lot more than what you see in restaurants too. In the south you get all sorts of octopus, mussels and crab and in Rajasthan where my uncles live, there is lots of hunting. We used to eat whole pig roasts and ducks and quail, so there is a lot more to Indian food than most people know. People ask me if I use these ingredients because they are Texan but I say, “No, it’s because they are things I know about.”
Who or what has been the greatest influence on your life?
I think opening my own business gave me great confidence. I own Indika with my ex-husband, but opening Pondicheri on my own has definitely given me a lot more confidence. I’ve learned more here than I did there because here I deal with everybody. I’m not fighting a battle though and I’m not trying to prove anything so if I don’t enjoy it, then I’m not going to do it anymore.
My mother was a great influence on me too. She’s been gone for sixteen years so she didn’t live to see my two restaurants, but she used to tell me that I could do anything I wanted to with my life and that I was the best thing in town. Like an idiot, I believed her!
What advice would you give to someone new to the restaurant business?
I’d say, get experience in the business, whether you are man or a woman. Learn everything about the business from A to Z, don’t depend on anyone else to tell you how to work the numbers, what the tax implications are or about financial planning. And you have to know that what goes out must be less than what comes in. If you follow that, you’ve got a business!
How to do you find, or seek to find, balance in your life?
That is my greatest challenge! But it’s all about having the right team and I do have a great team in each restaurant. I could be the greatest cook in the world, but I need to have a team who can follow my vision. Or not even my vision, I am a very collaborative person. I’m not stuck on my own ideas, so if one of my team tells me that there’s a better way to do something, then I will do it the better way. I always talk to my staff the way I would want to be talked to, I don’t shout at people and I’m not an abuser. As a result, I don’t have a high turnover. I don’t pay them more than the industry standard, but I have learned how to treat people well. In any business, picking out the right people and knowing how to treat them well is crucial. That means that I can walk away, so I travel a lot and I can take vacations. When I’m away, I don’t call all the time to ask if they are okay, if they need something, they’ll call me.
What does Houston mean to you?
I love Houston because of the weather – people always laugh at that! Houston is my home now, but I have to admit I didn’t like it at first, I thought it was an ugly city. We moved here from Calgary which is at the base of the mountains and then we were in Boston for about six months. It’s so beautiful there in the fall and I just didn’t want to leave. When we came to Houston, I still had one leg out but now that I have two businesses here, I have definitely put both feet down. What I love about Houston is the people. I came here out of nowhere and opened up a business and I had more support from native Houstonians than I did from anybody else, even from my friends. It was the native Houstonians who have helped me out and so I have a lot of affection for them.
Where is your happy place in Houston?
My home and my two kitchens. I don’t get out much and I’m not a very public person. I’m not a media hog, I turn down every request to be involved with things unless I am really required to do it. I’m not a social butterfly, I never go to bars and I’m usually home by ten! I’m not like some chefs who finish their work and then go to bars drinking. Also I am a strong believer in leading by example. If I am a drinker and a talker, then what am I teaching my kids or my staff? I can’t do one thing and expect them to do another.
What is your favorite restaurant?
For special occasions I will still go to RDG – which used to be Café Annie – because I am very fond of the people there because they gave me a start. Outside of that, I love Korean food and also there’s a phenomenal place called Mala Sichuan on Bellaire Boulevard – I’ve eaten there twice in the last week! You know, Indian food has a lot of Chinese influences and I’ve been playing with some Chinese cooking here. Then I discovered that place and I now want them to give me a lesson in how to cook their food! That would be awesome.
What is your Houston secret?
The park by Allen Parkway – it’s under construction just now but it has bike and walking trails and I’m on it every other day. A few people know about it and I’m sure once the construction is finished it’ll become a more public park and more people will go there. For me, logistics are important. I don’t want to give up half a day to go somewhere, but I can walk there from my house or go on my bike and it’s just beautiful.
If you could change one thing about Houston…
Mountains would be nice! Or even just a hill!
To find out more about Anita’s restaurants, please visit Pondicheri at 2800 Kirby Drive and Indika at 516 Westheimer Road.