Roni Mazumdar's American dream
He built a buzzy Indian restaurant empire in New York. Now he wants to change the meaning of being Indian
Throughout my childhood in my Indian-American household, a common refrain could be heard: Why is it so hard to get real, proper Indian food in restaurants?
Sure, there were kebabs, naan, and butter chicken at any number of establishments. But these were the General Tso’s chicken and fortune cookies of a great cuisine, which my parents, admittedly biased, felt to be one of the most complex, multifarious cuisines on earth, boiled down in America to a handful of dishes rarely made well.
And, of course, there have been occasional standout Indian restaurants here and there, mostly in major cities, mostly out of most people’s price range. But the question my parents asked lingered. And I would argue, based on extensive personal research, that the question has finally found its answer, its rebuttal, in Unapologetic Foods.
That is the name of a New York City restaurant group led by Roni Mazumdar and Chintan Pandya. They are the creators of not one but now a litany of restaurants, from fast casual to high end, that have finally answered the question of why Indian food for so long had so little to do with…actual Indian food from India. The names of these establishments — Dhamaka, Adda, Semma, Masalawala, Kebabwala, Rowdy Rooster — are the talk of New York these days. People trip their mothers to get in first. They have won for their efforts a Michelin star — a rare honor for an Indian restaurant — and positions on various top lists. When the New York Times recently pronounced on the 100 best restaurants in New York City, three of Unapologetic’s restaurants made it.
I tell you all this not to make you hungry, but because I think, as Unapologetic’s name suggests, that Roni and Chintan and their team are up to something even more interesting than creating great restaurants and answering my parents’ question. They are trying to change the meaning of being Indian — trying to shake off old colonial inferiority complexes, old pressures to assimilate, old ideas about who could present their food straight up and who had to distort it to please to a white establishment.
So I’m thrilled to present this (to me) really moving conversation with Roni Mazumdar, man of the hour in New York today, but, more than that, someone who is thinking very deeply about what we hide in our cultures and what we share — and how that is changing in America today. And someone who has an incredibly and little-known story to share about coming to America and accidentally getting into food, all because he wanted to give his traffic-cop father something to do in retirement.
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“Our food was working too hard to apologize”: a conversation with Roni Mazumdar
Tell me a little bit about your background growing up in India: your family, growing up in West Bengal, the food habits and traditions you had.
I was born into a fairly middle-class family. It was nothing fancy. I don't think we were ever eating at five-star hotels. It was always about what Mom made, what Dad made. Dad was cooking just as much as Mom.
Was that unusual in those days?
It was. It was exciting, actually. My dad truly had a tremendous affinity towards hospitality and food, without ever pursuing that as a profession. And it never struck me until 27 years later that it could be something. And that cooking talent of his is what gave birth to where I am today in many ways.
I grew up hearing stories of my dad showing up at a local shop selling Mughlai paratha — it's very classic in the Calcutta region — and he says, "Can you make 40 of them? I'll pay to watch you make them." And in my twenties I started to ask myself, How many people would go up to a street vendor with just a desire to learn and say, "I'll pay you for 40 of them. You make them, and I just want to know how you do it,” and then try to replicate that at home? But that desire was something that was really innate in him.
Was it purely recreational for him or did he ever have dreams of working in the industry?
None that he ever expressed. He never, ever expressed, "Here's what I would like to do." He stuck to what he had to do for the family. But there's an artistic aspect to my dad. So in his college time he was doing embroidery on saris, and he would go out and sell them in the local markets and all of that stuff. So a very unique career path that he's had. I grew up seeing a person who really took chances.
Before your family came to America, what was his job?
He was a lawyer, but before that, he had a textile factory. And the factory was part of our house. So I grew up in this really crazy household where part of our house was actually my father's factory where there's undergarments all around, cotton wear, saris being embroidered and printed on. All sorts of things are happening.
I grew up in a joint family, and in the same house, my uncle had a yoga center. So on Saturday and Sunday, there were people coming over to learn yoga. I was an only child, but I never understood what it is to be an only child in that environment.
You talked about your father taking chances. Tell me about the chance of coming to America. What is your memory of arriving in this country, becoming fruit sellers.
Roni’s first day in America
It was a very interesting moment when we first came here. I saw in my father a person who was willing to stop at nothing. As a kid, you're looking up to your father as an example, and here's a person who's saying, "OK, we came here with nothing, similar to what every other immigrant family is in this country, but I'm going to try and figure out the best that I can out of this. Even if that means it's not something that's so socially acceptable or prestigious."
So in the beginning when we started, it was just straight basic hustle that didn't make sense to anybody around us. People could ask, Why would you give up a whole different career that makes so much sense to come to America and do this?
Yeah, sure, you may want to run the next Shake Shack. But what a lot of people fail to understand is that no matter what we look at, there's always a beginning. So, for us, it was One Battery Park Plaza — that's the building we used to be in front of, selling fruit. And I learned some of the greatest lessons of my life in hospitality right there.
Was selling fruit the first thing your father did work-wise when he came to America?
No, I think he worked as a security guard for a few days. He's the scrawniest man, so he wasn’t really built for that.
And you were living where?
We were living in the Bronx at the time. I was living with my aunt in Long Island and going to school out there. And then my parents moved to New York because that's where you'd find quicker jobs, etc. And it was around that time he was like, "Oh, I met this guy. And he said this is what we should be doing." Selling fruit. Initially I was like, "Really? My father?"
Roni in high school in the Bronx
You were thinking, he's a lawyer, he was a factory owner.
And he wants to sell fruit on the streets of New York.
What a crazy person. And I remember that feeling very well. America was this whole glitzy land, and here we are. I was like, "Really? This is not the America I signed up for. What's happening here?" Because you're still programmed to believe in the status system that you've grown up with.
So I told my dad, "Are you sure you want to do this?" And he's like, "Yeah, absolutely. Whatever it takes, we're going to move this family forward." I think it took a lot of guts. And at that time I used to help out my dad. So we used to go out and actually push the cart about 10 to 12 blocks in downtown Manhattan, near the financial district.
There was a trucker who came in every morning and dropped off whatever you ordered. And basically you filled your cart, and you sold it.
I started to help out my dad before school. I would wake up at 4 in the morning to go with him, and I was learning the value of real work. And I saw my father turning that profession into something exciting. He never took it like, I'm doing something that's beneath me. Never. He said, "I'm going to make the best of this moment that's here, right now."
How did you see him do that?
It was this sheer magnetic energy that the man exuded.
Talking with people?
Yes. We were literally selling the same bananas, the same fruits, as the next guy. There was no difference whatsoever. But the way you treated someone, the way you had a conversation with that one person, meant the world to them. To me, it was an unbelievable learning to see how many people would go out of their way, cross other vendors, just because they wanted to say hello.
When you talk about hospitality, I don't think there's a better example than that. It was absolutely incredible. You're literally on the streets, you're breaking the boxes from the night before. On cold days, you're practically getting frostbite. It's not an easy job, but it was enough to get a decent chunk of cash to get things mobilized and moving.
At some point, my dad took a civil service exam, and eventually made his way into NYPD as a traffic cop.
You have described your early years in India as stifling: people had to be who they were prescribed to be. So when I hear about your dad's creativity and embroidering saris and tinkering with food, before he came to America, I wonder if you see him as someone who was limited by the place that he was in, that if he had been born somewhere else…
Without a doubt.
…he would've been the kind of person who creates things the way you've gotten to.
Without a doubt.
When, eventually, he was retiring from the NYPD, I said, "Dad, what do you think your purpose was?" And his one-line response was: "Not all of us are born with the luxury of finding purposes in our lives." I think he had programmed himself to believe that to be his reality. And only as a son can you understand that about your father, because it's no longer about the words but the emotions behind them.
Roni and his father
I knew he wanted to be an entrepreneur. I knew he wanted to try all these things. So that's when I asked myself, How would he stay busy after retirement? A lot of people when they move at a later stage to America, they feel obsolete. They’ve left their friends and families behind. He had to do what he did to take care of his family. And now he's retiring, and all of a sudden that sense of purpose is no longer there. So what is his self-worth? All these questions started to come up.
That’s when I told him, “Dad, what if you opened a restaurant?” He's like, "That's the stupidest idea I've ever heard. Why would we do this? We've never done it." But it was fear speaking. I recognize that, for somebody who comes from a really turbulent background, you strive for stability in your life. He was finally there. His son had a corporate job. By that time I was working in the Fortune 500. I had studied as an engineer and ticked all the boxes that made sense.
You were safe.
Why would anybody throw a wrench in this? In the name of what? And how many people have gotten destroyed in that endeavor? But I realized, the cost of not doing it is actually my father's sense of livelihood. He's not realizing it. But I think as a son, if there's one thing I can do for my dad, it would be this very thing.