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Heena Patel On Taking Her Restaurant Vegetarian And Being True To Her Own Story

A first-generation Indian immigrant, Heena Patel is chef-owner at San Francisco’s Besharam. In 2021, upon reopening from a pandemic closure, Patel decided to convert Besharam into a vegetarian restaurant.

The pandemic felt like the last two years stretched out. I got more time to reflect on my story and on myself, where I am, and where I am going with this space.

As a minority, representation means so much to me. I want to be true to myself. With the age I am, and how I look, I sometimes feel that I don’t fit into the right box. I’m vegetarian myself. I grew up in Gujarat state. It has a culinary lineage of vegetarians. About 98 percent of people there are vegetarians, including my parents and grandparents. It’s a homage to them to turn my restaurant vegetarian.

Heena Patel at Besharam restaurant in San Francisco. Photo: Sarah Felker.

It takes time to make the journey. I realize now that I’m almost three to four years as a chef. I’m more confident, and I want to be able to reflect who I am. This is the best way to turn my dishes vegetarian—not necessarily vegan, but all vegetarian.

I don’t have any background to be a restaurant owner. I can’t take from my past history, or reach out within my family to get guidance. I feel sometimes like I’m alone, but I’m also very strong. As a first-generation immigrant, surviving is the strongest drive. I’m sometimes the biggest critic of myself, of who I am.

I love the chaos. I love the challenges. I’ve been told in the past, “Are you crazy? It’s time to retire. Talk about grandbabies.” My mom still says that something is wrong with me. But I have so much to share.

Photo: Sarah Felker.

When I used to talk about pav bhaji, I said, “This is a vegetable and meat version of the Sloppy Joe,” or something like that. Now I don’t feel that weight. I’m proud to say, “This is pav bhaji. I’m so excited to serve it to you. This is what I ate in the state of Mumbai” That is exciting as a chef. My guests are paying attention to the names and want to learn how to pronounce them as much as my staff. I mean, what more I can ask? They are so educated. They are so excited.

I want to create that same culture for the guest and also the staff. I want them to feel equal. I realize that I’m not doing this alone. It Is not possible. It’s the whole team. I have to guide the whole team, and that takes a lot. In my experience, this culinary world is so competitive. I’ve been bullied in the kitchen. I’ve cried in front of the staff, but I don’t want to repeat that. I’m very, very against being loud or using bad language. That’s what I want to present to the guests and also the back of the house.

When I started with the new menu, I knew I wasn’t here to please everybody. If you read my reviews, they bounce. One person likes it, one person hates it, and I’m okay with that. I’ve been running this menu since May of last year, and I have not seen this kind of excitement and warmth before. This is my third year doing this, and it’s like turning the page.

Photo: Sarah Felker.

I want to do more. I feel like we are going to have the best year. We’re launching a supper club. Every Sunday night I’m going to welcome the guests with a special three-course family-style prix fixe feast meant to be shared with friends and loved ones. Like khichdi, which is actually a very humble food. I grew up eating it, especially on Sunday night. I have so many memories around khichdi, watching and waiting for it to be ready for a cozy dinner with my family. On Sunday night we wind up our whole week, but we’re also a little bit anxious for Monday. I’ve hated Mondays all my life. I want to serve this on a Sunday night and invite guests to have a simple, rustic meal.

I have an open kitchen. I cook in front of the guests, and they’re coming up to me every day to say that they’ve had the best meal. That’s from the younger generation, and from my generation. Because me and my husband are the owners, you see the older people coming in. Look, this is a mom-and-pop restaurant. I feel like you’re coming into my house. You see a wide range of guests of all ages, and they’re all saying the same things. That shows I’m doing something right, and that gives me such confidence as a chef.