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Rethinking Indian Cuisine In New York

Originally from New Delhi, Peter Beck trained as a chef internationally and eventually made his way to New York, leading the charge to offer upscale Indian cuisine in America at restaurants like Chola, Tamarind, and Imli, winning a Michelin star and James Beard Award along the way. Beck is currently executive chef at Paisley, which opened in 2020 right as the pandemic broke out.

Definitely with this pandemic thing going on, and a lot of lockdowns and a lot of restrictions for restaurants, it has been very, very difficult to survive. The next concept I was thinking about was to do something really fast, quick, and have the type of food where it has to be very beneficial to health. People are staying at home and not doing anything, so they are putting on a lot of weight. And they say, “My next resolution will be to lose weight, to be more health-conscious.”

So I was thinking about what I could give them, which will be wholesome foods with all these beneficial ingredients we use in our Indian cuisine—turmeric, ginger, garlic, onion. And a lot of breads—non-gluten breads like the millet bread, the chickpea-flour bread. We tried cornbread, which is very heavily consumed in most parts of India. It’s obviously done with a lot of greens.

I’ve already started looking for places, but right now it’s not really certain what’s going to happen. Every day there is some good news, but at the same time there is bad. It’s very uncertain with this virus going on. But people have to eat, and especially New York, where they don’t cook much at home.

At the same time, we have to be very careful in choosing the location. Midtown, Times Square—all these places are really, really dead because there are no tourists and not many residents. There are certain places I’ve looked into for this fast-food concept in the Flatiron District. Still, they’re asking rent that is so high. For 1,200 or 1,500 square feet, they are asking for $15,000 to $20,000 rent because those were the prime locations before the pandemic.

But there are certain places where the landlords are really negotiating. They say, “You pay half the rent right now.” They are willing. So I’m looking at those places. But I have to see. To survive, I need at least some business. That’s really important. There’s no point in taking a place where there is no traffic, and you just keep struggling and you don’t know what’s going to happen in the future. But on some of these places I’m looking at, if the landlord agrees and the rent is okay and everything is okay, then I would say by March I’ll be able to launch the new restaurant.

I’ve always wanted to bring Indian barbecues and healthy vegetarian food to New York. During this past decade or so, people were trying to be more organic and more vegetarian. Indian cuisine was considered to be really heavy because of the style of cooking—heavy oil, butter, cream, all that. But back in India, at home they hardly use oil, butter, cream, and all those things. It’s a home-style cooking with just natural onion, tomatoes, ginger, garlic, and spices.

I tried to bring in various dishes from different parts of India. I included dishes from the southern part, from the northern part, from eastern and western parts. It was a combination, because before that in America, Indian cuisine was only focused on the northern part of India—paneer, chicken tikka masala, all that stuff. It was not cuisines from all different parts of India. We also have seafood! India is a coastal region—a peninsula surrounded by the sea. In the southern states of India—Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Goa—seafood is consumed in the morning and the day and the night. They don’t know it here in all the Indian restaurants in America.

Paisley opened on the 6th of February, and by the 6th of March we had to close down because this pandemic came. We were doing extremely good. We were very happy about how the business was rolling. People were appreciating the different style and presentation of the food. Unfortunately, by March we had to close. And then what happened, our owner got a call from asking if we can deliver food to the hospitals. So I said, “Why not? It’s a good cause. We will do it.” So we started delivering in the week three to four times, like 150 meals. They would give us the location, Bellevue Hospital or Mount Sinai Hospital. Every time they would give us different hospitals, and we would deliver to them.

Otherwise we had not started delivery yet because it was right at the opening. I said at first, once we get the staff and the kitchen set up, then I will start the delivery business. Then after the pandemic started, I thought—I’ve been coming to the restaurant nearly four times a week anyway, why don’t I just open for delivery? So we launched our delivery menu, and we spoke to all those platforms that deliver. That is how we were surviving. And in the meantime, we were thinking what to do. All these ideas started coming because we had more time to focus on what should be the future concept with the food.

After some time, they said that we can open the indoor dining, but they closed it down again. When they closed it down, then they said we can do outdoor dining. We already have outdoor seating there because it is an L-shaped corner spot. We would be able to accommodate about 40 people outside. We were busy, but unfortunately it started raining during the evening. So what to do? They started indoor again after a couple of days, but then winter came. We were not so prepared.

I saw a lot of restaurants that did a very good job outside. They enclosed it and did everything. We never did that. We just had curtains to prevent the wind. It was not working out. Like a lot of people, we were thinking—what if we spend so much money to set up outdoor dining, then finally, if things work out, inside dining starts up again? But I think now people are realizing, especially the restaurant people, that it’s not going to happen. Now we are more aggressive with outdoor dining, because we don’t know when indoor dining is going to start.

For winter, I’m trying very hard to retain the staff as much as possible. I don’t want to lay them off, because I know it’s really hard. We are trying to make the delivery menu more elaborate because the consumer market wants more and more. They want variety. So that’s what I’m trying to offer. I’m keeping my staff occupied by giving them more work. We get the business, so they’ll be working more hours.