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Q & A With Jehangir Mehta

After working in some of NYC’s finest restaurants, including Jean Georges and Compass, chef Jehangir Mehta has recently opened a humble, 18-seat savory/sweet eatery of his own.  Located in the East Village, Graffiti is a visual scrapbook of his life; the menu a culinary scrapbook of both his Mumbai upbringing and expansive training.  His unique cuisine subtly marries contemporary Asian cuisine with Indian seasonings.

At Graffiti, his signature dishes include the foie gras
raspberry crostini with walnut salad and the chili shrimp with a curry
steamed rice cake.  Of course, don’t skip this pastry chef’s desserts, such as the hazelnut chocolate caviar cupcake with chocolate chip ice
cream.

Status: Single/Married/Divorced
Married

What did you want to
be when you grew up?

Honestly, I would
say I wanted to do something with people – more so in terms of not complete social
work type of work, but do something in working with the poor.  I know I will do that at one point in my life.

What was your first
job in food?

In New York, it was an internship at L’Absinthe.

How did your family
influence your perception of food and cooking?

I learned mostly why
foods were eaten; honey is what we had in the morning because it’s good for
your skin. I like having it with hot water. Everyday we had fresh coconut water;
we ate the foods that were beneficial to our health. We ate raw walnuts instead of making walnut
cake.

How was working with
Jean Georges and opening Mercer Kitchen?

I really liked
working for Jean Georges. He is not the
easiest person to work with, and I really liked that. I liked his rule of discipline, something
that bothered most Americans. I think
his discipline made me a better chef.  He promoted me to pastry chef.  He was the first person to give me that title,
and there were two other people who had more experience and yet, he chose me.

How was the
transition to working with Rocco di Spirito at Union Pacific?

Rocco’s
establishment was very old-style work.  Everybody washed dishes, not
just the dishwashers. I liked getting yelled at while working for Jean Georges.  I liked being scared in the kitchen at
Union Pacific.  That fear makes you a better chef.

You have a separate business
of event planning and wedding cake production. How many wedding cakes do you do, how did you get involved in that
aspect of pastry?

We have a website, www.partistry.com, for wedding cakes,
party favors, and catering. I don’t
advertise it as much because we have so much on our hands, but we are doing
events and parties in homes from 20-250 people. I would say it is one of the most enjoyable parts of my job at this
point.

At this point I would like to do
both, but I would really like to focus more on event planning in the future. I like
making their invitations, thank you cards, arranging taxi services for them… the
whole event.

What are your
favorite seasonal ingredients?

Probably fennel – it
is supple and very nice to use.

What
have been your greatest challenges in venturing into owning and operating your
first restaurant?

The
biggest, biggest challenge is accounting.

What’s
most important to you in running your kitchen?

One thing I feel that is most important to know is that my
sous chef, Didier Virot,
and I have worked together for 10 years.  I really think that most people feel it’s only
one person that makes it happen.  I don’t
think I would be where I am without my sous chef.  I don’t
think many people can say they can run a restaurant with four people who have
worked together for such a long time. Our love in the kitchen translates to the people who come to eat. I think
that’s very, very important.

Why did
you name your restaurant Graffiti?

I wanted
something that is international, done all over the world, because our food is
from all over the world, as is our staff.

What’s your favorite dish on Graffiti’s menu, and why?
The scallops, because of its story. I used to cook scallops at home for my wife,
and she would always challenge me to make them better. One day I realized that scallops have a
natural sweetness, and I realized that I should pair them with something sweet. I made a jam with chili peppers and pickled
ginger. The spicy and sweetness of the
jam made the scallops what my wife believed were absolutely the best scallop
she had ever eaten. Now, I feel
extremely happy whenever someone says they love it, as it’s one of the best
dishes I’ve come up with, and its history makes it go to my heart more than
anything.

What’s your least favorite dish (and yes, you must pick
one)?

Luckily our menu is so small that I have never really felt
that I had to have something on it that I didn’t love. However, because our restaurant is so small,
our kitchen is small, preventing us from making complex desserts. I would love to have more complex desserts,
but we don’t have the space. Nevertheless,
the simpler desserts sell much better.

What is your junk food of choice?
Cashews. I love eating salted cashews.

Other than your own, what’s your favorite restaurant in NYC?
I have two – August and Tabla Bread Bar.

What culinary trend do you most embrace?
The trend of good service, which I think is lacking. One person who does it extremely well is
Thomas Keller at Per Se and French Laundry. I like service as much as the
rest of the attributes.

What trend do you wish would die already?
The trend of doing things to be different – I think that’s
stupid, like doing it because you know you’ll get press on it, or doing it
because this person did it in Spain or whatever. Doing it even though you
know it doesn’t taste that good but because the press likes it.

What’s next on the horizon for you? Any new ventures or restaurants in the
works? Spill the beans…

Expanding, making a bigger restaurant in NYC, but I don’t know where. I also run an event planning company
called Partistry, selling handmade chocolates, teas and a line of hand-painted wedding cakes.
I’ve been busy writing a cookbook on desserts that is coming
out in May called “Mantra, The Rule of Indulgence” which focuses on health.

Address: 224 E. 10th St., btwn. 1st & 2nd Ave.
Phone: (212)677-0695

Photo Credit: Kyle Erin Schmitz

Until we eat again,
Restaurant Girl
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