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Food & Dining: Vegan Chaat? Chef Palak Patel is banking on it

By Henna Bakshi Email By Henna Bakshi
October 2021
Food & Dining: Vegan Chaat? Chef Palak Patel is banking on it


We are thrilled to introduce our new monthly column! It will feature, on a rotational basis, all of the following and more:

• Restaurant reviews
• The “Best in Town” series: best fine dining, best lunch buffet, best dosa, best chaat, best mithai, etc.
• Seasonal food topics
• Recipes
• From our family to yours: cherished family recipes and traditions
• Shopping Indian foods in the marketplace: seasonal tips, good finds and more
• Wine and spirits for the Indian palate

 

Meet the columnistFoodDining_10_21.jpg

HENNA BAKSHI, formerly the host of “Around the World in $40,” a cooking show on CNN’s Headline News, is a seasoned food journalist and a certified wine expert. Currently, a Producer at HLN - CNN, Bakshi resides in Atlanta with her husband, Andy Leverett. The couple met in college, producing a cooking show together.

Born and raised in New Delhi, India, Bakshi moved to the States at the young age of fifteen. She fondly remembers the ginger-scented kitchens, the hot summer nights, and the colorful streets with vegetable vendors from her childhood in India.

She is also an avid cook—Gordon Ramsay, Padma Lakshmi and Ranveer Brar are her kitchen spirit animals.

Interested in contributing? Guest contributors to the column are welcome. Please email your queries to hennabakshi19@ gmail.com with “Food & Dining Column” in the subject line.


 


Patel, who left behind a corporate career to pursue her lifelong love for cooking, graduated from culinary schools in San Francisco and New York. After further honing her skills as a chef in France, she appeared on many food shows on TV, including beating celebrity chef Bobby Flay on Food Network. Now, she brings us Dash & Chutney, a vegan chaat joint at the newly opened Chattahoochee Food Works in Upper Westside, Atlanta.

by Henna Bakshi

As a child growing up in Madhya Pradesh, Palak Patel was the de facto sous-chef in the kitchen of her joint family feeding fifteen mouths. She immigrated to the U.S. at the age of twelve. Atlanta was her home in the formative years, before she started working in San Francisco. It was then that she realized she wasn’t doing what made her truly happy. “I was doing startups and was really kind of unhappy with work. I always just really wanted to cook,” she says. “So, on my 31st birthday, I gave a birthday gift to myself. I moved to New York from San Francisco.”

Patel soon earned her degree at the International Culinary Center in New York, and then went on to work in the South of France. The professional training at the culinary schools gave her credibility and confidence. However, she credits the women in her household for teaching her how to cook. “No one can teach you flavors that are inherent in our DNA. And being Indian, that's always been with me,” she added.

The training, along with her innate passion for cooking, paid off. Patel beat famed chef Bobby Flay with a chicken curry on Food Network. She was also a finalist on Food Network Star, and now she’s a guest judge on the new show, Money Hungry.FoodDining_1_10_21.jpg

Chef Palak Patel, who graduated from the International Culinary School in New York, has appeared on several cooking shows on TV.

Is chaat having its moment?

What does a New Delhi girl crave most being away from home? If she’s anything like me, it’s chaat.

Crispy, hot, sweet, spicy and saucy… it’s a concoction of textures and layers of flavor that make chaat the perfect snack. It’s best had on roadside, of course. Sweating over bowls of samosas, paani puri, kachori—all as cars and rickshaws whiz by while you attempt a flawless balancing act of dangling shopping bags on both arms, chatting up the food stall bhaiyya for more meetha paani, licking only your fingertips so as not to smudge any of your freshly henna-decorated palms. It’s a vibe.

Dash & Chutney at the newly opened Chattahoochee Food Works in Upper Westside attempts to give you a glimpse into that world. It’s Patel’s first restaurant, and to top it all off, it’s vegan. “When you really just look at the research and the health benefits of eating even a little bit more plant-based, that research is irrefutable,” she said. “It's better for the planet. It's better for your body.”

FoodDining_2_10_21.jpgWhen you first meet Chef Patel, you notice her tiny frame, zipping across the room, dark hair following her as though playing tag, as she buzzes by. She’s instantly comfortable, like an old friend you feel like you’ve known for a while. But it’s her gaze, keen on every detail at her chaat stall, which doesn’t miss a thing. “We’re low on lentils,” she noted to her two-member staff, before snapping right back into the conversation. Or the fact that she noticed a stain on her perfectly clean marble countertop. “Toss me a rag,” she commanded.

The food stall is small, and you can see every inch of the kitchen and the cooks preparing your food. Keeping it running smoothly is much different than a restaurant because of the space limitations, Patel told me. She utilizes her space thoughtfully, saying she can’t over-store ingredients or prep-ahead. Only about a month in, she works 16-hour days, often selling out her limited menu.

“Doing anything that is new or doing it for the first time is really scary,” Patel said.

And now the question is—is the food good? If I’m interviewing a chef, I always dine at their restaurant anonymously before the interview, as most food writers do. This way you can take honest notes about the food. I knew that if vegan chaat stall was anything fusion, pandering to the millennial blueprint, I was out.

FlashFiction__4_10_21.jpgDuring my first visit, I had the kachori and the samosa chaat. There’s also chai on the menu by local vendor The Chai Box, but it was unavailable at the time. The samosa chaat was traditional—small potato samosas cut in half, topped with spiced chickpeas, chutneys and other toppings like onions, cilantro and pomegranate seeds. The kachoris were made with spiced peas, and topped with chutneys and a plantbased yogurt. The spices were not held back. There was no tweaking of flavors here, and certainly no pandering. The chaats were filling, spicy and flavorful— just as chaats should be. Both delicious!

 On the day of the interview, I also tried the Mumbai Grilled Sandwich—made with a tofu-based cheese, onions and bell peppers (is there a better combination in the world?!), and a smear of tomato and green chutney. It was a standout. “This is Atlanta’s favorite right now,” Chef Patel said about the sandwich. “Because this is about as Mumbai as you get, but it's also as American as you get.”

Patel says opening this space was no cakewalk. “Honestly, I've experienced pretty much every stretch of the emotional roller coaster. From complete anxiety to self-doubt,” she said. “And at the same time, it’s the exhilaration of launching something. There is no handbook for any of it. The only best teacher is doing.”

[Left] Dash & Chutney has two murals by Miami-based Indian artist, Kavi, who pulls Indian imagery. (Photo: Andy Leverett) 

Street food is hard to replicate from any region. That’s because one of the most important ingredients is missing—the street. It’s the ambiance, the smells and the hot energy of a region that makes street food so special. But as I sit here writing, snacking on leftover samosas from Dash & Chutney, I realize how lucky we are to have places like this in mainstream AmericanFoodDining_5_10_21.jpg neighborhoods. Representation matters—on TV, in politics, and in food. From grocery stores to farmers’ markets, Indian food is becoming part of the dietary fabric in America. A Delhi girl can sit in her condo in Midtown, half a world away, and eat chaat from a local stall in Atlanta! Now that’s a vibe.

Rapid-fire with Chef Palak Patel

Your favorite Gujrati dish? Dhokla

Favorite Indian dish? Channa Masala

Favorite non-Indian food? Basil fried rice

What are the 3 most popular meals in your household right now? My mom’s handvo, her dosa and daal. I have daal at least three times a week.

Your favorite comfort food? Grilled cheese

Chai or cappuccino? Chai​


Meet the columnistFoodDining_10_21.jpg

HENNA BAKSHI, formerly the host of “Around the World in $40,” a cooking show on CNN’s Headline News, is a seasoned food journalist and a certified wine expert. Currently, a Producer at HLN - CNN, Bakshi resides in Atlanta with her husband, Andy Leverett. The couple met in college, producing a cooking show together.

Born and raised in New Delhi, India, Bakshi moved to the States at the young age of fifteen. She fondly remembers the ginger-scented kitchens, the hot summer nights, and the colorful streets with vegetable vendors from her childhood in India.

She is also an avid cook—Gordon Ramsay, Padma Lakshmi and Ranveer Brar are her kitchen spirit animals.

Interested in contributing? Guest contributors to the column are welcome. Please email your queries to hennabakshi19@ gmail.com with “Food & Dining Column” in the subject line.


 

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