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Paddy Fields to NYC’s Hottest Indian Restaurant, Michelin Star Chef’s Amazing Journey

Paddy Fields to NYC’s Hottest Indian Restaurant, Michelin Star Chef’s Amazing Journey

Semma in New York received a Michelin Star last week. Chef Vijaya Kumar from Tamil Nadu tells us how he has incorporated dishes rarely found in restaurants that honour his South Indian heritage.

Imagine sitting in a Michelin-star restaurant in New York. 

You order some exquisite Kanyakumari Nandu Masala (crab masala). If you thought you were going to eat it with a fork and spoon, you’d be mistaken. At Semma, the restaurant that just received its first Michelin star last week, you will be encouraged to eat it with your hands. 

Why, you ask? 

Because that’s how it’s enjoyed in a typical Tamilian household, from where the dish originates. 

Run by the hospitality group Unapologetic Foods, the team led by Roni Mazumdar and Chintan Pandya, believe in truly being unapologetically Indian. Semma’s food is a tribute to chef Vijaya Kumar’s childhood and the food he grew up eating. 

“Ours might be the only restaurant with a Michelin star where you are encouraged to eat with your hands,” laughs Roni, Founder & CEO, of Unapologetic Foods. 

Roni adds, “When did the idea of eating with your hands become inferior? Growing up, we’ve always tried to use forks and spoons at restaurants, why? If you go to a Japanese restaurant, they will only give you chopsticks, no forks or spoons. If that is okay, why isn’t our authentic way of eating, with our fingers, acceptable?” 

Their motto is simple – ‘move away from the Eurocentric vision of Indian food, and present food with authentic flavours, as they are cooked at our houses’. If that means making the dish spicy, that’s how it’s done. 

So customers who order the Nandu Masala are given bibs and wet tissues so that they can use their hands to break open the shells, and enjoy the masala, the way it was intended. 

The restaurant which opened a year ago has already won several accolades. According to Bon Appetit, it is the only Indian restaurant in New York to receive a Michelin star this year. 

After running a few other restaurants in New York like Dhamaka and Adda Indian Canteen, Roni wanted to open a restaurant that truly honoured South Indian food. After meeting chef Vijaya Kumar, and hearing stories of the food he ate growing up, they knew that they had to present these dishes to the world.

Cooking with snails

Nathai Pirattal
Nathai Pirattal at Semma. Image: Paul McDonough

It was financial constraints that made the chef take up this line of work. Chef Vijaya wanted to study engineering but as they couldn’t afford it, he chose to go to a catering college. 

He grew up in Natham, Dindigul, in a farming family and was surrounded by lush green paddy fields and coconut trees. He would visit his grandparents during holidays. They stayed in a village called Arasampatti near Madurai. 

Since the village didn’t have any source of entertainment, his grandparents would take him along when they went farming. 

“Our grandparents would take us foraging for snails, hunting or fishing. There was no electricity, buses or even proper roads at that time. I enjoyed doing these activities. My grandmother would then come home and cook the snails in an amazing gravy,” says the 41-year-old chef.

However, as he grew up and went to school, his friends would make fun of him for eating snails.

“Snail was considered a poor man’s food, or a farmer’s food. So we would hide it or not get it to school. Once we went to culinary school, we were taught about escargot, a french delicacy. I was pleasantly surprised. I remember thinking, ‘what is thought of as a poor person’s food, is a delicacy in France’,” says Kumar.

Debating over what to put on Semma’s menu led Roni and Chintan to add snails, which is a big hit. Chef Vijaya says, “The ‘Nathai Pirattal’, which is the snail masala, served with a kal dosa sells out on most nights.”

Roni says Semma honours chef Kumar and his heritage. “We wanted to distinguish the restaurant by having a unique voice and perspective. Semma mimics the life of chef Vijay. It honours his heritage and includes integral moments of his life’s journey,” says 39-year-old Roni.

For Kumar, the menu is derived from his childhood memories.

Mulaikattiya Thaniyam
Mulaikattiya Thaniyam (sprouted moong beans). Image: Paul McDonough

Take, for example, the Mulaikattiya Thaniyam (sprouted moong), which his mother would make when he came home from school as a snack, or the Uzhavar Santhai Poriyal, which is made with vegetables bought from the farmer’s market in Tamil Nadu. Even the Chettinad Maan (Deer) carries a deeply personal story as his grandfather would get the deer. 

The restaurant prides itself on its authenticity. So the meat is not cooked off the bone, be it fish, chicken or goat. 

“Thousands of people have grown up in villages and moved to New York and other parts of the world. When they eat such traditional food, they form an instant connection. So many customers tell me that these dishes reminded them of their mother or grandmother’s cooking,” says Kumar.

“We don’t serve food in a way you might expect it in a western, fine dining restaurant. We don’t want to pamper the American palate. We cook meat with the bone as that is how it gets the real flavour, aroma and taste. We don’t shy away from spices too. Do Italian restaurants add chilli powder for us? Then why should we modify our dishes,” asserts chef Vijaya.

Just like the snail delicacy, the popularity of the Kudal Varuval (Goat intestines) has pleasantly surprised the chef. Most big restaurants in cities in Tamil Nadu itself don’t serve intestines, says chef Vijaya, which he recalls was given away free at the butcher shop in his hometown.

Going beyond Chicken Tikka

Chettinad Maan
Chettinad Maan (Deer) at Semma. Image: Paul McDonough

With Semma and Unapologetic Foods, what Roni and the team aim for is to share their stories. 

“There’s a big barrier and preconceived notion about how we look at food. We only look at it through the lens of economics. In this process, we eliminated certain foods from our conversation. We believe that flavour should not be bound by economics. We will not hold back, our food will have real spices. We will not serve boneless and fillet versions of our dishes. By doing that, you are eliminating the real cultural context of the dish,” says Roni.

Chef Vijaya never saw a true representation of the food he grew up eating as most menus in the US served chicken tikka masala, butter chicken, dal and saag paneer. 

He says, “Each state and region has unique flavours and dishes. In Tamil Nadu itself, there are so many micro cuisines, so different from each other. There’s Kongu food in Coimbatore, and different flavours in Madurai, Chettinad, etc. You can’t just make saag paneer and tell the western world that this is Indian food.”

The ingredients are also authentic, and there is no ‘middle ground’ to appease everyone, says Roni. South Indian food is much more than idli and dosa.

“Most restaurants try to find a middle ground. There is always a samosa sold in a South Indian restaurant which serves dosa or naan and chicken tikka masala. Mughlai/Punjabi food is being sold as ‘Indian food’. But we are so much more than that. There is Tamilian, Bengali, Gujarati, Punjabi, and Marathi cuisine, just to name a few. So in our restaurant, there is no middle ground, and we’re proud of it. We have unshackled ourselves from that thinking,” Roni says with a grin.

Therefore, there is no basmati rice, samosa, naan or chicken tikka masala at Semma.

The dishes are given their true South Indian names sans English translations. Chef Vijaya says that if mushrooms can be called funghi in an Italian restaurant, why should kozhi be called ‘chicken’ on their menu?

And Roni credits the chef for the restaurant’s success.

The team behind Semma
The team behind Semma- Chintan Pandya, Vijaya Kumar and Roni Mazumdar. Image: Paul McDonough

“One of the reasons for the success of Semma is Vijay’s vulnerability. You truly get the chef’s perspective in his food. He has bared his soul. It is because he has owned who he is. And it’s liberating. We don’t have to fit into someone else’s rules,” says Roni.

The love and feedback of people keep this team going. 

“One day, I saw an old gentleman just sitting alone at the table. I asked him if everything was okay. He said that he was remembering his grandfather. The food he ate reminded him of eating at his grandfather’s house, and he said that since he left Chennai many years ago, he had never eaten anything like it. People have shed tears after eating the food as they remember moments from their childhood. They connect with us on a human level,” says Roni.

“When you no longer bend to someone else’s rules, it’s empowering to everyone around you,” he adds.

Edited by Yoshita Rao, Images by Paul McDonough

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