Pondi Diaries Part I
- Backstory -
After thousands of years of occupation by Greeks, Turks, Persians and the British, Indian food remains a constantly evolving free wheeling unregimented cuisine where almost nothing is sacrosanct yet all is held together by the magical use of spices. Disappointed that red stained chicken and creamy frozen spinach were America’s portrayal of Indian food, I had a gnawing urge to transform this sad portrayal of my homeland’s food. Pairing my growing American sensibility with an incessant passion for food, I decided to open a restaurant. Indika opened in 2001, a high-end restaurant where I explored one wild idea after another from foie gras with fig compote to crab samosas with papaya chutney for roughly 8-10 serendipitous years in Houston. Now that I had brought attention to Indian food, my next challenge was to create the kind of all day restaurant or cantina that one could eat nourishing meals everyday. I opened Pondicheri in the spring of 2011 and with a James Beard best new restaurant nomination and the local food critic Alison Cook’s comment “There is no place like Pondicheri in the known universe”, my first few months were a series of exhilarating evolving ideas trying to find their home at Pondicheri. Knowing little about the restaurant business but using sheer indomitable will, strong instincts and a lot of labor I had now successfully opened two profitable restaurants and life was good.
A year after opening Pondicheri, in the summer of 2012 I married Abel Salazar, the love of my life. We had fallen madly in love over 10 years ago and much to my surprise and his credit, the relationship persisted. Having done it once, I resisted the doomed proposition of marrying a man 14 years younger. I had made it amply clear to Abel that he would have to wait until my kids were out of the house for us to begin a life together and patiently he waited. He knew the way to my heart was through my kids and my restaurants and his unwavering support in those days still brings tears to my eyes. From speeding across the city mid-day to fix my children’s car tire to helping them with SAT prep, to hauling a case of wine from a vendor across the city, he was always there for us. He was raised by a loving mother and three sisters but with a tormented father bent on repeated physical abuse. Still, despite the odds he was the first in his family to receive a college degree and attain a high level job as an engineer. Like any abuse, Abel’s manifested in internal demons that he spent a lifetime overcoming with a heart wrenching, massive capacity to love those close to him.
Around 2014, with the successes in Houston, we contemplated expanding elsewhere. ‘Swing for the fences, Mom!’ Virag’s words still echo through me. Armed with an economics degree fresh from a prestigious east coast college, he was young, optimistic, and full of hope and vigor. ‘Why would you open a Pondicheri in Austin or Dallas when you can go to New York?’ My daughter Ajna, who had just finished drama school at Stella Adler, was even more enthusiastic about the idea. New York City has always reminded me of Mumbai, which I describe to friends as “Manhattan on steroids”. Abel was zealously on board while seriously considering shifting careers from the oil field to the restaurant business. His ultimate goal was to work with me and support me the best he could. If I decided to open a restaurant on the moon, he would be there without hesitation to help. He had earned enough money through the oil business that he could not only contribute to a new Pondicheri, but also be a pivotal part of running it. The thought of a restaurant that was borne from familial and culinary love in the city that reminded me most of India seemed like another dream come true so off we rode into that flatiron sunset.
The initial process was easy, almost so easy it belied what was to follow. Maybe it was so easy because I didn’t question things enough. That’s the number one thing I learned from New York – Question Everything. The realtors were classic old school New Yorkers who talked incessantly, shuffled us through different properties, threw their arms up in the air with an occasional “Well, its New York!” roll of the eye and introduced us to building owners. Given the huge sums of money they are paid to do this, I am surprised a more efficient way has not yet emerged.
Ajna, my wide eyed budding actress called me one day saying that I have to jump on a plane and see a location of a lifetime. I asked her if it was worth the $600 plane ticket and she assured me yes. Like every other loyal Indian mother, I jumped on the plane. Walking into that old building felt like a time warp…peeling walls, strange stench, moldy floors with an ancient elevator and a host of cobwebs. I instantly fell uneasy but chalked it up to its age and that instinct that I held so close to my heart came under the cloud of ‘Oh, its New York’. Did my daughter say it was great? Yes, so it was. Was it big? Yes well so was Texas. Was there more to question? Oh yes, oh so much more! Years later, I was told by an energy expert that toxic spaces can warp our instincts to lead us to make fatal mistakes. As a family, we were on the brink of making ours.
The 12 floor building on 27th street just off Broadway among others, we found out later had been previously occupied by a Mafia ring but been boarded up for well over 50 years. It was now deemed a ‘Landmark’ building that was bought by a 100-year-old New York real estate company. The New York Landmark Preservation Commission defines a landmark building as “one that has a special character and aesthetic value as part of the development, heritage and cultural characteristic of the city” and they preside over any and all external aesthetic decisions. We were on a quiet dark street and little were we aware that their rules would go on to prevent us from creating the exposure and signage we needed to be noticed. Surprisingly none of the realtors, designers, architects, or consultants warned us enough about Landmark issues. Still blissfully unaware we moved forward with months of negotiations and eventually signed a lease. While our landlords appeared straightforward and somewhat nice at the beginning, we soon learned that any landlord in NYC has to be ruthless in order to survive. Once the lease was signed, the relationship turned cold and clipped. The warm rays of Texas sunshine do not shine the same in Manhattan.
At this point in the story, I have trusted my two children for business advice and please note that they both still had a credit card of mine and drove cars their father bought them. Yet, I had also trusted their enthusiastic advice when I opened Indika and Pondicheri in Houston. These were two kids who had grown up in restaurants and been at the brunt of not having parents around during their most pivotal years at home. Of course they were my biggest fans and had my best interest… but at the same time, I had just signed a lease for a 6,000 square foot restaurant (half main floor and half cellar). The cellar was given us as ‘free space’ so that was good, right? Did I even have a clue as to what it would take to build out that part? Did we even need the cellar? Did I know what I was getting myself into? Did I question things enough functionally? No, but neither did I when I went from homemaker to business owner fifteen years ago and I managed to make it work. Charting unknown territory was something I truly enjoyed being in – it was where I could hear my intuition the clearest.
We decided to enlist the help of a small well-recommended design build firm around the corner. A motley crew of mostly immigrants from South America and Eastern Europe who appeared promising but again, incessant chatter and bravado. We found out later that the general contractor had never designed a hospitality space of our size and definitely not one that may need venting twelve floors up. Once again, why did we not question this and why did they accept a job they were incapable of handling? Was it the looming reality that rent would be due every month till this restaurant was built that hushed my gut feelings and threw me into a mild hysteria of doing whatever it takes to get the restaurant built? While I pushed and pushed to get the permitting and construction going, this hysteria slowly began to spread through my family beginning with Abel.
This part one of our Pondi New York Diaries is a space not only for me to reflect, but also for me to re-evaluate my moves and motives. Over a decade ago, I had decided to open a restaurant having no idea what a restaurant meant and it worked. I had done it again a few years earlier but why didn’t it work this time? Why did the palpable uneasiness I felt in the space only increase every time I entered it and why would that uneasiness never leave me? There’s no way an energy of space can be that powerful I would tell myself – it’s New York, it’s going to be tough – deal with it! The most important part to note that is that regardless of the energy of the space or New York’s tight grip, I did not foresee the tragic domino effect that was just one tipping point away. After much reflection, it is clear to me that Ajna and I accidentally laid out the groundwork for an inevitable disaster while Abel nobly fought to catch all the spinning plates.
Until next time,
- Anita -