Chef Mel Oza aims to bring innovative Indian cuisine to the suburbs, despite understaffing

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Why did you choose Bedford? Tell me a bit about this place.

There was nothing in Bedford specifically like that. With the affluence, the notoriety, that this city has, it was missing.

Tell me about your interpretation of the Indian food scene in Boston. What gap are you filling?

The gap we’re trying to fill is that of classics redefined – that is, well-made or better-made familiar Indian foods, for lack of a better term. We don’t want to be hoity-toity, gastro-modern, if you will, in a molecular sense. But many times I’ve eaten here, and sometimes even simple things aren’t done the right way or in the best possible way. This is therefore our immediate and key objective for our à la carte menu.

The experience is beyond. We will offer a fixed price or tasting menu, which will be more modern and more left-wing. There will be more classes. You can show a whole crescendo of techniques and flavors.

For the average person who may not know what that means, give me an example of some dishes. What could be different here than other restaurants in the area?

Absoutely. We have familiar things like chicken tikka masala and saag paneer, which we hope are different and better than the rest. But then I have some of my own signature things. There’s a dish called mixed seafood, and the [coconut] the sauce is very delicate and refined, and the emphasis is on the purity of the seafood – but through and through, an Indian dish. It incorporates shellfish, crab, things like that. The sauce enhances seafood rather than competing and cannibalizing it. The difference is what I call “flavor correctors”.

I put green grapes in the dish and black mission figs. It brings a bit of depth and a little tangy sweetness to cut this coconut sauce. In addition, there is finely diced green mango to provide acidity. In a bowl, you can mix and match different things and experience different flavors.

Let’s talk a bit about your background, because that’s part of the fun of these interviews. Tell me your culinary story and how you came to catering.

Sure. I went to HMI [Indian Institute of Hotel Management and Culinary Arts] – this is India’s first culinary institute – in the 80s. I left India in the late 80s and started working in the UK starting with a French restaurant, not an Indian restaurant. Then I lived in the United States since the late 90s.

I first worked in Virginia and Chicago. Then I had my own restaurant in Richmond called Curry Craft, which I sold in 2015. And I’ve always had my own consulting business. I’ve helped start many restaurants all over the United States of a genre similar to what we do. The last one I did just before coming here was a place called Kanak in Charlottesville, Virginia.

What brought you north?

I have deep respect for a restaurant in this region that no longer exists: Mantra, downtown. Since then, I haven’t heard of anything remarkable that happened in that area, east of New York. I always had my eyes on it but never found the right opportunity or the right project to collaborate on. [Tashan] has the most forward-thinking approach, while bringing in familiar, friendlier stuff for people who may not be so familiar with Indian cuisine.

[Cocktails] were a great opportunity at this restaurant, as we wanted the beverage program to go hand in hand with the food program. It also allowed me this opportunity. That’s what tempted me to come here.

From your point of view as a chef, do you think the suburbs will become more popular after the pandemic? How do you feel about running a suburban restaurant versus an urban restaurant?

Most of my businesses that I consider very good business successes have mostly been in the suburbs. With the exception of New York and maybe a couple in DC, you rarely see a [downtown] Indian restaurants last 7-10 years – but, in the suburbs, there are many that continue to thrive. In the suburbs, there is also the higher net disposable income that comes into play. Another reason why an Indian restaurant will be popular in the suburbs is that it is suitable for family meals. People feel more comfortable bringing their children and family.

Do you think this is true for restaurants at all levels?

I would definitely say so – unless some are leaning so far left, trying too hard, then it just doesn’t resonate with people. In order for me to improvise, say palak paneer, I must first familiarize myself with palak paneer and then get validation that mine is better than some or others. Then, if I improvise, there is a point of relationship. But what if I come up with a version that no one has seen, or they don’t even understand the dish at its heart? That’s why some other restaurants I think don’t take advantage of this opportunity.

As a chef who has worked in various parts of the country, what do you think is unique about this region in terms of the culinary scene?

For me, it’s demographics and mixing — dynamic mixing. There seems to be a very, very large base crowd that has traveled everywhere, still continuing to travel everywhere, in order to be able to place [food] correctly in their mind. Talking to people locally, they are adventurous. Even though we are not open there are a number of people pulling on our door handle or trying to enter without any announcement. They embrace diversity and variety.

How has COVID-19 affected your plans?

I was supposed to be here on June 1, 2020. In May 2020, we didn’t even know: when will this continue? What’s going to happen ? Would it be six months, two years? But then a spot opened up and the owner was willing for us to start while waiting for the pandemic to pass. It actually helped us a lot, because we could create anticipation. Construction had started, so we didn’t wait until the pandemic was completely over to start. In that sense, it helped.

In terms of personnel, it hurts. We tried every lead and every trail that was given to us. Certainly, it’s hard to get people to show up even for scheduled interviews and things like that. We’ve had some great hiring successes, and we’ve had a few people who just didn’t want to stick with it because it wasn’t their cup of tea.

What do you think the food scene will look like this summer?

This summer, it will be busy. Many people were waiting for our opening. We’ll have this honeymoon period and all that. But we [need to] send the message that we don’t have the ideal staff. We would like to send the message to our guests that we are working on this behind the scenes. We will do our best given the situation. We may need to limit the number of reservations we take. We may need to tweak the menu slightly to offer the best given the potential staff available. We work and we tinker.

A few fun things: Favorite pandemic snack?

Oh, a lot of things. I must say spiced roasted nuts. It will be on our bar menu. We call them cashew masala. I transport them in my car.

What’s your favorite thing to binge-watch?

“Bound.” Also, I loved watching Zac Efron’s “Down to Earth” series.

The interview has been edited and condensed.


Kara Baskin can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @kcbaskin.

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