Meherwan Irani is a chef and restaurateur changing the perception of Indian food in America through his growing restaurant and spice empire – Chai Pani Restaurant Group (which owns 6 restaurants and Spicewalla brand). Irani was named by TIME Magazine as one of the “31 People Changing The South” in 2018, and his Asheville restaurant won “Outstanding Restaurant” by the James Beard Foundation in June 2022.
Irani grew up in Ahmednagar, in the midwestern state of Maharashtra in India. His grandparents and parents ran a bed-and-breakfast where his mother worked in the kitchen. He grew up watching his mom make classic Indian dishes approachable to international visitors.
At the age of 20, Irani moved to the US to earn an MBA at the University of South Carolina. That’s when his mom taught him how to shop like a chef and cook for himself. During college, he waited tables at a restaurant in SC, where he met his future wife. He spent the next decade in California’s Bay Area, working in management positions for Lexus and Mercedes-Benz.
In 2009, Irani and his wife, Molly, opened their first Indian street food restaurant – Chai Pani, in the small mountain town of Asheville, North Carolina. Irani explains, “Soon after my wife and I moved to Asheville, the recession hit. Desperate for a viable career, I woke up inspired in the middle of the night with a vision for Chai Pani. We would open a restaurant in Western North Carolina Appalachia, in one of the least diverse towns in America and serve Indian street food. I didn’t have any professional culinary experience, but put together a profitable business plan that same night. Of course, the banks, private lenders and credit unions refused to give us the loan, so Molly and I wrote a letter to family and friends asking them to invest in our wild idea. We raised $75,000 and opened the restaurant in 45 days!”
The restaurant was instantly well received by South Asians as well as Western clients. “We introduced Asheville to the colors, flavors and faces of India at Chai Pani. I wanted to offer, what I felt were the most underrepresented Indian foods in Western culture, such as chaats and snacks you could get on the streets and delicious meals you would eat at home.”
Diners craved the stereotype-shattering food, elevated cocktails, and fun environment, accompanied by the personal service at Chai Pani. Over time, he expanded his brand to include Chai Pani Asheville, Chai Pani Decatur, Botiwalla Atlanta, Botiwalla Charlotte, Buxton Hall Barbecue, Buxton Chicken Palace, Nani’s Rotisserie Chicken in Asheville, Nani’s Piri Piri Chicken in Atlanta, and a line of handmade fresh spices and spice mixes – Spicewalla.
The restaurants received widespread media attention and were included in The New York Times list of “America’s Favorite Restaurants,” Bon Appétit’s “Best New Restaurants,” Thrillist’s “Best Indian Restaurants in America,” and Eater’s “The South’s 38 Essential Restaurants.” Irani, himself was a five-time James Beard Award semifinalist for Best Chef: Southeast. Most recently, Chai Pani Asheville beat some of the most established names in the country, earning a designation of “Outstanding Restaurant” by the esteemed organization. “When we heard our name called as the winner, I felt an overwhelming combination of both disbelief and relief. Disbelief that an Indian street food restaurant like ours would be recognized in such a major way, and relief that finally we were being acknowledged not just for the individual (since I’ve been nominated five times for Best Chef Southeast) but the whole. It really does take a village!” exclaims Irani.
Besides running a successful restaurant, Irani wants to use his voice and influence to foster conversation around diversity and cultural exchange. He started a dinner series – Brown in the South, collaborating with other Indian chefs in the South to have ongoing conversations about what impacts immigrant chefs embracing Southern identities. Irani adds, “The South doesn’t just belong to one group of people. I want to encourage others like me to stand up and be counted as a Southerner, to not hide under their nationality. If we do that, we can change the entire meaning of the South, and people will finally see it as the multi-textured fabric that it is, made up of people from all over the world.”
The Iranis are also committed to giving back to their home and adopted countries. In India, Chai Pani Giving Foundation sponsors girls education through university, donates school supplies to refugees and at-risk youth through HADAYA, and funds for healthcare and medical services through the Meher Free Dispensary. In the US, they give to hunger, poverty and socio-economic inequalities faced by immigrants, especially in the service and hospitality business.
Personally, Irani has raised thousands of dollars for No Kid Hungry, cooks for the homeless at The Welcome Table, and is an alumni of the James Beard Foundation’s Chef Advocacy Boot-camp dealing with food scarcity. His restaurants also host a monthly Give Back Night, where they donate a portion of the day’s sales to a local charity The Chai Pani University provides formal training in leadership and management skills coaching to employees, and they annually send eight of their employees to India so they can immerse in the culinary culture and volunteer there.
Irani’s unique vision to make Indian street food high quality, fun and accessible has paved the way for other minority chefs to take more risks and express their authentic cultures.
“It takes a critical mass of courageous and passionate chefs and restaurateurs of Indian descent to take a chance on telling the whole story of regional and evolving Indian cuisine, and not just play it safe with Mughlai or Punjabi style menus. I am looking for more than a moment. I’m looking for Indian cuisine to be as much a part of the American culinary landscape as Italian, French, Mexican, or any other,” adds Irani.
This article is part of a new series, Indiaspora Features, which commissions journalists to write about topics of interest for the global Indian diaspora.
Sucheta Rawal is an award-winning food and travel writer, contributing to national publications such as Travel+Leisure, HuffPost, TIME Magazine, CNN, AAA, Zagat and Fodors. Sucheta has authored 5 children’s books on travel – ‘Beato Goes To.’ She founded the Atlanta-based nonprofit ‘Go Eat Give,’ through which she encourages people to travel meaningfully.