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Chats / Chef Nira Kehar’s Mindful Cuisine
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courtesy of Mehtab Mann

Growing up in with Indian parents in Montreal, Chef Nira Kehar faced many obstacles on her journey to opening New Delhi’s first French brasserie, Chez Nini. Several challenges presented themselves; not only was it difficult to make it as a female in a predominantly male world, but also being an outsider. Although Chef Nira looked the part as a beautiful Indian woman, she grew up in a completely different culture across the world. Her tremendous hard work led to success, and she’s now recognized as one of India’s major players in the food industry. This year, Chef Nira sold her restaurant and made the move to Manhattan to pursue other passions, like being a private chef. We chatted with her about food, her journey, and her favorite spots around the globe.

How did you get your start in the food industry?

Growing up, it was engrained in us that our career would be a choice between a doctor, lawyer or an engineer. We had the chance to express our creativity through many extra curricular activities, but it was never an option to choose a creative field as a profession. It was almost considered a failure to do so. It was only when I was severely injured and bedridden that I had an epiphany during an existential crisis that I had a deep desire to create. I did a lot of research, meditation and contemplation while I lay in bed and decided to either study Ayurveda or the culinary arts. Finally, I chose culinary school because of what I could imagine and achieve with food creatively, all while using my systematic logic from my engineering studies.

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It seems as though you incorporate Ayurveda and mindfulness within your cooking style. Tell us more about that.

Mindfulness came into my life through my very early curiosities about yoga and meditation when I was a child. The more I read and learned the words of respected yogis, the more I realized that there was no right way; just your own authentic way. And through mindfulness, you don’t let your past dictate who you are but let it be part of who you become. Much in the same way, a mindful cuisine is expansive and uses the basic instincts and logic of nature to create and learn from each and every day. Between the old traditions, the new techniques, your own philosophies and experiences, and the beautiful ingredients nature provides us, I try to achieve mindfulness by just adding my own little whisper onto what nature has already achieved so perfectly.

You recently sold your very successful restaurant in India, Chez Nini. What made you decide to journey to NYC?

I believe there is an elegance and flow in moving forward to the next step in your life at the right time. We get attached to our work because of all we have to put in to achieve what we want. I realized that I wanted to continue creating and working on a variety of new projects and needed to change the construct of my life and career to be able to do that.

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What was the best day of your career?

The last 7 years of my life have gone by in a haze. Owning and being 100% responsible for each and everything for your own restaurant is a huge responsibility and is truly all-consuming. When I cooked at the James Beard Foundation in October 2015, I had to stop and be in the present moment after a very long time. I had to look back and take stock of all that I had been doing which allowed me to realize where I wanted to go. I wanted to tell a story to the guests that came to my dinner. The story of moving across the world from Montreal to New Delhi and opening the very first French brasserie that India has seen. Moreover, I wanted to tell the story of learning to be a better chef by working with what nature provided me with, as opposed to working with what was familiar and standard. Cooking at the James Beard House was definitely one of the best days of my career.

Tell us about your book, ‘Eating Stories.’

I wrote and designed ‘Eating Stories’ with the intention of properly translating my experience as a creative and a chef to my diners at the James Beard Foundation. I wanted to transport them into the world I had been living in for almost a decade. What ended up happening was magical, because pushing myself to be the protagonist of this story allowed me to see where I wanted to go and gave me the chance to work with various talented artists.

Favorite ingredient to cook with?

All spices, herbs and bases (garlic, ginger, onions). These are my instruments and tools to create the foundation of my cuisine.

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courtesy of Mehtab Mann

What are your 3 favorite restaurants in New York City right now?

Dimes, Betony and Frankel’s Delicatessen in Greenpoint.

Favorite bar in the city?

I love drinking whiskey at Angel Share in the East Village.

Currently Reading?

‘The Untethered Soul’ by Michael A. Singer

Currently listening to?

Hess is More

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courtesy of Mehtab Mann

Describe your perfect day in New York.

Working out with the Core Rhythm Fitness team (CRF) in the morning, going for a delicious, nutritious brunch with friends, going for a walk in the park, a trip to Union Square Farmer’s Market, a good concert and then going out for dinner and a good bullet rye old-fashioned.

What is your favorite dessert?

I don’t have a sweet tooth, but when I do decide to have a bite of something sweet I enjoy pumpkin pie with rum whipped cream.

How are you redefining cooking?

I am excited about the Ayurvedic course I am taking at the moment. Although I have been deeply curious and actively learning for a long time, I am getting clearer about how I can apply this pure Vedic knowledge in a contemporary and relevant way implicitly through my food and the experiences I create around it. Ayurveda is poetic and universal, it applies to all people, cultures and types of cuisines. I am on a mission to bring more of this pure knowledge to the mainstream in an authentic, sexy and relatable way.

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courtesy of Mehtab Mann

Nira’s Guide to The World:

Favorite Restaurant in New Delhi:

Indian Accent and Café Lota

Best Local Cuisine in india:

I love food from Kerala because of the nuanced unique spices and the delicious fresh seafood.

Best Place For a Romantic Date:

I have never been on a date, so I’m not the best candidate to say. If I was to go on one, I’d love a picnic in the park.

Best Sunday Brunch in New Delhi:

The one we did at my restaurant, Chez Nini.

Describe New Delhi in 3 Words:

Chaos, traffic, diversity

Favorite Hotel:

Shivasom in Thailand

Favorite Shopping Boutique:

Dear: Rivington on Great Jones Street in NYC.

Best Spa:

The Spring in California

Favorite Cultural Event:

Women in the World and the Change Food Event coming up soon.

Favorite Cultural Institution:

I love the new Whitney and I can never get enough of the Metropolitan Museum in NYC.

Favorite Museum Exhibit:

Anselm Kieffer Exhibition at Pompidou Center

Favorite historic place to see or explore:

Any ruins around the world, they trigger a mixed feeling of nostalgia for the past and a curiosity about the people who built and used the places that once were.