Spicing It up With Chef Shachi Mehra of ADYA

Pacific Wine and Food Classic
Chef Shachi Mehra

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DYA is a gateway experience to fresh Indian flavor—perfect for newbies looking to spice up date night, or lunch-goers needing to revive a regular Wednesday afternoon.  Let’s be clear here; Chef Shachi doesn’t serve global fusion cuisine akin to Korean Tacos or Japadogs. The dishes at ADYA are popular all over India— served on street corners from Delhi to Madras. Her focus on street food allows you to try little bites to acclimate to bigger, bolder flavors. What she aims to do at ADYA is make Indian food approachable. The flavors are bright, not heavy, healthy, not fatty. Patrons love it, and under her tutelage at monthly cooking classes, some patrons have even gone so far as to recreate some of her dishes at home.

Each month, Chef Shachi shares her wisdom of Indian cuisine in a cooking class held on the patio at ADYA Anaheim on a Saturday each month at 11 a.m. For 35 dollars, she demonstrates several recipes that you can easily recreate at home. Each month focuses on a different theme. Learn about curries one month, then come back for a lesson about pickles and chutneys next month. Foodies rejoice! Cooking Indian food at home is achievable!

I spoke with Chef Mehra about her approach to modern Indian cuisine, her popular cooking classes, and what it takes to be a chef.

Chef Shachi Mehra

Q: At ADYA you’re inviting people to step outside of their culinary box. How is ADYA changing perceptions of modern Indian Cuisine and enticing them to come back for more?

Chef Shachi Mehra: We’re getting rid of the fear. You go to an Indian restaurant; you don’t know what to order, you can’t really read the menu, you don’t know if you’ll order the right thing. The average person has a certain amount of money they want to spend on a meal, so they ask themselves; How risky do I want to get with my evening out? Do I try something new or stick to what I know? I feel like at ADYA, the way we’ve written the menu and the way we present our food makes it more approachable for people.

Q: Do you have a lot of patrons who have never tried Indian food?

SM: Yes! We get people all the time, every day, who say they’ve never tried Indian food. So I ask them, what made you want to try Indian food? Many people tell me its because our food smells so amazing. They’ll come in to ask questions, and our team helps guide them through the menu. So basically the opportunity that we have as a restaurant is to get people to try something new.

Q: Like try something beyond Chicken Tikka Masala?

SM: Right. When we first opened, I didn’t include Chicken Tikka Masala on the menu. But I quickly learned that if it isn’t visible on the menu, people will come in, and walk right out. People know Tikka Masala, they identify with it as the one Indian cuisine they’ve tried. So I decided to focus on making the best Chicken Tikka Masala to attract people to come in again and again. Then maybe on the 10th time or even 5th time, they’ll try something new. To me, that means I’ve earned their trust.

Q: I imagine it’s these patrons who jump at taking one of your cooking classes. Tell me more about your classes? What inspired you to host them?

SM: I started the cooking classes about two years ago. I learned that people wanted to learn more about Indian food. For me, it was a good opportunity to add that level of education that I knew I always wanted to incorporate as part of the experience at ADYA. And it’s become so popular! Last January and February classes sold out way ahead of time. Its held on the patio at ADYA Anaheim. We don’t do it in the summer months just because it gets too hot. But we have a different theme every month, and we go through 4 or 5 recipes depending on the class. I demo everything, then we all eat what we create.

Q: Are patrons going home and recreating what they’ve made in class?

SM: Actually, yes! To me that’s progress. If people are actually going home and making the dishes we made, then I’ve accomplished what I’ve set out to do. The point is to get people comfortable using different spices and cooking Indian food. But it doesn’t even have to be Indian food. It could mean cooking your regular Tuesday night pasta, but guess what, you just changed it up, and you’ve added an element that you usually wouldn’t have ventured to add.

Q: I’m not going to lie. I love Indian food, but I’ve always been intimidated to cook it at home. Any tips?

SM: Don’t buy pre-ground spices! You don’t know when it’s ground, and over time they lose their flavor. Instead, buy a coffee grinder and keep it just for spices. It makes such a huge difference!

Q: What do you make at your classes?

SM: Every month has a different theme, but for the most part I like to cook simple dishes. I try to make things that are quick and easy because I want people to be able to make them at home. That way you’re more inclined to make it again. We just did a class on Curry 101, and everyone thought it was so much easier and faster than they thought it was going to be. I try to pick recipes that are less overwhelming.

Q: How did you learn how to cook? Did you know you were destined to become a chef from a young age?

SM: Haha, I did not. I’ve always loved food and cooking but I never really thought of it as a career for me at all. From a young age, I decided I wanted to go into medicine. I took a lot of pre-med classes, I even worked for a doctor, but then one day I looked at him and knew I wouldn’t be happy if I went down that same path. Then I thought; Now what am I going to do? My sister suggested culinary school because I always enjoyed cooking, but I didn’t know anything about it. Through a connection at work, I was introduced to a chef, who talked to me about cooking for a good 45 minutes. After that conversation, he invited me to his restaurant. That was the first time I ever set foot in a restaurant kitchen. I worked half a day then he offered me a job. For six months I ended up working in the doctor’s office in the day, and at the restaurant at night. It was crazy! I looked back at that time, and I know there’s absolutely no way I would have done it without absolutely loving it.

Q: Fast-forward to today and you’re an award-winning chef. In 2017 you were named one of the Top 5 Chefs in Orange County. The chef life isn’t an easy one. The hours are demanding, and the work is strenuous. How do you strike a balance in your life? Any tips for young chefs wanting to follow in your footsteps?

SM: You have to take breaks for sure. That can mean a day off, or a weekend away. You need to maintain that level of passion. Once you feel like you’re going through the motions, you need to reset. That’s important because if you’re lucky enough to be paid to do something you love, you want to keep that.

Q: Who knows, one of your team-members at ADYA could open their own restaurant one day.

SM: I would absolutely love that!


Chef Shachi Mehra
Chef Shachi shares her list of Indian Pantry Essentials.

Whenever buying spices, it is best to buy them whole and toast and grind yourself. An extra coffee grinder in the house is perfect for this task.

BASIC SPICES TO HAVE:

Cumin
Coriander Seeds
Turmeric
Mustard Seeds,
Brown or black Garam Masala – can be bought or you can make your own
Red Chili Powder
Paprika

MORE ADVENTUROUS SPICES (including some you probably already have)

Fennel
Green Cardamom
Bay Leaves
Cinnamon Sticks
Cloves
Star Anise

FRESH PRODUCE ITEMS TO KEEP ON HAND

Onions
Tomatoes
Ginger
Garlic
Chilis
Cilantro
Curry Leaves


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