I was just 21 and studying computer science at university when I convinced my dad to help me buy Maya Indian Restaurant in Fremantle in 1992. Despite having no experience as a chef or in hospitality, I was convinced that I could make a go of it.
After the first 30 customers, I had the shock of my life! I quickly realised we needed to change how we were doing things if we were going to survive. I also realised how much I loved to cook.
I was born in Dehradun, a town in northern India at the foothills of the Himalayas, and lived there until my family moved to Perth when I was 15. We had a beautiful kitchen garden in India, full of herbs and fruit trees. I grew up cooking with my great-grandmother, my nanna and my mother, and eating food from small street stalls, most of which concentrated on cooking a single dish to perfection. Food was my hobby back then.
Not long after buying Maya, I decided to turn that hobby into a career and I enrolled at TAFE to study cooking and hospitality management. It was a crazy few years, trying to run the restaurant and study, but I was lucky to employ some fantastic chefs. It was what I’d call an organic process and I loved every minute of it.
Our food has evolved so much over the years. We started cooking straight, traditional Indian dishes, but now our food has become unique to Maya. We’re still very respectful of our ethnic background, but by using the fabulous local produce that we have access to here in Fremantle, such as beef cheeks and whiting fillets – ingredients that aren’t traditionally Indian – we give our dishes a twist.
I don’t think I’ll ever stop changing and creating new dishes, because there’s so much to be inspired by. I try to get back to India every year and I always take something away with me, be it a new idea or a different technique. Indian food is so much more complex than many people probably think and is so much more than just curries and chillies. People are always surprised to learn that I didn’t start eating spicy food until I moved to Australia. Some of the best Indian dishes are the simplest ones with beautifully delicate flavours and hardly any heat. I love introducing people to that side of Indian food at Maya. Being able to share food with people and watch them share it among themselves is what I enjoy most about cooking and, certainly, what gives me the most satisfaction.
We won our first award in 1996, when I was still at TAFE, and we’ve been fortunate to receive a number of awards for excellence since. Awards are fantastic because, if nothing else, they’re recognition that we’re doing what we do well. However, awards aren’t the only thing, or even the most important thing, we chase. We also chase empty plates and smiles on faces – for me, those will always be the biggest rewards.
As seen in Feast magazine, December 2011, Issue 4. For more recipes and articles, pick up a copy of this month's Feast magazine or check out our great subscriptions offers here.