"I used to wear a tea cosy on my head as a chef's hat," says Uday Huja, who currently works at Nineteen at The Star on Queensland's Gold Coast.
His childhood fashion choices made it clear that he was destined for a career in cooking. Another clue was his immense dedication to the backyard barbecue.
"Rain or shine, I was grilling," the chef says. His family's barbecued tandoori chicken had a blockbuster effect on neighbours and friends – drawing crowds, interest and requested serves of the yoghurt-marinated and well-spiced dish – and he was happy to bask in some of that spillover glory.
It was one way they made an impression in their neighbourhood.
"We grew up in a small town called Charlottesville, Virginia. We were probably the only Indian family in 1971," the chef says. Food helped them connect with locals – but the town didn't make it easy for them to fit in.
His father, Satyendra Huja, was a city planner with progressive ideas. "His first project was to rip up the main strip and turn it into a pedestrian mall, which was something that they were doing in Paris and Spain," his son says.
People took out full-page ads in the paper, saying "Indian, go home."
Like his Sikh father, Huja wore a turban as a kid – and was frequently targeted in racist attacks.
"Every day, someone would knock off my turban and my hair would come down," says Huja. "We had to teach all my teachers at elementary school to be able to tie a turban."
It was a "challenging" time, but there was progress, too.
The pedestrian mall became a landmark attraction and "my father was actually elected two-term mayor of that town, 20 years later".
Huja says, "it was a big turn-around."
For the family, cooking helped strengthen social ties – as the popular tandoori chicken recipe proved.
In their American town, barbecue chicken was typically served with a tomato and vinegar-based sauce, but the family reimagined the dish by drawing on their northern Indian roots: marinading the chicken with yoghurt, ginger, chilli, lime and a good sprinkling of cumin, turmeric, masala and other spices.
"It was really important for my own culinary voice to connect with my actual cultural heritage."
It was a hit with friends and family who'd drop by. "They'd say, 'can we have that special chicken that you guys do? It's better than our barbecue chicken.'"
It was one of many dishes that Huja learned to cook. Aside from the time he made fettuccine carbonara for a whole year, he mainly learnt how to prepare dahl, curries and other dishes from his heritage.
"In my house, I'd eat Indian food normally and outside, I'd have fried chicken and cornbread," he says.
The chef eventually realised that the local soul food was "based on a lot of the layover from the African slave culture that was originally in the south". By recognising the origins of these dishes – collard greens, pork, fried chicken, black-eyed beans – he noticed there were often similarities with the spices and flavours he grew up with. It inspired him to add turmeric to slow-cooked beans, for instance, and interpret soul food with flavours from an Indian pantry or spice rack.
"As I grew up and I ended up becoming a chef…I realised that it was really important for my own culinary voice to connect with my actual cultural heritage."
This led to him cooking for President Barack Obama's first state dinner in 2009.
The event was in honour of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his wife, Gursharan Kaur. Huja got the call from fellow chef Tommy Kurpradit – they'd previously worked together at the highly awarded restaurant, The Inn At Little Washington.
"It was a lucky coincidence – potentially I may have been the only Indian chef he may have known!" says Huja.
Although he downplays his credentials, there's no doubt that only select chefs would be asked to assist a guest dinner overseen by acclaimed chef Marcus Samuelsson.
"It was an incredible experience," Huja admits. "To be a first-generation American, to follow your culinary passion, to have it lead to The White House, to be able to cook, representing your country – [that] was absolutely a monumental moment."
Walking through The White House, he recognised burn marks from when the building was set on fire nearly a century ago: "there's so much history wherever you go."
"To cook, representing your country – that was absolutely a monumental moment."
He remembers preparing canapés and then suddenly seeing First Lady Michelle Obama in a "stunning" dress by Indian-born designer Naeem Khan.
"We were like, 'don't stare, don't stare!'" he recalls. "Then all of a sudden, the president walked in."
President Barack Obama welcomed everyone with incredibly warm and friendly greetings.
"I was absolutely gobsmacked and stunned and could not really speak. I was like, 'oh my God! Barack Obama is right here!'"
The president had an impressive knowledge of Indian food and inquired about the samosas they were making.
He remembers the overwhelming sense of positivity around the newly elected leader – "and how it was different, it was the first time there was an African-American president".
The next year, the chef ended up in Australia for a job – and a decade later, he's still here.
"I fell in love with Australia, fell in love with an Australian woman, got married, I never left," he says.
Currently, he works at Nineteen at The Star, where the menu reflects his upbringing in subtle and inspired ways. There's the garlic-roasted prawns with turmeric cream, for instance, as well as smoked pork with cast-iron skillet cornbread.
"The cornbread is absolutely a traditional southern recipe," he says. "I infuse a bit of chilli, coriander, tomato, which gives it a little bit of finesse. This is my little twist and take on it."
The dish also features his Southern black-eyed peas, done in a north Indian style.
As for the barbecued tandoori chicken that made his household so popular in Virginia, it isn't on The Nineteen menu right now – but will likely be in the future, as part of his chef's table offering.
He still prepares the tandoori chicken for social gatherings, though.
"When I cook that for family and friends, it takes me back 40 years to my dad’s backyard and all those memories about making friends and making friends through food."
While wearing a tea cosy for a chef's hat, of course.
Barbecue tandoori chicken
For a vegetarian alternative, this tandoori mixture is great on vegetables: brush it on eggplant or mushrooms – it's absolutely delicious.
- 200 g red onion
- 100 g garlic cloves
- 100 g ginger root
- 200 ml lime juice
- 50 g chilli
- 4 tbsp dried fenugreek leaves
- 225 g plain pot-set yoghurt
- 1 tbsp ground coriander
- 1 tsp ground cumin
- 1 tsp ground turmeric
- 1 tsp garam masala
- ¼ tsp ground mace
- ¼ tsp ground nutmeg
- ¼ tsp ground cloves
- ¼ tsp ground cinnamon
- ½ tsp ground cayenne pepper
- ½ tsp ground black pepper
- 2 tsp sea salt
- 4 tbsp olive oil
- 1 chicken (broken down into leg, thigh, breast and wing)
- Finely chopped fresh coriander (leaves and stems), to garnish
- Shaved rings of onion slices, marinated in red wine vinegar, to garnish
- Lime wedges, to garnish
1. Start this recipe a day ahead.
2. To make the marinade, peel and roughly chop onion, ginger and garlic. Put into blender with lime juice, chilli and fenugreek leaves. Blend until a smooth paste is formed.
3. Transfer the paste into a bowl or container large enough to accommodate the chicken and remaining ingredients. Add remaining ingredients (except chicken) and mix well. Reserve one cup of marinade separately.
4. Remove skin from chicken pieces and cut deep slashes into the chicken halfway down to the bone.
5. Add chicken to the marinade and rub the mix well into the chicken working with your fingers the marinade into the slashes.
6. Cover and leave in the refrigerator for 24 hours, turning and mixing 4 or 5 times.
7. Cook over indirect high heat on a barbecue. The coals should be on one side of the barbecue – place the chicken on the other side. The yoghurt burns very easily, so placing it directly over the fire will lead to burnt chicken. You can put a thick layer of oiled foil down first and roast the chicken on high heat, but then remove it to the side of the barbecue with no coals under it to slowly roast. Baste with the reserved marinade throughout the process to maintain moisture. Alternatively: this chicken can be cooked under the oven grill at its highest setting. Lay the chicken on some oiled aluminium foil and roast until crispy and a bit charred. Make sure not to place the chicken too close to the grill element – place it about halfway down in the oven rack.
8. Display on a platter and garnish.
• The tandoori powder can be found at almost any Indian grocery store and can be substituted for all of the individual ground spices on the list. It will probably have some red food colouring in it giving you that 'red' tandoori chicken effect you are used to seeing.