The first time I got up close and personal with Chef Preeti Mistry I was on my back. Now, before your mind goes to the gutter, let me explain. I was in my pajamas and on the couch—which doesn’t sound much better now that I think about it, but there were millions of other food-obsessed Americans right there with me. [Mental note, research how to dig one’s self out of a literary hole] Anyways, I and the rest of the world watched with bated breath as Chef Mistry and the rest of the ingénue chef-testants on the 6th season of Bravo’s Emmy Award winning reality show Top Chef competed for the title of ‘Top Chef’ and their very own lifetime supply of Clingy Glad Wrap; or whatever it is they win. Alas, she didn’t win, but what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right? Right! And Preeti Mistry is living proof that the show must go on.
Since her stint on Top Chef in 2009, she’s been working her magic on the Bay Area—a notoriously critical culinary climate that can make or break a new restaurant for mediocre food, poor service, or any combination of the two. Fortunately, I’ve had the chance to enjoy her Indian street-food-inspired treats at various foodie gatherings and events around San Francisco like the La Cocina Night Market, and there’s no doubt in my mind she’s here to stay!
EPJ’s visit to Juhu Beach Club
We recently dined at Juhu Beach Club, Chef Mistry’s brick and mortar eatery in Oakland’s Temescal District, and stuffed our faces with puris, pavs, and the most amazing cauliflower ever—seriously, EVER! Once seated we took in the multi-colored saree-explosion of color that is restaurant’s interior, and one by one, noticed all the subtle (and not so subtle) touches that pay homage to the restaurant’s namesake. We’re talking about giant framed Warhol Elephant prints (Ganesha anyone?), walls lined with jars of spices, fez-wearing-monkey floral wallpaper, and rickety bikes; all of which work together to create a whimsical and inviting dining experience. I guess you could say we felt like family at Juhu Beach Club…the adopted third cousins maybe, but family nonetheless; and so will you. Beacuse nothing reminds me of a big family gathering more than plates heaping with Indian comfort food. And as if we were artists passing around palettes of paints blending this way and that, we were lucky enough to get the chance to ask Preeti a few personal questions about life after the Top Chef roller coaster and what it takes to be one of San Francisco’s most talked about chefs.
I started with a Thums Up cola (the largest selling softdrink in India) which is a cross between Dr. Pepper and Coca Cola. I’m typically a Diet Coke fan, but Thums Up has a natural, more subtle, sweetness, like tamarind mixed with caramel. It was the perfect choice for washing down Juhu Beach Club’s spicy flavorful Indian food.
EPJ: What was food like in your home growing up?
PM: My mom cooked dinner almost every night. Pretty much always vegetarian Gujarati cuisine. Which consisted of rotlis (whole wheat flatbreads), two different vegetable dishes, a dal or soup, rice, and raita. On a special occasion she would cook other Indian foods like idli or dosa, my dad would make chicken curry once in a while.
Masala fries with a trio of sauces. The one that looks like ketchup was more like a Maggi sauce (aka Indian style ketchup)
EPJ: Opening up a restaurant is tough and a lot of Chefs have a mentor (either in the culinary world or not) who they call for advice or just to commiserate with; who’s that person in your life and what do you typically talk about?
PM: I had a sort of non-traditional career so I have a lot of chef friends, etc. but there is not really any mentor on that level. My partner, in life and in our business, is someone I talk to all the time about everything in the business. My old boss, Amarylla Ganner, from my deYoung days working for Bon Appetit is a good friend of mine so I often call her for advice.
Sev Puri: This is a handmade crispy cracker called a puri piled high with delicious diced veggies and chutneys, and then topped with sev, which are small pieces of crunchy noodles made from chickpea flour. This was topped with smashed garnet yams (instead of the more common potato), diced fuji apples for some brightness and crunch and chutney to bring it all together. If you love Mexican tostadas as much as I do, than you’ll love this Indian twist!
EPJ: You’re coming up on the one-year anniversary of having opened Juhu Beach Club in Temescal, what’s the toughest challenge you face today?
PM: There are so many constant moving parts to owning a small restaurant. It is difficult to keep all the plates spinning. You spend time in one corner focusing on one issue and other things suffer. Dividing my attention into so many slices of pie can be very challenging.
The Bombay Sandwich: A pressed cheese sandwich, cilantro chutney, roasted beets, potatoes, pickled red onions, and chaat masala. Think Indian grilled cheese. The slices of roasted beets add a unique texture and also cut some of the richness of the buttery bread and cheese.
EPJ: What does someone have to do in your kitchen to get fired?
PM: Have a bad attitude. I hire for attitude and I will fire for it….no matter how talented the person may be.
Sloppy lil’P pav. Pavs are little slider sandwiches, and the sloppy lil’p is one of the vegetarian versions served at Juhu Beach Club, filled with a spicy rich veggie sloppy joe aka pav bhaji.
EPJ: We first had your vada pav at the La Cocina Night Market Street Food festival in San Francisco. How important are events like that for restaurateurs just starting out?
PM: I think large events like the Night Market are very valuable to reach a large group of folks all at the same time. It’s always nice to be able to bring your food to an environment where everyone is excited about trying new things and being adventurous.
The Holy Cow is another Pav served at Juhu Beach Club filled with smoky black cardamom braised short rib meat and a cool cucumber raita.
EPJ: Whether it’s all about bacon, or putting a fried egg on everything, or food trucks, the culinary world gets fixated on ingredients or styles of food, some of which last and some of which phase out. If you had to guess, what do you think the next food fad is going to be?
PM: I have heard there is a cauliflower movement starting…we have a cauliflower dish called Manchurian Cauliflower that sells out almost every night. Vegetables in general seem to be taking center stage more so, which is great.
Manchurian cauliflower: an Indian-Chinese favorite! Crispy, sweet and sour cauliflower and seasonal veggies. This was by far our favorite dish of the night, and I would have ordered it again in the same sitting, if we hadn’t already ordered so much other food. The sauce is sweet like a sweet n sour sauce only a little more floral as if it’s tamarind based. So good!
EPJ: What are your thoughts on culinary school? Did you go? Do you think it’s necessary for an aspiring chef?
PM: I think if you have the money to go to culinary school you should go. Just go to a good one. One that is a real school and not just a business selling certificates. I went to Le Cordon Bleu in London, which is a very different program than the LCB name/logo that has been sold to for-profit schools all around the US.
It’s good to learn the basics and to also understand the reason for things. That being said, I have learned more on the job than I ever learned in school. So I do not think it is necessary at all.
And the last pav in our pav trio (slider sampler) was the pulled pork slider called the Pork Vindalated. This pav was heaping with pulled pork in a vindaloo bbq sauce and cilantro yogurt.
EPJ: What’s your favorite dish to cook and why?
PM: I don’t have a favorite dish to cook…hmm. At home I cook a lot of fresh pasta with simple seasonal ingredients. I’m a sauce person…I love making stock, I love braising meats, cooking a risotto, making a chili…a slowly simmering Bolognese. I like building flavors slowly…letting them develop. Of course a lot of curries…mainly chicken and sometimes lamb.
Curryleaf Coriander Shrimp with vibrant yellow rice, smothered in a light tomato sauce with sweet peas for some crunchy texture.
EPJ: What’s your most memorable restaurant dining experience, and why?
PM: My partner, Ann’s 30th birthday. We were on a boat traveling down the Loire River with good friends. We had not showered (due to concern for running out of water) for like 3 days. We docked that morning, refueled, showered and headed to this restaurant right on the river with an outdoor grill on the deck and ordered what everyone else was having: Rosé, a simple tomato salad with thinly sliced onions and a charred tuna for the entrée. There was a large group of older (60+) French folks celebrating a birthday right behind us as well. It was so casual yet elegant, unpretentious but so perfectly executed.
Garam Masala Chickpea plate with the same yellow rice as the shrimp dish, but the chickpeas were slow cooked and served with braised greens giving it an earthy note.
EPJ: What’s one lesson you’ve learned from working in someone else’s kitchen that you teach in your own, and who gave it to you?
PM: My mother’s kitchen. Clean as you go.
We had to get an order of the roasted Brussels sprouts in ginger butter and chaat masala spices. “Dee-lish!”
EPJ: What’s your connection to the real Juhu Beach?
PM: I remember visiting Mumbai as a child and being fascinated with all the yummy smells of street foods emanating from Juhu….whether it was actually going there or just walking/driving by I wanted to taste everything.
And a side order of the tangy carrot cabbage slaw. Not only bright in color, but in flavor too.
EPJ: Seems like your restaurant is a family operation. Does anyone else in your family help cook in the kitchen and design the menu?
PM: We are a mom-n-mom shop. My partner Ann and I own the restaurant. I am however, the person running the business on a daily basis. I bounce everything off of Ann…she is my toughest critic. She loves my food, but she will always tell me when something is not right or doesn’t work. She also has very creative ideas about menu items. That being said, she doesn’t really cook at all.
The Dhai Missal Salad was really interesting. It was served at the table in a large mason jar, and the layers of chickpeas, mung, purple potato, yogurt and crispy sev were clearly delineated from one another. Per our waitress’ suggestion, we stirred everything up with a spoon before dishing it out.
and here it is spooned out on our sturdy plastic plates that were meant to feel like disposable street-food plates you might find food being served on in India’s Juhu Beach.
EPJ: I, and I’m sure a lot of non-Indians, are intimidated by Indian cuisine. Is there a single dish or preparation you recommend a novice like me start with to ease into Indian Cuisine?
PM: I would say learn a particular spice blend like garam masala. Buy all the spices and make it yourself instead of buying the blend. From there you can make a number of different dishes that are not that difficult once you master the spices.
And for dessert, as if we had room for anything else, we had a scoop of the vanilla soft serve ice cream that came with a choice of unique toppings. We went with the passion fruit syrup (so good!) and the sea salt curried peanuts, and the combination (per the suggestion of our waitress) was spot on!
EPJ: Rumor has it you love yourself a good meat-filled sandwich. Not including your delicious pavs, what’s your favorite sandwich in the Bay Area?
PM: That is such a hard question! I really love the Gold-N-Berg-N-Stein from Deli Board. And I never get to eat it because I do not get to SF as much since the restaurant opened. Stag’s Lunchette in Uptown makes a mean pastrami sandwich that is definitely on the list. And the Pulled Pork Sandwich with Hot Vinegar at B-Side BBQ is really something I crave constantly.
EPJ: If you could meet anyone in the food world, dead or alive, who would that be and why?
PM: Raji Jallepalli-Reiss. She was the chef of a restaurant called Restaurant Raji in Memphis combining Indian and French techniques way before anyone was even talking about such things. She was a pioneer and a female chef creating daring cuisine. My sister bought Raji Cuisine (one of her books) for me years ago and it was such an inspiration to me. She died in 2002…I would have loved to meet her.