The James Beard Foundation has announced the semifinalists for its 2013 Chef and Restaurant Awards and among the Atlanta honorees— and there are several— is Cardamom Hill, up for Best New Restaurant. Open for just over a year, the restaurant on Northside Drive serves the cuisine of Kerala, in South India, and has started to add twists from the American South to the menu. Below, chef and owner Asha Gomez talks being a semifinalist, the synergy between the cuisines, and Cardamom Hill's first year.
How does it feel to have Cardamom Hill named a James Beard semifinalist?
Oh my gosh! Of all the accolades we got last year, this is the one that brings me to absolute tears. It's very humbling to know that we were acknowledged by the James Beard Foundation.
I don't know who is on the panel actually doing the voting, but I know they know food and the culinary world and have been in it awhile. It's nice to be recognized for staying true to the cuisine that I grew up with and presenting a cuisine to the American palate without dumbing it down— because I knew they would get it, I think the American palate is extremely refined.
I'm not taking anything away from fantastic dishes generally associated with Indian cuisine like paneer, tandoori, naan, and so on, but I didn't grow up eating that. I grew up eating in my mother's kitchen near the coastline where seafood was abundant, and I grew up Christian, so we ate rice, chicken, beef, bread, seafood— it's a completely different cuisine from what people think of as Indian food. India has various regions with different terrain. Each region grows different crops, and the cuisines in each region in India are influenced by what the land gives you. A port city like Kerala includes a lot of external influences because of the foods being brought in.
How did you find out? What was the first thing you did?
I was home getting ready to come to the restaurant when I got a call from my rock star PR person, Tara Murphy. She told me that I needed to sit down. I actually went and sat down. She told me and I started crying, I had to get off the phone. I stayed in the same spot for almost two hours reflecting on the last year. I'm glad that I was alone in that moment, I needed that. It was very special. And I'm glad Tara was the one who got to share it with me. PR firms have such a bad reputation, they promise you the stars and moon and some people don't have the best experience. But Tara has diligently believed in me and worked tireless hours. I know I have a great story, but it's nothing if it's not heard. She's always placed me in front of the right people. In so many ways, this nomination is hers, too. She's been brilliant for me and my journey.
Any new restaurants in the works?
No new restaurants in the works, but Third Space: A Culinary Conversation will open in March. Essentially, I traveled a lot this year and came to realize that one of my big passions is teaching people the art and nuance of spices, new fruits and vegetables. Everything is at our fingertips, but we're still afraid to pick up the unfamiliar and bring it into our kitchen. I enjoy introducing people to new things. But everywhere I traveled and taught, I'd go into a commercial kitchen where everyone that came in was a home cook. I decided we need to build an environment that feels like a home kitchen, a place where chefs from around the country and the world can come to pass their love of cooking down and exchange ideas, a place where chefs can come to do private dinners, where a lot of culinary conversations can happen. It will be completely camera ready so anyone can film segments there. It's for anything that has to do with the culinary arts. And I'm so happy that Miele out of Germany has partnered with me—it's a beautiful space.
Cardamom Hill has introduced a fusion of Southern US/Southern Indian food. Why?
We haven't switched, but this reflects my evolution and journey as a chef. My roots are Indian South but my home today—and for over two decades—is the American South. This is what I call home. There is synergy between the U.S. and Indian South. We are both close to the ocean, we have the same climatic conditions, lots of fruits and vegetables in common, both regions love rice. The synergy that exists may be subtle but is undeniable. So I've been making dishes like Kerala fried chicken and waffles, which pairs Kerala fried chicken with low country waffles and a spiced maple syrup and a shrimp gumbo seasoned with roasted garam masala spices. Today I'm working on a recipe that's called Chicken Country Captain, which originated in Savannah and has been around since the 19th century. It came here through the British and is their adaptation of Indian cooking. It's essentially a chicken curry and I'm fascinated by it—what sets it apart from traditional chicken curry is it has currants and apples in it. They'd sent it out with three condiments—chutney, coconut and peanuts—and I'm doing my twist on that. I'm finding synergies and it's magical. What I want to do is not switch over to fusion, there will always be one section that's Kerala and another section that's American. I don't think I can stop evolving. This kind of evolution and mingling of cuisines has been happening for centuries and I'm just part of the evolution.
Now that Cardamom Hill is One Year In, have there been any strange/embarrassing stories?
Nothing embarrassing. The only issue has been about educating people about the depth and width of Indian cuisine— even my fellow Indians don't grasp it completely if they're from another region. So that has been an interesting journey for me. I love walking people through the history of cuisine and explaining it.
What's the hardest thing been so far?
To be a small business owner. Outside of my job for cooking, the restaurateurs' life is a difficult life. There are long hours, which can take me away from friends. Running day to day operations of the business can be extremely challenging at times, but I have a tremendous team and support system and that makes my days a lot easier.
Anything you would do differently?
No, not a thing.
—Hope S. Philbrick, Getaways for Grownups