“When I found out, I thought it was a mistake. I was shaking. There’s no way,” Chai Pani chef Sahar Siddiqi says of being named a 2023 James Beard semifinalist for best chef southeast. “These are phenomenal chefs. Just to be amongst them is huge.”
A first generation Pakistani-American, born and raised in New York City, Siddiqi says she didn’t always know she wanted to be a chef. She attended the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park in hopes of becoming a food writer and even landed an externship at Saveur magazine in pursuit of a writing career. But her degree soon took a turn toward the kitchen, sparked by working at restaurants around Manhattan while she attended school and getting some real hands-on experience with recipes in the test kitchen at Saveur. Siddiqi realized she could cook, and cook well.
Siddiqi and her husband, Gabriel Johnson, who is the culinary manager at Houston’s restaurant, moved to Atlanta in 2018 and now live in East Atlanta Village with their young daughter. When she first arrived in Atlanta, Siddiqi staged (did an unpaid restaurant internship) for a number of restaurants in order to continue learning new techniques and cuisines.
“I staged at Cakes and Ale, Staplehouse, BoccaLupo, all the big names in Atlanta,” Siddiqi says. “And then I ended up working at Atlas under chef Chris Grossman for about a year, and, wow, that was amazing.”
Grossman is now the owner of critically acclaimed restaurant the Chastain in Atlanta’s Chastain Park neighborhood.
She sees her kitchen training at these Atlanta restaurants, and her time working for Grossman, as helping refine her fine dining cooking skills. But Siddiqi didn’t feel there was room for growth in fine dining or in corporate culinary jobs where there isn’t much variety in the food being cooked. It was time to make a move.
“I thought, ‘I’m tired of making someone else’s version of new American cuisine’,” Siddiqi says. “It’s fun and I learned a lot of technique, but I really want to make food that speaks to me.”
At the time, Siddiqi had been spending many of her days off from her restaurant job eating at Chai Pani in Decatur. Siddiqi felt such a connection to the food and the atmosphere there, she ended up reaching out to chef and owner Meherwan Irani to inquire about a job at his Decatur restaurant.
“I basically begged him to hire me. There was nowhere else in Atlanta I wanted to work,” Siddiqi says.
Irani offered Siddiqi a position as the kitchen manager at Botiwalla in Alpharetta, which eventually closed due to the pandemic in 2020. After the closure of Botiwalla, Irani brought her on at Chai Pani. In 2021, Siddiqi was promoted to chef de cuisine.
Siddiqi says she cooks with flavors she grew up with in her Pakistani household, including introducing her mother’s dill daal (lentils) recipe to the kitchen at Chai Pani. She points out that the dishes served at Chai Pani are also meant to highlight locally sourced, in-season South Asian ingredients.
“I don’t want to reinvent anything. We do classics so well,” says Siddiqi. “But using ingredients like Four Bellies Farm chicken to make the best chicken biryani of your life. Or, using Sea Island peas to make daal, because they’re so readily available here [or] gorgeous local mustard greens to make sarson ka saag. That’s the best thing ever.”
Though well-versed in Pakistani flavors, Siddiqi says she learned quickly of the broad spectrum of spices and techniques used in Indian and South Asian cooking, like what it takes to make the Maharashtrian classic misal pav (sprouted moth beans in an aromatic broth with ginger, garlic, chilies, curry leaves, and garam masala, served with tomato-coconut gravy and buttery grilled buns). Then, there are all of the coconut-based gravies and using curry leaves and mustard oil in certain dishes.
“The best part about working [at Chai Pani] has truly been my discovery of a nation I thought I knew,” Siddiqi says. “I couldn’t have done it without the team here.”
For first-time visitors to Chai Pani, Siddiqi recommends trying the restaurant’s butter chicken paired with okra fries and then ordering a dish they’ve never heard of or tried before.
While she’s found success as a chef, and with Chai Pani, her parents didn’t understand her career choice.
“It took my parents a really long time to understand what I chose to do with my life. They’re, you know, Pakistani parents. They’re like, ‘what do you mean you’re not going to be a doctor?’”
But Siddiqi says her parents are finally starting to come around and are rooting for her success, saying she’s building a life for herself and her family through her work as a chef.
For Siddiqi, the staff at Chai Pani also feels like family — a staff and a restaurant she treats like her own. The diversity of the people who choose to dine at Chai Pani is what she loves most about the restaurant. It’s a cross section of communities that make up Atlanta and its metropolitan area. Siddiqi believes Atlanta has a healthy appetite for global cuisines, and finds evidence of this every day in the dining room at the Decatur restaurant.
When Siddiqi isn’t in the kitchen at Chai Pani, like other diners in Atlanta, she’s out exploring restaurants. Her current favorites to frequent are OK Yaki and Gaja Korean Bar in East Atlanta, Gigi’s Italian Kitchen in Candler Park, Zyka in North Decatur, and Ming’s BBQ on Buford Highway.
“There were moments where I was testing recipes [at Chai Pani] where I was in tears because I never thought I’d be making this food for people, serving people food that I grew up making and dreaming about,” Siddiqi says. “And that’s what I’m getting recognized for [with the James Beard semifinalist nod], doing something that’s so close to my heart.”
Henna Bakshi (@hennabakshi on Instagram) is a food and wine writer, TV producer, and on-air talent who carries a WSET (Wine and Spirits Education Trust) level 2 certification. She was born and raised in New Delhi, India. Bakshi previously worked for HLN/CNN as a writer, producer, and on-air talent focused on food and wine. She has also written for Chowhound and Indian American community magazine Khabar, based in Duluth, Georgia.