Louisville, Ky., is the earliest place Akhtar Nawab can remember. He still feels rooted to the city, even though growing up there the chef knew only one other Indian family.
“There is a real truth to Southern hospitality,” Nawab said. “I always felt comfortable there.”
Nawab has a kind face, which makes him look a decade younger than his 47 years. His hair is mussed, but also trimmed as neatly as ruler. When he talks, he ticks off points on his hands.
Some of the first moments he can remember are cooking roti, korma and chana dal at home with his mother.
Yet today Nawab, who was a protege of “Top Chef” star Tom Colicchio and a mentor to chef David Chang, cooks Mexican food.
Growing up Indian in Kentucky
How did an Indian-American chef from the South come to cook Mexican?
Everyone else in Nawab’s family — his father, mother and his older brother — was born in India. Nawab, though, was born in Wisconsin, where his father, a doctor just like his own father, was on a fellowship. A few years later, the family settled in Louisville.
“There were challenges growing up a little different,” Nawab said. “My mom’s clinging to heritage and culture, whereas I’m being introduced to an American one, which is the polar opposite of a conservative Indian lifestyle.”
Nawab’s family was stricter than the others around him. His parents grew up in India when the British ruled and demanded discipline, and they carried some of that attitude to the United States. He hungered for hamburgers, fries, cheese grits and Kentucky hot browns, while his family ate korma and biryani.
“Indian is a highly aromatic, pungent, stick-to-your-clothes kind of food,” Nawab said. “It wasn’t something at a young age I was particularly proud of, because it just made me feel different.”
When high school was over, he went to Illinois for college. He was going to study business. He was doing what he thought was expected of him. He lasted a year before dropping out and coming home to Louisville.
“I’m not exactly sure what my path is, but I know this isn’t it,” he thought at the time.
At a point where he didn’t know who he should be, he discovered cooking. And everything changed.
Nawab got a job at a Louisville restaurant called Ditto’s Bar and Grill. The chef was classically trained, and he took an interest in Nawab.
“God bless him for putting up with me at that age,” Nawab said.
Nawab’s culinary career takes off
rom there, Nawab’s career took off.
He went to culinary school in California. He got hired by Colicchio, working first for the celebrity chef at Gramercy Tavern, one of New York’s leading restaurants. When Colicchio later opened Craftbar in 2001, he made Nawab the sous chef.
In June 2008, Nawab took the next step and opened his own restaurant: Elettaria. The name is Latin for “green cardamom” and Nawab called the cooking “spice-driven.”
He blended the bold flavors and aromas of his Indian heritage, which he grew to appreciate more and more as he got older, to the European techniques he honed under Colicchio.
Three months after Elettaria opened, the investment bank Lehman Brothers collapsed and the world’s economy cratered. The restaurant closed before its second year.
“It’s always so touching when someone comes up and remembers that restaurant all these years later, when it did all this damage to my personal life and my financial life. It destroyed so much,” he said.
Again, Nawab didn’t know what to do. For seven months after Elettaria closed, he didn’t work, he didn’t do much of anything.
“It was the only thing I’ve ever pursued all the way through to the end,” he said. “When you realize that you can’t proceed, I felt like, who am I at this point?”
He was offered a job at a large Mexican restaurant called Zengo. He didn’t know anything about Mexican cooking, but he didn’t need to. They gave him the recipes, and he ran the kitchen.
“It didn’t need any of my creative thinking,” he said. “I was just very much a body.”
Mexican food brings a fresh start
Then another, smaller Mexican restaurant in New York, La Esquina, hired him away.
Nawab shook off his funk and dug into the fundamentals of Mexican cooking. He read books. He traveled to Mexico. And in 2017, he again opened a restaurant of his own, Alta Calidad. This time, it was a Mexican restaurant.
“What I needed at the time was a truly fresh start,” he said.
A recent meal at Otra Vez, his New Orleans restaurant, showed how seriously he has studied Mexican food.
A seafood cocktail was fiery without burning, and each ingredient — shrimp, crab, avocado, radish — cut to accentuate its texture.
A grilled cauliflower taco was just oily enough to feel like you weren’t eating for your health.
And the whole red snapper was delicately flavored and delicious enough that it didn’t need the spicy aioli on the side.
Now Mexican food is part of Nawab’s identity. He knows that, because he now craves the flavors and those chilies if he doesn’t eat them every day. It’s an identity, he recognizes, that’s far from simple.
“I’m not Mexican, but also I’m not really Indian either. I was born here. I consider myself a Kentuckian,” he said. “I think those little twis