A Recipe For America

A Recipe For America
Words by Ashley Locke
Photos by
Zoe Dannenmueller
Immigrants are the backbone of America. Food brings people together. Those two sentiments are often repeated, but almost never together. That should change though, because it’s true––the United States is a melting pot, and there’s no better way to see that than in our food. Just ask Chef Akhtar Nawab, first generation Indian-American and owner of the Brooklyn-based Mexican restaurant Alta Calidad.

Restaurants in New York seem to spontaneously appear. One day it’s an abandoned storefront, the next it’s a diner––but places like Alta Calidad don’t just pop up. They are years in the making. Chef Nawab traces the beginning of his cantina back decades––to his first consulting job at a mexican restaurant in New York, to his first restaurant job during college in Illinois, then back to his youth in Kentucky, and further back still to his parents’ lives in India before they immigrated to the United States. Every part of his story was an essential ingredient in the creation of his uniquely American restaurant.  

Chef Nawab’s father was a cardiovascular physician participating in a residency program that opened the doors to the United States. His parents first ended up in Milwaukee, where he was born, then they spent one fellowship year in Chicago. By the time Chef Nawab was four, they had moved once again––this time to Louisville, Kentucky––and this time the move was for good.

“There were only two Indian families,” said Chef Nawab. “It was a challenge––My mom was proper with a British-Indian upbringing. Our culture was very important to her and it made us stand out even more.”

As few Indian families as there were in his community, there were even fewer Indian foods. “My mom had to adapt to what was available. She couldn’t get the type of zucchini or eggplant she was used to cooking with, so she worked with what she could find,” he said. “She kind of invented a cuisine of her own––she was really creating her own version of Indian food in Kentucky.”

Her creativity shined around the holidays. She would cook a traditional Thanksgiving meal, but she altered the recipes to create a sense of home. “We would have Indian-spiced gravy on turkey, or Indian-spiced green beans with the crunchy onions on top,” Chef Nawab said. “Traditional American foods, but a little bit Indian.”

She adapted the way she cooked too. Chef Nawab remembers his mother making roti with a saute pan. Roti was his kitchen introduction, ditching the tv in favor of rolling the roti for his mother.

When Chef Nawab left home for college, he traded his mother’s kitchen for a restaurant one. He enjoyed the work, and it led him to culinary school at California Culinary Academy in San Francisco. A couple years after culinary school, in 1998, he left the West Coast for a job at New York’s beloved Gramercy Tavern. “I wanted the New York experience,” he said. “I worked there for four years, and just as I was getting ready to head back to San Francisco, I was offered a Sous Chef position at Craft, so I stayed.”

In 2007, Chef Nawab opened Elettaria, an Indian-inspired restaurant in Greenwich Village. It didn’t go as planned. “We went through a recession in 2008, and I was an inexperienced business person who made wrong decisions, so we closed a year later,” he said. “I invested so much personally and financially, and my insecurity made me wonder if I could operate in New York.”

He took a seven month break from restaurant life, returning his focus to his family in a way he couldn’t when he was working on the restaurant. Then a new opportunity fell into his lap. “Someone needed consulting on a Mexican restaurant they were opening,” he said. “I didn’t know anything about Mexican food, but I knew how to be a good manager. When I got more comfortable, I realized there were so many flavor profiles similar to the Indian food I grew up with.”

Discovering a cultural connection with Mexican food sparked a new restaurant idea––the one that became Alta Calidad. It combined his Indian roots, his southern upbringing, and his newfound excitement for Mexican cuisine. The menu boasts items like sourdough roti topped with thinly shaved meats, tomatoes, herbs, and peppers; chicken fried steak torta with jámon serrano and pickled jalapeño; and queso fundido topped with pepitas and served with plantains. “In this restaurant, anything goes,” he said.

Though the restaurant’s focus is not traditionally American food, there’s no denying that the restaurant itself is distinctly American––a cultural blending that Chef Nawab seemed destined to create. “It’s only manifested into what it is now because I came from such a non-existent community where we had to adapt the way we made our food,” he said.

Though Chef Nawab got his start as a restaurant owner in New York, he’s expanded to southern towns like Birmingham. He also has his eyes set on a project back home in Louisville. “I refuse to be a New Yorker,” he said. “I keep a Kentucky driver’s license, and I told my daughter when she’s old enough, I’m leaving New York.”

Indian and other regional food is more widely accessible now than it was when Chef Nawab was growing up, and that is a welcome change. In rural areas, restaurants are often on the frontlines of introducing new cultures, bringing the flavors of far away places to small towns across the United States. In a lot of ways, food is what brings us together––a reminder that America is a diverse, beautiful, never-ending experiment that we all get to participate in, and Chef Nawab is doing his part. “From my perspective, I think there’s no better way to understand someone than by what they eat,” he said.