Meherwan Irani learned to cook from his mother. And while he is not unique in that respect, he must be one of the few chefs in the country who asked his mother to train the kitchen staff, too. The menu at Chai Pani, a color-splashed bastion of citrus and spice in Asheville, North Carolina, is rooted in the flavors of the chef’s childhood in northern India, and for good reason. Irani spent more than a decade in sales and marketing before he opened his restaurant five years ago. Although he is hardly a novice, his resume consists of hours logged in his own kitchen and under his mother’s tutelage, not in restaurants or culinary schools.
Chai Pani has been a runaway success so far, with a year-old satellite in Atlanta and a spinoff cocktail bar, MG Road, that draws crowds to the basement of the flagship restaurant. Irani’s business acumen and commitment to sourcing locally have helped, but it’s his sense of fun and knack for bright, gut-punching flavors that have earned him national attention. Critics and eaters have fallen hard for dishes such as the Sloppy Jai, a lamb sandwich that’s a close cousin to a cafeteria staple, and the kale pakoras, fritters stuffed with local greens. Earlier this year, Irani made the James Beard Foundation’s list of nominees for Best Chef: Southeast.
The recipe for the very popular okra fries on the menus at both Chai Pani locations and MG Road comes directly from the chef’s mother, and it couldn’t be much easier to follow at home. “I’m pretty sure my mom invented this recipe,” Irani says. “It was the only way she could get me to eat okra. I’ve seen Chai Pani–style fries on a few menus since we first introduced them, and it just tickles me to see my mom’s recipe making its way across the United States.”