Akhtar Nawab was born and raised in Kentucky, where he first learned to roll rotis with his mother in their kitchen. Much of his culinary inspiration stems from his mother, who had to make adjustments to her Indian cooking based on what was available in Louisville. This theme of adaptation along with the influence of his Indian heritage has played an important role in his career.
In May 2010, he began working as Head Chef at La Esquina. The dishes he creates there are so inspired – we knew we had to team up with him. He is the chef behind the delicious meals we delivered on March 26th. We sat down with Nawab recently at the Plated HQ to ask him some questions about his life and culinary inspiration.
Q: What made you want to become a chef? Was there an element of your family life growing up that led you to this career choice?
A: It was a chain of events for me – but really it all started with my mother. My mother’s a fabulous cook. A lot of Indian moms are just good cooks. I think for me there was always a real artistic side – I played music for a big part of my life, and photography was a big part of my life as well. I think cooking came easier to me, a little easier than some of my course work. For me it was important to try to explore that a little more, and I think over time when I realized it could be a profession, I got more into it, realizing there was an opportunity there – which required some dedication, for sure. But really it was simple things like making flatbread with my mom – like making rotis, or making puris for breakfast, things like that. It really kind of all began at that point, now that I have some years to look back on it.
Q: Who or what is behind your culinary inspiration? Has any place you’ve travelled impacted your cooking in any way?
A: Everywhere impacts my cooking. I’ve traveled through Sicily, Italy, France, Mexico and India – it’s always pretty impactful. My last restaurant [Elettaria], for example, was a real movement towards trying to figure out how Indian food can be – just done in a more approachable way.
What I found was that it was near impossible for my mom, while living in Kentucky, to get some of the things that she was really accustomed to or used to – so she had to make small adaptions over time. I think that was really what my last restaurant was about. It was a look at Indian food through a very specific lens – an American lens. So everything, really, is impactful.
Q: What’s the best cooking advice you’ve ever gotten?
A: Taste your food. Always. And not just at the end, but throughout the whole process. From adding the vegetables to the pan, to adding the next ingredients – that’s how you make good food.
Q: What are the three tools you can’t live without while cooking a meal?
A: A cake tester – that’s really how you test food to make sure it’s done so you don’t have to poke at it. Kosher salt – I like the way it feels when you’re seasoning things. I really get a good feel for how much I’m putting in the dish. And lastly, a sharp knife.
Q: Is there a chef that you really admire or look up to?
A: I’m a big fan of Mario Batali. He’s so intelligent and well-traveled. He used to come to my old restaurant a lot. When I got to know him a little bit, he had a lot of interesting perspectives based on his experience and travels. He’s a good man.
Chef Challenge: Be adventurous and try different things. Don’t shy away from trying something just because it’s complicated or it feels overwhelming. The end result, as long as you’re proud of it, is really your goal.
– Pareesha Narang