It’s about breaking boundaries.
Unapologetic Foods, 2023 AD
Unapologetic Foods is the team behind the award winning Semma, Dhamaka, Adda, Masalawala, Rowdy Rooster, and now Naks in New York. Semma won a Michelin star in 2022. Dhamaka and Semma were #1/#2 on the New York Times best restaurants. The accolades are endless.
Unapologetic. It’s more than just a name. It’s a movement. Yes, people are lining up for the incredible food, but it goes beyond that. They’re lining up for the conversation that Roni, Chef Chintan and Chef Vijay are driving forward. What does it mean to be Unapologetic?.
All words by Roni Mazumdar, Chef Chintan Pandya and Chef Vijay Kumar in conversation with Seneca.
Roni: One evening, around 4:15pm, I saw a few people standing outside Adda. I'm like, oh my God, maybe they'll come here. So let me go say hello. But then I see there's a whole line that has formed that's wrapping around the block. I asked, “what are you waiting for?” And they looked at me dead straight and said, "for you to open." That was the day that changed our life. And since that day, the lines haven't stopped. People are lining up to be a part of this conversation that's Unapologetic Foods. There's nothing more moving, more empowering than that. We create something real, and I think people respond to that.
It’s okay to be vulnerable and share who you really are.
Roni: That’s what we set out to do with Adda. We put forward what is authentic to us, to who we are, without having a clue whether it would succeed. Adda opened in 2018 to zero fanfare in the middle of nowhere. A random little restaurant in Long Island City. Nothing on its menu remotely resembles what people are used to eating at Indian restaurants. There was no immediate revolution. I felt as if we were pushing this giant rock up a hill, without even knowing where the top of the hill was.
It’s about breaking boundaries.
Roni: Opening Adda gave us the belief to just say, "f*ck it, let's just do it." Sure, we might screw it up, but lets keep on doing what feels right. When we opened Rowdy Rooster, someone asked us, why would you open a fried chicken place instead of a higher end restaurant? Wouldn’t that be the logical thing to do? Growing up in India, I remember eating a specific type of chicken pakoda from Bardhaman (in West Bengal) that was outstanding. We felt that this city was missing that distinctive Indian flavor. That’s what we believed in, so we did it.
Chintan: With each venture, we get bolder. As with our name, Unapologetic, we don't have an idea of what we are going to do next, but it won’t be something you can predict. Semma was a special journey. It was the first restaurant we opened that focused on the cuisine of one specific region. That took guts for us, as it was not something we had done before. Masalawala was an even greater risk, because authentic food from Bengal doesn’t exist in other places in the US. There’s only a surface level understanding of Bengali food. The food that we serve, be it Bhapa Ilish (with the bones left in the fish) is about a completely different kind of flavor, completely different from North Indian cuisine. We didn’t know if New Yorkers would find it appealing, but I’m glad to say that they’ve been eating it up!
Who are you cooking for? What are you fearful about?
Chintan: You don’t know if the food will resonate. That you cannot control. But I swear by God, there was not one day that passed where we would say, "it's okay carrying on the same way as yesterday". No, we would come and say, "okay, what do we do next? How do we push even further?"Roni: When it comes to Indian food, we have been apologizing to the rest of the world for years. When we serve our real food, we tone down the spices. The question is, who are you cooking for? What are you fearful about? This is what we challenge at Unapologetic Foods.
Its never about chasing stars.
Vijay: I’m grateful that such a privilege has been awarded to us by Michelin at Semma and I’m aware of how historic it is. But that’s not what gets us going in the morning. All of us collectively are trying to break down barriers. Like with focusing Semma on Southern Indian food. We challenge ourselves when we wake up, we challenge our customers to experience something new. There are always problems. Life will always be hectic. But let's see how we can overcome and push ourselves further. I always advise people to not open a restaurant if you want to get a star. Just cook your food from your heart.