Sangeeta Lakhani and I stand in front of a tower of Amul packaged butter, the smiling face of a weirdly suggestive cartoon girl looking back at us, finger to mouth and tongue flicked out, beckoning with a gleaming piece of buttered bread.
“I look at that and it’s home,” she says. “It’s India right away.”
We stroll through Patel Brothers Indian Market on Sawmill Road. Standing next to the colorful Lakhani, with her bright pink shirt and orange scarf, I feel sepia-toned. Kind of like a grey stew pooling next to a fragrant curry.
“Coming here, there is a comfort to hear the language for a minute—Hindi and Gujarati—on the weekends, it’s crowded and people are yelling, people are pushing to get into the line…that’s how we roll.”
Having left her family home in India at the age of 16, the young Lakhani ended up in Dayton with an aunt. Always an artist—she remembers embossing and printing with a potato when she was a kid back in Bombay—Lakhani won a scholarship to CCAD and thus began her Columbus journey. After a few sojourns to London and other cities, Lakhani found herself back in the 614.
“That’s karela, an extremely bitter gourd unless it’s cooked correctly,” she explains, as we stand in front of a box of vegetables that look like cucumbers with a post-apocalyptic skin rash.
I was sent to London a couple of times, but I always come back. I fought it—No way, COLUMBUS? I still say to drag me by my last dying hair—I don’t want to die in Columbus. But it’s affordable, everyone knows each other, and you can take a risk here. I could’ve never opened a restaurant in New York. This is home now; I lived here longer than I lived in India—26 years. Columbus, it’s everything—every year I love Columbus more. Columbus is the biggest game of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon…Columbus Bacon.
The main focus of Patel Brothers is the produce section, it has the widest aisle and crates upon crates of vegetables. “My parents are proud of me, but the “farm to table” concept is lost on them. They think, “How else would you eat?” In India, you just go to the market, that’s how you eat…when they visited, they were like, “Huh, we came here to visit you, and you took us to a market?”
I really don’t know [how I got into cooking]. I was in my third year at CCAD and I thought, “I want to cook! What am I doing here?” I would call home in the middle of the night and ask how to make goat curry. I knew I had to be in a creative field; I am glad I discovered it. I come from a privileged childhood—we had a maid, cook, chauffeur. I didn’t know how to make toast. Once my uncle asked me to make coffee in the morning, and I was too terrified to tell him that I didn’t know how. I woke up in tears, but luckily my cousin helped me. He was [like], “hell if I know,” but [he] opened the cupboard and found the Nescafé. The first Indian dish I ever made successfully was keema rice beef. It is my most favorite thing to ever eat and it was the biggest challenge for me. But I did it! I called my aunt, yelling, “I made it!”
There is a whole wall devoted to pickled this, pickled that. “During mango season, there are 10-12 women in a kitchen making every kind of mango pickle you can imagine. We pickle everything.”
I went to culinary school at Columbus State and did my internship at New Albany Country Club. At the time, I had helped open Hounddog’s Pizza—we were open 24 hours a day and we had every kind of crazy. I learned so much there: the day-to-day, how things work. Then Collin Castore at Ravari Room said, “Hey let’s open a place.” We originally wanted to do a coffee shop in the Short North, but do you know how much coffee you have to sell? I spoke with the culinary school and they said I must quit the internship. Why would you stay in school and pay for us to teach you? Spend your own money and figure it out. We did everything at Bodega—pizza to panini.
We pass a huge packing box overflowing with smaller boxes featuring a cherubic toddler holding up his hands with a “Look what I did, Mom!” face. “That’s Parle-G with the creepy baby on the box—it’s a cookie you dunk in chai,” Lakhani points out. “It’s most delicious; there’s something about them with the chai.”
The Table is my grown-up restaurant. I am not a competitive chef—I am not trying to reinvent the wheel. I like comfort flavors. I like to create stories and create moments. I love to cook, and I love how natural it feels when my hand moves. I want The Table to be a mini-vacation. People go out to escape many things—the sounds, the music—I am creating a destination that, for the next couple hours, [that] people are escaping to. I love creating that. It’s not just about cooking.
It’s really scary being an owner. I’m 10 years in and every day, every day is new. I have 30 kids that I worry about their future, give them paychecks, hear about their lives and hear their stories; I bitch every night, but I wake up and am right back there, part of the chaos. I love being on the line—all that fervor. But you get into this Zen place where you don’t see any of the madness and it becomes controlled chaos. People think restaurant owners are super glamorous and loaded—what it is, is a whole lotta debt. It all could be gone tomorrow. There are so many little things—music, lights, cooks. Your entire success is based on people who choose to come to your restaurant. People choose out of, what, 300 places?
I am grateful while I have it. At Bodega, we were the first to have 50 drafts, now we’re just another place with drafts; everybody has drafts. You never know when that moment of uniqueness is going to be over.
We walk through aisles of rainbow cans and packages. “We love our colors,” she laughs. “Everything here is so extreme—loud colors, extremely flavorful foods.”
Five ingredients? You can’t limit Indians to five ingredients! Hot peppers, my spice rack, and fresh vegetables. Cauliflower is the vegetable I cook most. It’s hard to be a vegetarian here. My worst experience of food in [the] U.S. was White Castle. I was pissed, I was really pissed, [and] I said to the person who took me there, “Why would you ever do this? I can’t eat this.” Skyline is my guilty pleasure—a four-way with onions, habañero cheese. I don’t know why I love it so much, maybe it’s the chocolate in the sauce. When I want to go, the kids are ecstatic.
At the market, a couple with a young toddler strolls by, the child reaching for every snack within a tiny arm’s length. “The family table is the most important place in the Indian home. There are jars and jars and jars of snacks,” she says. “The bigger you are, the more successful you are.”
When I cater, the kids chop and dice. Both of them are in the Boy Scouts and neither of them is capable of getting the cooking merit badge. You’re failing me! Your mom owns two restaurants! [laughs]. The kids have traveled so much [that] they eat anything, but they sometimes say, “Can you just cook normal?” What does that mean? Does that mean American food? It’s the food they eat in their friends’ homes. It’s reverse ethnic food for me—mashed potatoes and chicken. Chicken is my least favorite thing—it’s boring. It’s only about what you put with it…it’s overused—meats like lamb and goat are their own entity.