Chef Chat

Chef Chat, Part 1: Kaiser Lashkari of Himalaya — Pakistan in Houston

Chef Kaiser Lashkari was born in Karachi, Pakistan, and his first dream was to be a doctor. He was inspired both by his parents, who would have been pleased to have a doctor in the family, as well as by the television shows of the day. “There was a TV series starring Richard Chamberlain called Dr. Kildare. I loved Dr. Kildare, and then there was Dr. Richard Kimble — David Janssen in The Fugitive. They made me want to take medicine as a profession.”

He finished three years of medical school, but something inside him changed. “Something said this was not for me,” he said. “I broke my parents’ hearts because all Asian parents want their children to be doctors. I was their only child and this was their hope for me.”

Lashkari discovered his knack for cooking on a date. “It’s hard to believe you can have a date in Karachi, but I did. It rained so hard, I was not able to go out with her, so I said, ‘Let’s cook at home.’ She got some goat meat out and said, ‘Here is the spice rack.’ I’d never been in the kitchen before that, but I put a little bit of this and a little bit of that and what came out was so good, I thought, ‘Maybe I have something here.”

He never worked in a restaurant in Karachi. Instead, at age 20 he left to pursue his new dream of going to America and opening his own restaurant. He attended highly regarded Hilton College at the University of Houston and earned a master’s degree in hotel and restaurant management. He worked a year for Marriott Hotels and also taught classes at a proprietary school as well as food and beverage management and control classes at Houston Community College. It was after that, in 1993, that he decided to open his first restaurant.

It was a tiny place on the corner of Beechnut and Kirkwood called Kaiser’s. There was enough room for only six seats. Fortunately, there was also a counter that allowed him to serve to-go customers and fill more hours. “I also used to cater weddings and parties,” said Laskari. “That was the bulk of the business.”

He says the demographics of the area changed. “It went really down and it wasn’t possible to remain in business,” explained Lashkari. It was time for a bigger, better place.

Lashkari set his sights on the Little India area this time. “Hillcroft is where it all happens. Food-wise, clothing-wise, entertainment-wise, shopping, groceries, spices — you name it.” His existing clientele followed him to the new place and year after year, more people have discovered the generous portions of flavorful Pakistani, Northern Indian and Indo-Chinese food at Himalaya Restaurant.

He also infuses some of his dishes with other flavors he’s discovered in the melting pot that is Houston: Tex-Mex, Cajun and barbecue. “I do a spicy brisket masala and a curry étouffée,” says Lashkari. “We do a masala fried rice. We do quite a few things and we should. We’re one of the few Indian restaurants that serve beef also. Texas has some of the best beef in the nation and we should showcase that.”

That’s actually one big difference between Pakistan and India, and it is driven by religious beliefs. Muslims can eat beef slaughtered with dhabihah methods, but pork is prohibited. Hindus revere cattle as a source of food and a symbol of life, so they do not eat beef.

We asked Lashkari to describe the characteristics of Indo-Chinese cuisine. He says it’s “heavy on the spice” and tends to have more soy sauce, garlic, red pepper flakes and garam masala. More oil tends to be used during cooking, too. Less rice wine is used because of the alcohol content. Sesame oil isn’t used, either, because it’s not regarded as pleasing to the palate.

Lashkari has been in business 20 years now, long enough to see his original clients’ children become adults. “I catered a wedding as one of my first caterings. Their daughter just got engaged and I did the catering for them.

Laskari’s parents never got to see the great success he’s had with Himalaya, the restaurant he eventually opened in the Little India area of Houston near Hillcroft and Highway 59. If they were still alive, though, they’d probably smile to see their son directing his staff with a restaurant full of customers. That’s usually the case, as patrons pull up their chairs and feast on big platters of chicken biryani and revel in the spiciness of his secret green curry recipe.

However, the personal cost of being a chef with your own restaurant is very high. “I am grateful to God for all the recognition he has given me, but we have paid a big price for it. We’ve completely put our personal lives on hold. The hold button comes off every Monday for just ten or 12 hours. We work Sunday night, close at midnight, do a deep cleaning and by the time my head hits the pillow, it’s 4 a.m.”

After getting some sleep, Lashkari and his wife take advantage of their few hours of free time to go out to eat, do some shopping or see a movie. On Tuesday, it’s back to the grind of running a busy restaurant — 96 hours a week.

“To be where we are and achieve what we have achieved, we’ve had to pay a big price for it — complete isolation from friends and family. You can’t do anything with them on Mondays because they are starting their new week. Monday is the only day we are closed, so we can’t go to their life events, like birthdays and anniversaries. Friday, Saturday and Sundays are when they have those celebrations.”

Tired of being told no all the time, the Lashkaris' friends have stopped inviting them to their celebrations. There’s just no point. They can’t go. “They usually invite us the first five or six years, and now everyone takes it for granted. ‘Oh, they’re not going to come. Why invite them?’ It’s true. I don’t blame them.”

“It’s not easy,” Laskari went on to say. “You have to be on top of things. You have to have control of the front of the house and the back of the house. Pleasing customers is not easy. There are some very demanding customers. An Asian customer is more demanding than anyone else. They demand perfection.”

Lashkari doesn’t really have a problem with the expectation. It matches the exacting standards he puts on himself. “If the food is not worth selling, don’t sell it,” he extolled. “Everybody's a cook at home — some good, some bad. It varies. If you create something and you have to sell it, it had better be extremely above average.”

Managing vendors is another time-consuming issue. “Vendors can be very, very tricky,” Lashkari said in a straightforward tone. “I am a stickler for quality. I demand certain specs. Specs are lacking in Indian food. [The idea of specifications] comes from my education in America, where they are very important — specs for meat, specs for this, specs for that.”

He went on to explain why specs are so important to him. “If you start with fine quality ingredients, you end up with a good quality end product, provided you don’t take shortcuts. That is one the reasons for our success. We don’t take shortcuts in our cooking. Sometimes my employees hate me for that.”

Join us tomorrow as we talk with Kaiser Lashkari about other dishes he makes at Himalaya and the ones he thinks new guests absolutely must try. 
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Phaedra Cook
Contact: Phaedra Cook