In a special Diwali version of Chef Chat, we visit Kaiser Lashkari of Himalaya Restaurant, a North Indian and Pakistani refuge in the Mahatma Gandhi district. The chef and owner, a colorful character, is 11 tables deep today at lunchtime. Although some complain about the desk in the middle of the restaurant (it's actually pushed semi-discreetly to the side), customers here have a fierce loyalty to Himalaya.
EOW: How long have you been in Houston?
KL: Thirty-one years.
EOW: Was that when you moved to the U.S.?
KL: My first semester of schooling was in University of Kansas in Lawrence. It was too cold, so I came to Houston after one semester. Besides, they didn't have a hotel program, in which I got my bachelor's and master's.
EOW: Where did you move from?
KL: Karachi, Pakistan.
EOW: When did you start this restaurant?
KL: I moved here in 2004. In 1992 I started Kaiser Restaurant, a little bitty take-out place on Beechnut and Kirkwood. I was catering for weddings. People liked the food so much they said they want to sit and eat. So after ten years -- no, 12 years, '92-2004 -- I came here and started Himalaya Restaurant.
EOW: Is your old place still around?
KL: No, it's a laundry place. (laughs)
EOW: When did you start to cook?
KL: In 1979. I was 18. I was in med school in Pakistan.
EOW: What? So what happened?
KL: I thought that was not for me. Destiny, I guess.
EOW: Tell me about the first time you cooked.
KL: I was bragging about my cooking to somebody when I had not even cooked at all. I was very fond of eating, actually. They said, "Okay, now we're going to take you up on it. We're going to ask you to make this dish called karahi ghosht." So I put a little bit of this and a little bit of that and a little bit of this and a little bit of that. It turned into something absolutely magnificent. So I said there might be something here. That's when I started really cooking.
EOW: How did you trick them?
KL: I knew that I would be able to cook. Although I hadn't cooked until that time on any scale in a formal way, something in me always told me that I could do it.
EOW: Were you around your parents a lot when they were cooking, growing up?
KL: No. In fact, my mother was not a good cook. She did not like cooking at all. My aunt was a good cook. She was a professional caterer.
EOW: As a self-starter, what's your advice to people who want to learn to cook Indian food?
KL: If you don't have patience, then don't do it. In any kind of cooking. Patience and dedication. If you don't have that, you'll only be someone mediocre. And if you don't have an understanding life partner or spouse, who can understand this is the demand of the business...you'll be gone a good part of 10-12 hours, unlike other professionals who come home in the evening and spend time in the evening at home. There is no such thing in this business. All of the time is occupied by work. If you don't have an understanding spouse like I do -- in fact, she is my rock.
EOW: Does she cook?
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KL: She does a few non-veg dishes. The grilled fish masala is her recipe.
Come back tomorrow to learn what Lashkari says is his secret edge against competition, and to hear the saga of his infamous restaurant desk.