Chef Kiran Verma, of the eponymous fine-dining Indian restaurant in River Oaks (okay, River Oaks adjacent), took a circuitous route to her profession. At age 18, she left her native Delhi and moved to Houston with her husband. After a stint at Texas Commerce Bank, she spent the next 20 or so years raising her two children. When they left for college in 1995, she decided to do something "more creative," which in her case meant creating Houston's first fine-dining Indian restaurant, Ashiana, in Westchase. In 2004, she sold Ashiana and opened her current restaurant, Kiran's, just west of Highland Village. Eating Our Words recently sat down with Chef Kiran to discuss her career, the greatness of Central Market, and more.
EOW: Did you grow up learning to cook?
KV: I cooked at home, but I wasn't encouraged. My mother was a college professor, and she was very much for education. Like all Indian parents, she wanted her kids to be doctors, engineers, or lawyers. Whenever my mother would go out I would always be cooking and eating with servants and learning about food, and she did not accept that easily. When she came home she would ask, "Oh, what did you do?" And I said, "I studied," but of course I hadn't. She was happy, though, when she came to Houston and I was a successful chef. I don't have her anymore. I wish she could have seen Kiran's.
EOW: Had you been cooking at home while your kids were growing up?
KV: Yes. Cooking at home and for friends. When you come to this country you miss home a lot. Our closest friends were also from India, and on the weekends our families would cook big meals and eat together. I always enjoyed cooking for groups, and my friends would say, "oh, you should be cooking professionally." In those days, I didn't think about it. I didn't think we had enough money to open a business, and I didn't think being a chef would be looked up to in Indian society. You could own a business, but you didn't cook. You just hired cooks. But after living in this country, I became more independent and realized that whatever your passion, you can take it to another level. Especially now with the Food Network. Chefs have gained such respect that it encourages young kids, and encourages us as parents to tell our kids it's okay if you have passion for cooking and want to take that to another level.
EOW: Let's fast-forward to when your children started college.
KV: I wanted to do something creative, something professionally. For a few weeks, I worked for an Indian restaurant, but I did not like what they were doing. That made me learn what I wanted to do: not just work in a restaurant or open a restaurant, but change the whole concept of an Indian restaurant.
EOW: What sort of changes did you envision?
KV: That restaurant had no customer service and no ambiance, and it did not use high-quality products. These were the same guests that eat at Mark's and Tony's and Cafe Annie, and I felt, why can't we create a Tony's that serves Indian cuisine? I knew there was a market. Also, Indian restaurants didn't serve wine. Why? People thought, oh, Indian food goes with hard liquor or beer. But there is nothing better with Indian food than great wine, because great wine has such complex flavors. In my first restaurant, the first thing I did was create a wine cellar.
EOW: How did you know there was a market for a high-end Indian restaurant, when there weren't any restaurants like it before?
KV: When I took over Ashiana, we changed the concept completely. For instance, I kept the buffet, but my buffet had a whole salmon, a whole leg of lamb, and lots of fresh vegetables. In those days an Indian buffet might cost $5.99; we did ours for $15, and then $18. It was a big jump, but people didn't mind as long as we gave them good food. We had Schlumberger, we had Shell, we had BP - we were in the Energy Corridor - and the same people who came during lunch would also entertain clients. We became very fine dining, with private rooms, a cigar bar, and single malts. We kept improving, and they kept on appreciating every aspect. Our guests also asked me to cater events at their homes. They'd say they had had catering from Jackson Hicks or from Tony's, and now they were calling me, so I realized they thought I was of that caliber, too. That's what made me feel like there were people who wanted good food, good flavors, good service - and Indian cuisine.
EOW: I read that you trained under a chef from the New Delhi Sheraton. Was that in New Delhi?
KV: No. The first chef we hired at Ashiana was the executive chef at Bukhara, the restaurant at the New Delhi Sheraton. It's a very famous restaurant. That's where the Clintons dined and all these big people. He cooked with us for a year, and I learned from him also. Simple cooking you do at home, but the professional part, the old-style sauces, and traditional cooking -- the true Indian flavors, especially the Mughlai part -- I learned from him.
EOW: If you opened this restaurant in India, how would the menu be different?
KV: You know, it's my dream to have another Kiran's in Delhi.
KV: Really. I feel this is what people should eat, and people would appreciate it in India. If it was possible for me to divide myself, I would open another one in India. Of course it's a dream, and not every dream is fulfilled. My daughter would love for me to open a Kiran's in Las Vegas on the strip; she tells everyone that's her dream.If I could find great chefs and great managers, this dream could be possible, although it's more possible in India than in Las Vegas--it would be easier to train Indian people who have grown up with the spices and Indian food. But the reason we are so successful in this location is because I taste every sauce, every dressing, everything from morning until evening. I do not let one thing get out of the kitchen without my approval. How can I do that unless I find someone who has the same exact passion, the same exact taste?
EOW: So you're not thinking about opening a second location in Houston.
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KV: No, no. I just want to make this Kiran's very successful, and even take it a notch up. My standard is the very upscale restaurants of LA or SF or NY. I've been to Daniel's and Le Bernadin, and I see my restaurant rising to that. I don't think we have anyone in Houston who does it. When you go to these places, you see what service is, you see what ambiance is, you see what food is. And that's what I want to create. That is my passion, and I still haven't reached it. I'm still not satisfied with what I've done with my life, and I'm not satisfied with what I've done on the food scene.
Tune in tomorrow for more with Chef Kiran.