Chef Chat, Part 2: Deepak Doshi of Doshi House, on Making Tasty Vegetarian and Building a Community Space

This is the second part of a two-part Chef Chat series. If you missed our previous post, you can read it here.

Yesterday, in our chat with Deepak Doshi of Doshi House, we talked about his vegetarianism and growing up in the area of Houston called Alief. Today we talk about his food, about the time he spent in the corporate world in Dubai, and what made him change that life to open up the community space that is Doshi House today.

EOW: Where are you from?

DD: I'm of Indian heritage, from Gujarat.

EOW: What kind of food is associated with that area?

DD: Hmm, so a lot of simple foods. It's not really mainstream restaurant food. A lot of time you get subzi -- it's like a stir-fry of mixed vegetables. So, generally, in a meal, you have your dal, which is the lentil; you're gonna have a bread, you're gonna have some rice. You might have some roti -- a type of bread -- and then you're going to have subzi, which is your vegetables. There's meat subzis, too, but in Gujarat, it's predominantly a vegetarian lifestyle. A lot of the history comes from the state of Gujarat. The way it evolved had a lot do with Mahatma Gandhi. He was from Gujarat; he practiced vegetarianism.

EOW: Tell me about the food that you serve here. You have coffee, sandwiches, you do the vegetarian dinners. Tell me how you came up with the sandwich you call Mumbai Nights.

DD: This one also has a lot to do with traditional uniqueness in a panini sandwich. I've been vegetarian all my life. And what upsets me the most is when I get to a venue or a restaurant and I ask for vegetarian, and it's just salad -- which is fine, because that's often just what people think food is when it's vegetarian. So that was the challenge that was put in front of me: "How can we get vegetarian to taste very good, be extremely nutritious and still be hearty?" And that's how the sandwich was created. You've got the curried potatoes in peas, which adds the substance in terms of heartiness. And it's red potato, so it's a little less starchy than white potato. We have fresh cucumbers, we have cilantro, and we have this chutney of tamarind and dates that we make in-house. We have pickled jalapeños for spice, and you can add Muenster cheese if you want. This was just a really good combination of everything you could eat; and then, instead of french fries, we have fried plantain chips and fresh spinach leaves.

EOW: What about your vegetarian dinners?

DD: All of them are vegan, actually. Dinner didn't start until August of last year. Since I work here almost 14 hours a day, I said, "I can't eat sandwiches all day long. I don't eat that much bread, I don't want to be eating sandwiches all day long." So if I was to eat something at home, how would I make it? So I said what we're going to do for dinner instead of sandwiches, we'll cut off sandwiches at 3 p.m. Dinner will start at 6 p.m. and it'll be one item until it runs out. So we make one item, super nutritious, which has a balance of vegetables and proteins. Each one is super unique, and it's vegan, too. We make our meals an hour before dinner starts, so no frozen leftovers. It's affordable because food that's good for you and tastes good should be reachable to our community.

EOW: It's a rotating menu, right?

DD: Monday it's creole red beans and rice. Tuesday is Thai red curry. Wednesday is a three-bean chili. Thursday is vegan Jamaican Jerk. Friday is vegan fajitas. And then Saturday is the not-so-butter chicken.

EOW: Those are all very different dishes. Prior to Doshi House, did you have kitchen experience?

DD: No, I didn't. I started cooking when I was 15 years old. I'm self-taught. Most of it had to do with intuition and what I enjoyed eating. There were times, when I was younger, when we'd have very minimal groceries, and so I'd try to figure out how to make what I had taste good. When I opened up Doshi House, it was just a matter of "What do I like to eat?" and "Would it be palatable to most?" And that's what I thought, so I created it.

EOW: Tell me how Doshi House happened, because you were corporate before. How did this come about?

DD: I was corporate for five years.

EOW: So what was the thing that made you say, "I'm not doing this anymore"?

DD: It was't that I hated my corporate job.

EOW: Did you have a Jerry McGuire moment?

DD: Kind of. In Dubai, the job was really good. I was there a year and a half. There were amazing experiences. The amount of experiences I was able to get in that setting, I wouldn't have been able to get if I was here. So I said, "The job is really good, the pay is great, but something about this is still unfulfilling."

EOW: What was the lifestyle in Dubai like?

DD: It's a unique one. It depends on your personal lifestyle. For me, it was more self-reflection. I did a lot of working out and meditating.

EOW: Was it hard to make friends?

DD: Well, no, it wasn't, because if you're American, in the UAE, it's like, "Okay, yeah, come on, let's go!" It's a really flashy lifestyle there. Anywhere you go, you have to dress up really nice. And you have to dress to impress. There's no dive bar, there's no such thing; a beer could be $20. It doesn't make sense, but it makes sense for them because 80 percent of the population are expats, and the money that's spent in the country goes back to the monarchy. Everything is very excessive. You've got indoor ski slopes, the largest buildings in the world, metrorails that run from one city to the next province. It's amazing. Great imagination, a lot of ambition. And it was a good idea, but it wasn't sustainable.

EOW: What do you mean?

DD: Well, as a non-Emirati, you don't have any rights there. I would never be able to own land there. It's like a 99-year lease. And then there's debtor's prison. Here, if we take a credit card or a home loan, and you can't pay it, you can file for bankruptcy. Over there, if you say you can't pay, they can throw you in jail. And this is what happened when I went there in 2008. The recession kicked in, and a lot of international companies were pulling out. A lot of the expats had Ferraris, BMWs, that they couldn't pay for, so they would drive to the airport, leave their cars there and buy a one-way ticket to wherever, because if you couldn't pay it, you could get thrown in jail.

EOW: So what was your "A-ha" moment?

DD: Well, the first six-seven months, it was awesome -- the yacht parties and big buildings and nice hotel and nice car -- I was like "This is good." For instance, I was at a yacht party with one of the royal members from Bahrain. It was cool, but then after a while, you're like "All right. This is okay."

EOW: What changed it from exciting to "just okay"?

DD: Because it's not sustainable. This is not how I'd want to live. It's all made up. There's nothing real. And there was no arts, no community. There's everything that's meant to design this mold of what we should be, but it's all fake. There was a lot of things I was able to see, so I said, "Okay, I want to come back." At the time, I could have come back and gone back to PepsiCo. Great company, good experience, but I said to myself, "Is this something that I want to do at this stage? Money can be made anywhere."

EOW: So you decided, "I'm done with Dubai. I'm going to come back."

DD: Yeah. My thought was, "What can I do when I go back? How do I want to live the rest of my life?" I remember how it used to be in the U.S. It was Monday through Friday, you'd work your tail off. Friday you're exhausted. Saturday you have your one day off, so you're doing whatever you got to do. Being young, I went out, so I was already tired. And then Sunday, when I got back, I'd think, "Sh*t, I have to go back to work Monday." Sunday was just my day to complain about the Monday workday. I'd already be stressed about going to work. I realized that I could have a lot -- and that's great -- but I was always going to be working, and if I hated my life while I'm working, then what was the point? So I said, "This seems like a pretty interesting idea."

EOW: What was the idea?

DD: The idea was a coffeehouse. It was a coffeehouse with some light vegetarian food. That was it. More of a community space, more engaging, keeping it real, where people could have conversations.

EOW: Was it inspired by something you'd seen or experienced?

DD: No. Sometimes I work backwards. I actually bought this building in 2008.

EOW: Why this building?

DD: When I saw this building, I said, "I don't know what it is." It was a lot of intuition talk, right? When I saw this building, I said, "I like standalone. I'm a big fan of things that are standalone that have some character." It's inner city, so people thought I was crazy. They were like, "What are you doing? Maybe you should have kept your day job. This is dumb." Trust me, my dad thought I was lying when I told him I had quit. So anyway, I saw the building, and I thought it was a cool-looking building. It's 77 years old now, and it was rundown, but it was something. I said, "This building looks cool, and I bet I could turn it into something." So I bought it. I held it for a couple of years. I went to Dubai, and it was just sitting here, collecting dust. I didn't know what to do with it at the time. This wasn't in the plans.

EOW: You actually bought it before you went to Dubai?

DD: Yep. I still had no idea what I was going to do with it. I said, "I like it. Something's telling me to buy it. I'm just going to go with it. I feel it. I can turn it into something eventually" -- a little bit crazy. So then I went to Dubai, and then I said, "Okay, now I have the building, now I have an idea, now we've got to make it happen." So the idea in the beginning was: "Let me start with an art gallery because it'll cost me a lot less than it would to do a full-out coffee shop, just to see what the response from the community is."

EOW: Why art gallery? Why coffee shop? Why not restaurant?

DD: Because it's a community space.

EOW: But...what is the community here?

DD: It's huge. It's unbelievable. Let me tell you: Just like people think it's crazy all day long that this exists in this part of town, when nothing else is down the streets on both sides, the reality is, if you don't merge what the community wants and what they like to see with what you want, it's not gonna work. I could have gotten shunned by so many people if they thought this was gentrification. People come here, people make this a destination because it's not in the way. Most of the time, it's not in anybody's way, right? For very few people is this in the way.

EOW: That's what I'm saying; it's not a community, is it?

DD: No, but what's happening is that local community -- Project Row Houses, huge art community -- it's literally right behind here. There is actually a lot of community here, even if you wouldn't think so. There's a huge vegetarian community. You've heard of Vegan Seed? It's a vegan cafe restaurant. They started on a food truck two streets south from here. There's a shape center that serves just vegan food. They've been around for 40-something years. They promote healthy eating for the community that exists, which is predominantly African-American. But beyond that, there's so many more people that are conscious of what they eat, gardening, sustainability, it's out here. So, something like this could work here. Food could work, too -- but I thought that having coffee -- having just more of a casual experience -- changes people's perception of what they're allowed to have, in a place that doesn't have that at all in the neighborhood.

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