Chef Chat

Chef Chat, Part 2: Kiran Verma of Kiran's

In part one of our Chef Chat with chef/owner Kiran Verma of Kiran's, we discussed how she came to create Houston's first restaurant combining fine dining and Indian cuisine. Today, we talk about sourcing ingredients, making baby food, and more.

EOW: I understand that you purchase a lot of your ingredients from Central Market.

KV: All of my specialty produce, like my berries, my salads, my salad tomatoes, my asparagus, and my herbs, comes from Central Market. I don't know who their buyer or supplier is, but it's like hand-picked from a farmers' market. It's gorgeous. Actually, some of the herbs I grow in my back garden here at the restaurant, but the rest I get from Central Market. I also work closely with their butcher department. Yesterday I bought about a thousand dollars' worth of lamb: lamb porterhouse, rack of lamb, leg of lamb. And we use their breads for our cheese plate -- I love their apricot and white chocolate bread.

EOW: Do you have a special arrangement with them?

KV: I don't. I wish. I'm going to see if, given the amount of bulk we buy, we can get some case prices or something better. People ask me, "How can you shop at Central Market? It's so expensive!" I truly don't believe that it's expensive. I'm a smart shopper. As much as people think you get a better price from restaurant suppliers, actually you don't, because they have a built-in delivery cost.

Of course, for things like potatoes and onions and garlic, we have people deliver, because I buy hundreds of pounds at a time. You might think Italian cooking uses a lot of tomatoes and garlic, but you cannot imagine how much I use. We make all our sauces with fresh Roma tomatoes. I buy from three companies -- Houston Avocado, Third Coast and Brothers Produce, and I always judge them by their tomatoes, because every second day I buy about a hundred pounds. It's hard for me to approve of any of the produce companies one hundred percent. I've been cooking for almost 15 years and I'm still checking to see who has the best produce.

And then we get all our seafood from Louisiana Seafood, except for live lobster, which I get from Seafood Wholesalers. They're the only ones with beautiful live lobsters.

EOW: Last year you visited the White House as part of Recipe for Success, a nonprofit that battles childhood obesity. What role do you think restaurant chefs should play in nutrition education?

KV: We could get involved in schools or on school boards, but it's hard to select which school or to determine how much the school will like your involvement. I actually think schools should find chefs, rather than chefs looking for schools. We can also make a difference educating our guests about healthy cooking. Every plate in my restaurant is served with green vegetables. Every plate. Sometimes I'll walk around the tables and say, especially to guys eating lunch, "You think you left your mom at home, but I want you to finish your vegetables." And they'll laugh. But then they'll finish.

EOW: Shamed by the chef.

KV: (laughs) But it also creates a good relationship. They know I care. And I always tell them, these are beautiful sauteed vegetables, and I spent so much time on them. Also, when we have guests with babies, I'll take milk or juice or my vegetable stock and puree it with green beans, carrots, even rice and sometimes cream. The babies will finish the whole bowl. Their parents say they don't even eat their jar food as much as they eat here.

EOW: So you have off the menu items especially for infants.

KV: Yes. I don't list it on the menu, but I make it every time we have a child. And it's complimentary. I would never charge. It's a little thing, just a little gesture.

EOW: Houston doesn't have many prominent female chefs--off the top of my head, there's you, Anita Jaisinghani, Jamie Zelko, Monica Pope, and Claire Smith. Why do you think there are so few, and do you feel a greater responsibility to be a symbol or mentor?

KV: Maybe some females don't stay in this profession for the long term, because being a mother and being a wife is very hard for a chef. You have to be a special person with special circumstances to become a chef and keep it going as a career. I would love to mentor and encourage people, but I know for sure it's not for young people who want to start their life or start families.

EOW: You and Anita Jaisinghani are two of the more prominent female chefs in Houston, and you both have upscale Indian restaurants. As such, it's difficult for you not to be points of reference for each other. Clearly there's room for both of you to be successful in this city, but do you also feel like you have a friendly competition going on?

KV: I never feel like I'm in direct competition with her. Her restaurants are more bistro type, and our restaurant is fine dining. People who are in a hurry and want more fusion food go to her restaurants. People who are looking for more authentic food, for entertaining clients and long lunches or dinners, this is the place they choose.

EOW: What's the story with the Kiran's logo -- does it have some special meaning?

KV: Can you believe my handwriting? I would always sign my name like that and everyone thought it was a funny K. The person who was going to make different logos and signs for us, I was giving him a deposit , and as I signed he said, "I have your logo." I said, "What?" He said, "Your signature." I said, "Are you kidding me? I hate my sign! I don't want this." But he convinced me, and it's very attractive. I didn't want to be confused with the Japanese restaurant Kirin - you know, we are humans, and sometimes we just read what we want to read. So to make it Indian, I added the Indian "k" [in the loop of the K]. The designer liked it, and then we were just sitting and someone said it should blossom like a flower. They were just drawing and being silly, but that worked out too.

EOW: Your menu is highly seasonal, but are there any dishes that are always on the menu?

KV: Chicken tikki masala, lamb rhogan josh, lentils, spinach and cheese (palak paneer). Some staples you cannot take out of an Indian restaurant. You can give them a little different twist, but you keep them.

EOW: Your restaurant is a sponsor of the Jaguar Club of Houston. How did that come about?

KV: I love Jaguars. I own two. (laughs) It's just a good partnership with them, and prestigious.

Follow Eating Our Words on Facebook and on Twitter @EatingOurWords

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Matthew Dresden
Contact: Matthew Dresden