Besides cooking in all sorts of different kitchens around the world, she's competed in several food festivals; notably winning the Best Taste Award at the Austin Wine and Dine Festival (2014), first place at the Taste of the BVI (British Virgin Islands) (2014), and Top Chef of Las Vegas by Las Vegas Food and Wine Festival (2016). She's a Chopped champion (2009) and the persnickety Gordon Ramsay even paid her a rare compliment on the 2012 season of Hell's Kitchen calling her, "a passionate well-rounded chef that blended flavors magically."
Gurnani arrived in Houston four years ago, and since then has been active in Recipe for Success, worked as an instructor at The Art Institute of Houston, and served as executive chef of Revolve Kitchen + Bar at the Hotel Derek.
To think it all started bussing tables at 13 years of age…
Chef Gurnani invited the Houston Press to her three-story townhome in Montrose to discuss her story…
HP: Congratulations on The James Beard House inviting you to cook March 28, thoughts on your menu yet?
RG: Definitely a vegetarian menu inspired by my Sindhi roots.
HP: That's unique…
RG: I am going to be the first Sindhi chef to be at The Beard House (pauses.) The first Sindhi chef and female, [cooking completely] vegetarian. I am doing the menu to honor my mom who is 100 percent vegetarian. As kids we would hide from her and eat meat, so…
As douche-y as it sounds, this is what I have worked for, for 17 years of my life. And to be able to promote it as my culture… I am going to fly my mom down from Toronto to New York. My parents have never approved of what I've done but are coming around now.
A lot of people, even Indian people themselves, don't know what Sindhi food is, or who Sindhis are. So, it's very important for me to bring that out and bring it out in a fine dining style.
HP: What's makes Sindhi cuisine different than what most people think of as Indian cusisine?
RG: Their cooking technique is totally different, I mean, we don't know what butter chicken is. We don't have tikka, none of that, paneer, no. It's very much Persian influence. We use a lot of saffron, a lot of nuts, a lot of fenugreek. It's very floral, very light, it's whatever was available to us. Some meat but a lot of [it is] vegetarian, and hearty, very, very hearty. Not a lot of butter, not a lot of cream, just using spices and the ingredient to shine.
HP: How did you take matters into your own hands when your parents weren't accepting of your career choice as a chef?
RG: I actually decided to apply to culinary school and sent a check in to hold my spot. I was on an airplane on the way to India for a visit [and] I was sitting next to my mom. I said, "so, when I go back, I'm going to culinary school." (laughs.) And since she couldn't do anything to me, like you know, a billion feet up in the air…
[When I got back I] packed this big ass blue suitcase and went to Prince Edward Island, which is like east coast of Canada. I spent a couple of years there and [then] took off to Asia and just kept going until I returned home like seven years later with this big ass blue suitcase.
HP: The same suitcase?
RG: I still have it upstairs, the zipper is broken though. but I'm never throwing it out.
HP: Was it culinary school to internship to job that took you around the world?
RG: It was job to job and then when my visa would expire I would just pick a new place to go. So, I started off in Goa, which is like coastal India, [working] for the Park Hyatt group of hotels. Did that for two years and then [when] my visa expired [I] got an opportunity to go to England. I was there for about two-and-a-half years before I decided to move back home. I spent about a year-and-a-half home before I moved to Boston and then went from Boston to here [Houston.]
HP: What types of restaurants did you work in?
RG: Different hotels, country clubs, did a cruise ship for a while, and then I've done corporate institutions.
HP: You've supported yourself from the beginning?
RG: Yes. So culinary school was my own deal, my own money. I started in the industry when I was 13 years old, just bussing tables and trying to watch people cook and all that stuff. [In university] I would skip business classes to go to work in the dining hall. Part of the reason [why] I moved to England was at that time the Great Britain pound was double the Canadian dollar… so I could pay off my student loan, and I did.
HP: It sounds like you climbed the ranks quickly…
RG: So, I grew up [in] a traditional brigade system. I started off as a commis and went up to a demi chef and then chef de partie. When I left Goa, I was chef de partie and then I got my job in England as a junior sous chef. I came back to Toronto as an executive sous for a country club and when I moved to Boston I was executive chef at 25 [years old.]
RG: Yeah, that was always my goal. I wanted to be an executive chef by the time I was 25. I had been doing this long enough that, I mean, I started at 13. I always set little goals for myself. This is what I want, this is what I want, this is what I want.
HP: You've won and come close to winning a lot of competitions, what's your success boiled down too?
RG: I practice and I keep on my toes. Every competition I go in, I'm competing against myself from the last competition. You know, it's not about winning, it's about let me do it, and let me get better and keep myself trendy with the industry. I think a lot of times chefs get comfortable, we just forget. If it's not broken don't fix it type of thing. It's about me and staying true to myself and my beliefs in food.
HP: You are finishing up your term as executive chef at Hotel Derek, what are your future plans?
RG: Right now, I'm doing me. I am continuing to travel a lot and [cater] a ton of weddings, and dedicating time to put Sindhi food on the map. I'm working on my second cookbook, and I don't know the proper word is but I want to spend time with my family and do what I love. It's finding that balance, that's what I'm working on right now.
I just came back yesterday from a huge, big, fat Indian wedding up in Lake Travis.
HP: What's your favorite part about an Indian wedding?
RG: The music. The music, I mean I'm cooking and listening to great music at the same time. A huge part of an Indian wedding, apart from clothes, is food. And I kid you not, I had text messages at 1:45 a.m. in the morning from the bride's mom, saying, "can we get a midnight snack?"
HP: How do we find your first cookbook?
RG: The first cookbook is online. It's a hundred percent charity cookbook. It's called Reality Rally Celebrity Chef Cookbook.
HP: Born and raised in Canada, why don't you say things like "eh" and "sooorry?"
RG: (laughs.) Because that's not what Canadians say. I guess people say sometimes my accent comes out, sometimes it doesn't, I don't really know…eh?
HP: Are you watching the Olympics right now? How is Canada doing?
RG: I am currently not following the Olympics, I've just been traveling a lot, however, Canada always kicks ass. We grew up only knowing winter Olympics.
HP: If the ghost of James Beard came to visit you late one night, what snack would you have him make you?
RG: Have him make me? (laughs) Umm, I'd want him to show down, show me some Indian skills.
HP: Any dish in particular?
RG: I'd probably say like, kebabs. It's my favorite midnight food. I'd want to see his [old school] take on it. A traditional kebab is [basically] ground meat [with] a ton of spices, it's really peasant food.
HP: You juggle work, charity, cooking and caring for your two small children, do you have any time for a social life?
RG: I try. I think what's great about being a chef is you're very social, so after work drinks, it's still your social life. A lot of your closest friends are people you work with… and that's okay.
HP: What's your ideal night out look like?
RG: Finding the best dive restaurant, eating there and then going to the best dive pub.
HP: Have you found anywhere cool recently?
RG: Dive restaurant… I'm still true to Himalaya's, they have the best comfort food in my opinion. And then dive pubs I'm a really simple person, I don't go for fancy or fruity drinks. Anywhere that has a good pour and I can go in either with chef pants or all glammed up.
HP: What does fashion look like to you?
RG: Fashion to me honestly is a pair of jeans, a v-neck T-shirt and maybe a pair of Converse. Comfort to me is fashion.