This article is the first in a new series on South Asian chefs and restaurateurs in America.
Atlanta’s Buford Highway houses over a thousand immigrant-run businesses. It’s become known as the go-to place for ethnic eats in town, but when 42-year-old Asha Gomez opened her first restaurant, Cardamom Hill, she chose to operate elsewhere.
“My goal was not to be recognized as one of the best Indian restaurants,” recalls Gomez. “My goal was to be recognized as one of the best restaurants in the city.”
She’s succeeded. Last year, Cardamom Hill, tucked into a strip shopping center near the interstate, was named one of Bon Appetit’s top 50 new restaurants in America. More recently, it made the 2013 list of James Beard Foundation Award semifinalists, also in the Best New Restaurant category. It’s been open for only a little over a year.
The beginning of Gomez’s story is a familiar one: She grew up in Kerala watching and helping her mother cook in that intuitive way that makes it difficult to quantify exact measurements.
“I was never taught to cook,” Gomez says, “It was the fabric of India’s social structure that I just learned. I don’t think my mother even realized what a gift she gave me — it was simply a part of life.” At 16, she came to the United States and helped with her mother’s catering company while attending college in New York. Afterward, she went back to India to study ayurvedic body care and eventually opened her own spa in Atlanta, Neem Tree.“My roots are the Indian South but my home is the American South.”
Initially, the luxury spa did well, partly because of Gomez’s personality and talents, but also because she ended every treatment with a meal that she cooked for her guests. The spa transformed, slowly, into a tiny Indian restaurant that nobody knew about. Then the economy crashed and Gomez closed the business, choosing to devote her time to the son she’d recently adopted from an orphanage in Chennai. Busy with motherhood, she cooked only for her own family and friends until she started getting emails from past clients — not about spa services, about food.
Thus, the Spice Route Supper Club was born, a series of five-course meals cooked in her home. The inaugural dinner hosted 18 guests; before she knew it, Gomez was cooking for 200. A fun, once-a-quarter event had grown into one of the most popular culinary experiences in the city, showcasing fare from all over Kerala and pairing the dishes with wines, spiced teas, and Indian-inspired cocktails.
Says Gomez, “I never chose the food world. It chose me.” And in January 2012, that world led her to open Cardamom Hill. It was important to Gomez that her restaurant brought forth the regional cuisine of Kerala.
“I was very keen on making sure that I didn’t put anything on the menu just because it was familiar. I wasn’t going to do tandoori chicken, I wasn’t going to do naan, as much as I love those dishes and as much as they have their place in our cooking,” Gomez says, “Because they were not what I grew up eating in my mother’s kitchen. I really wanted people to change the perception they had of Indian cuisine.”
Most of the dishes at Cardamom Hill are ones the chef ate as a child. She serves the beef croquettes she grew up eating alongside her mother’s spicy homemade ketchup, and her recipes for fish curry and pork vindaloo are just as traditional. The menu also features a duck croquette that Gomez and her mother developed here in the US, though they had eaten a lot of duck in Kerala as well — it was served on festive occasions like Easter or Christmas.
In addition to the regional fare, Gomez’s menu includes a small but growing section of “South by South” plates — American Southern classics with a South Indian take. Here, find Kerala fried chicken and low country waffles with spice-infused maple syrup. Spicy curried shrimp over kichidi-style grits made from stone-ground cornmeal and lentils. And Gomez’s latest, a twist on the Chicken Country Captain, chicken curry with currants and apples that originated, by way of the British, in Savannah. The first thing she did was swap the brown sugar for jaggery.
Still, Gomez is clear on one point, “I’ve had so many Indians come in and think that we’re fusion, but we’re far from it.” She emphasizes that the South by South menu is about her evolution as a chef, that it doesn’t make Cardamom Hill a fusion restaurant. “This is about not stopping the tradition of cuisine evolving,” she says. “It’s been going on for centuries; you have to adapt to the land that you live in. My roots are the Indian South but my home is the American South.”
She’s often asked by journalists if she’s implementing a ‘Western approach’ in the way she presents her food: elegantly, on white plates instead of metal thalis.
“Sometimes I’m offended by it, but I’m learning not to be,” she says. “I grew up in a household where we drank soup out of soup bowls and we ate salad off of salad plates, and I grew up in India. My mother never presented anything on a table that didn’t look visually beautiful, so I was raised with this. This is my Eastern influence brought to this country. Everything I do here is something that I learned in my mother’s kitchen.”
And now, her mother is learning from her. “My mother has been really amazing through this journey,” Gomez laughs. “When I was younger, she was so particular about how things tasted, but through my evolution has come about her own, and I’ll find her in the kitchen with me saying, ‘Oh, try it this way instead.’ It shocks me because she was such a traditionalist, but she’s stepping out of her comfort zone and is actually fascinated by it. As much as she’s imparted to me, I’m finding that I’m also imparting knowledge to her.”
It’s not just the Western or European world that has to grasp Indian cuisine, after all — Gomez suggests that many South Asians don’t fully grasp the width and depth of it either. She notes that the terrain determines crops, which in turn determine the staples of a particular region’s diet. Gujarat, she point out, grows sugarcane well, so that even today many dishes feature sugar as a primary ingredient and port cities, like the ones in Kerala, have a lot of outside influences due to trade.
The region Gomez grew up in is predominantly Christian, which influences her cooking as well. “There are so many factors that go in to the history and the evolution of cuisine, and it’s fascinating,” she says. “Once the Portuguese came, the area was no longer vegetarian, the cow no longer sacred.”
Spices viewed today as traditionally Indian have also been affected by trade. “People don’t realize that until the 14th century, Indians only had four main spice profiles,” Gomez explains. “If you look at ancient Indian recipes, the cuisine revolves around black pepper, or black gold, ginger, cardamom, and turmeric. Then came the spice trade — the Arabs brought cumin, which is now practically synonymous with Indian cooking, and it was only in the 16th century that the chili pepper was brought to India by the Portuguese.”
While black pepper needs a very specific terrain and particular weather conditions to grow, the chili pepper can thrive anywhere. It adapts well, evolving effortlessly to fit in with its surroundings. So, too, has Gomez.
Cardamom Hill is located at 1700 Northside Drive, in Atlanta, Georgia.