Like many chefs, Akhtar Nawab credits his mother with giving him his first taste of cooking. It’s a story you may have heard before: boy helps mom get dinner on the table and it’s love at first sauteé. What’s unique about this first food story is that Nawab was cooking Indian Roti in the heartland of America’s South, Louisville, Kentucky.
“Yeah, most of my friends in Kentucky were not Indian," Nawab said. "They were typical kids from the neighborhood. From Kentucky. We just kind of understood that I had a different heritage. But food wise, I grew up with what I think was the best food.“
Describing what most kids were eating as, “kind of bland,” food was always important in Nawab's house. “My mother is an amazing cook. She is from the Lucknow region of India. It's an important food city of India. Just like New York City is to the US or Lyon to France. “
And Nawab's mom made sure he helped out.
“There was a heavy amount of discipline in my house,” Nawab said. “I couldn’t just watch TV and be done with it. There was always stuff to do. One thing I look forward to was helping my mom cook. It always smelled wonderful in my house. There were three homemade breads we made for dinner and tall flat breads. The science behind it was very peasant oriented. Oil, water, ghee, four, salt all rolled it together. Much like making a tortilla. It’s the same mechanics.”
Looking at Nawab’s impressive resume, some might call it ironic that the Indian traditions his mother was passing down to him would eventually be techniques he would apply later in life as a chef focusing on a Mexican cuisine at some of New York’s hottest restaurants.
But for Nawab, it has been a natural progression. After studying at the University of Louisville, he got his first restaurant job at Ditto’s Bar & Grill. Then he studied at the California Culinary Academy and followed that up by working with Loretta Keller, chef and owner of Bizou, in San Francisco, and then Tom Colicchio in New York City in 1998.
It was under Colicchio’s guidance that Nawab rocked the NY food scene. He started at Gramercy Tavern and joined the opening team at Craft in 2001. One year later, he became the Chef de Cuisine at Crafbar and was then promoted. It was as the Exectuive Chef at Craftbar that Nawab took New American cuisine to a whole new level.
Next, Nawab owns the kitchen at Craftbar...