Akhtar Nawab

Indian American chef Akhtar Nawab’s Mexican restaurant, Alta Calidad, is among New York City’s Michelin Bib Gourmand awardees for 2018. (Monica Schipper/Getty Images for Cooking Light

After bringing the flavors of Mexico’s roadside cuisine to New York City at the fast-casual restaurant, Choza Taqueria, Indian American chef Akhtar Nawab went on to open Alta Calidad, a sit-down Mexican restaurant in the city, which became an instant hit. And now the restaurant has won a culinary honor.

The Michelin Guide has announced its 2018 Bib Gourmand awardees – a distinction given to restaurants offering “exceptionally good food at moderate prices” – and Alta Calidad has found a place on its New York City list. (Any restaurant that offers two courses and a glass of wine or dessert for $40 or less before tax and gratuity qualifies.)

The Kentucky native, who hails from a family of doctors, decided to enter the culinary world when he was in his first year of college. But his family was aghast at the thought of him taking up this career.

“My mom was terrified for me to do this. My dad was angry,” Nawab told NBC News. “My mom had a couple of cooks in lifetime that served her essentially, and same with my dad. So, I think that they just couldn’t get their head around it for a really long time.”

Nawab, who has been cooking Mexican food for ten years, graduated from the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco in 1996 and worked in several Bay Area kitchens, including for James Beard award-nominated chef Loretta Keller at the now-closed Bizou, adds the NBC report.

He moved to New York in 1998 to work under Gramercy Tavern and in 2008, opened Elettaria, his first restaurant. The food that he served at Elettaria was “European with a hint of Indian.” Though the restaurant drew a lot of positive praise, he shut it down in 2009, citing the poor economy at the time.

Nawab took a six-month break for introspection and returned to work thinking he needed to do something different.

“I just thought, ‘I’ve got to do something different. I can’t do the same thing,’” NBC quoted Nawab as saying. “I’m not feeling good about food that needed three or four people to put out a dish. … I didn’t want to do that again.”

He went on to join a Mexican eatery, La Esquina. It was at La Esquina that Nawab honed his Mexican cooking skills. He also realized that the process of cooking Mexican food was very similar to that of Indian cooking.

“It wasn’t necessarily in the same set of ingredients, even though there were lots of similarities. It was in the attitude and the history and culture of it,” he told the news channel. “You have this mole sauce that’s going to cook for hours and hours and hours. It’s got 25, 30 ingredients, whatever it is. There’s korma sauce from India that’s going to cook for hours. You have 25 to 30 ingredients.”

Nawab, who has also competed in the hit Food Network series, “Iron Chef America,” is also behind the New York City-based restaurant Indie Fresh, which provides health-conscious meals, and Fero, a Mediterranean inspired restaurant in Birmingham, Alabama. 

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