Like many immigrants arriving in New York from India in 1974, Kewal Dhindsa found his first job in the United States in a restaurant. Unlike his comrades, however, he refused to start as a waiter, determined to be a cook. He was so determined, in fact, that he cut a deal with the renowned Punjabi restaurant’s Master Chef to work six months without pay, on call like a medical intern. To sweeten his teacher’s temperament, he often brought him a fifth of spirits.
Those six months paid off, when Kewal got his first job as a cook, earning three times a waiter’s wage, and garnering the skills that enabled him to open his own restaurant in Santa Fe in 1992.
The early nineties were tough times to start a business. The threat of Hantavirus nearly killed tourism, and Dhindsa took on a lot of debt to survive. But eventually, tourism turned a corner, the business thrived and in 2005, the family opened a second restaurant, India Palace, in Albuquerque.
We spoke with Amrik Dhindsa, one of Kewal’s two sons, who credits the restaurant’s success to time, attention and quality of ingredients–like real saffron for the rice. “Good Punjabi cuisine is labor intensive. To give the rice pudding deep flavor, you have to cook it for a long time and keep scraping it down. If it sticks, it runs the whole batch. “
Does India House have a specialty? “Chicken Tikka Masala.” Amrik’s favorite dish? “Mint Lamb Curry, not a regular entree, but soon to be introduced. “We are very accommodating of our vegetarian and vegan customers. We use different utensils and pans.”
Perhaps the most powerful secret to the rich satisfaction of the restaurant’s food is something found on grandma’s shelf: love and a desire to serve. “Ours is a very hospitable culture. We feel bad if we are not able to provide,” says Amrik. Familial warmth is pervasive throughout the restaurant’s culture. Diners are greeted like honored guests. And staff members work cooperatively, not competitively.
“Waiters are not assigned tables or given a section, ” says Amrik. “They work together. One clears a table, one wipes and another is standing ready to set.” As a result, staff turnover is minimal. Gurmit Saroya, whose son Surjit is the cook, has worked at India House for 17 years. (A vegetarian, Gurmit’s favorite dishes are the paneer and makhni.) Gurmit, too, praises the community spirit.
“We work like a family. The feeling is good. There’s lots of respect.”
He praises the owners for their generosity towards their staff. “They make us whatever we want to eat, never tell us we can’t have something. They take care of us.”
Communal support is evidenced by the staff and owner’s approach to waiter John’s upcoming trip to India. Although John will be gone for several months, the owners have decided not to hire a replacement. Instead, everyone–including the owners–will step in to cover John’s shifts. John, whose first job was as one of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of the Poor, wouldn’t work anywhere else.
India House is located at 2501 Cerrillos, near the Casa Alegre neighborhood. Hours: 11:30-2:30 daily for the buffet, and from 5:00-10:00 nightly for dinner. Tel: 471.2651.