Restaurateurs Avi Singh and Rishi Rajpal: We’d like to encourage a movement for chefs and restaurateurs to introduce children to the culinary arts; We may spark a passion for something amazing

One movement we would like to support and encourage, that may result in a positive change, is for chefs and restaurateurs to introduce and teach children the culinary arts. You don’t know what you like until you try it, and we believe that inviting kids to shadow you as a restaurateur or chef may spark […]

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One movement we would like to support and encourage, that may result in a positive change, is for chefs and restaurateurs to introduce and teach children the culinary arts. You don’t know what you like until you try it, and we believe that inviting kids to shadow you as a restaurateur or chef may spark a passion for something amazing. We know if we were given an opportunity like this as a kid, we’d have loved it!

I had the pleasure of interviewing Avi Singh and Rishi Rajpal, co-founders and co-owners of Sama Street, an Asian-inspired cocktail bar opening soon in Brooklyn, New York. Growing up across China, India, and Singapore between them, childhood friends Avi and Rishi had unique upbringings that allowed them to experience rich culinary and beverage traditions of many parts of Asia. After stints in consulting and tech, the pair has decided to bring their passions for the food and drink that they experienced across Asia to the tables of Brooklyn.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! What inspired you to become a chef (or restauranteur)?

Of course, thanks for the opportunity! We’ve both always had a passion for the F&B business. We consider ourselves fortunate to have been able to travel and eat at restaurants around the globe. From a young age, our respective family holidays have revolved around the question, “where should we eat?” and afterwards, “what can we drink?” This love for food and dining has definitely come from our parents, who exposed us to many different cuisines as kids.

As we got older, we started getting more interested in the business side of the restaurant and bar industry, rather than just where we could find the best food! We’d go to restaurants and notice things that we thought they could do better. Eventually, these conversations about what we’d change about the places we visited turned into discussions about what our place might look like. For a long time, however, we didn’t have the guts to turn our vision into reality.

Then, one random summer day, we were shooting pool and having a drink at our favorite dive bar in Williamsburg when we finally decided to take the plunge and chase this dream rather than living with the feeling of “what if?”

What has your journey been like since first stepping foot in a kitchen?

At first, we had no idea what a commercial kitchen even looked like, besides what we’d seen on MasterChef and Hell’s Kitchen. Being total novices at the beginning, the kitchen was overwhelming and daunting. A commercial kitchen is like a well-oiled machine! Everyone works in concert, each performing their own specific and necessary task. From the head chef, to the prep staff, to the waiters, to the dishwashers, the whole team has one goal: exceed customer’s expectations and provide a memorable experience.

Avi here. Observing commercial kitchens reminded me of the ‘rules and guidelines’ that my mom used to enforce when I’d help her cook. While I have the utmost respect and appreciation for chefs and other kitchen staff, I feel like these simple guidelines always apply.

Stay calm — Getting flustered only diminishes the quality of your product and affects the rest of your team.

Efficiency is everything — The ability to multitask and work collectively with your kitchen team will show on the customer’s plate.

Be aware of your surroundings — While being efficient and fast-paced is highly important, kitchen safety should always be the first priority.

Always ask for clarification — It’s better to understand beforehand than to spend time rectifying errors.

Be clean and organized — There’s nothing worse than a dirty kitchen.

Have a purpose — Both in the kitchen and out, make sure that the restaurant business is something you really want to do, and that you’re always being as useful as possible.

Do you have a specialty? If so, what drew you to that type of food?

We specialize in Asian-inspired craft cocktails and small plates. Given our childhoods, Asian ingredients have always been close to our hearts. We saw an opportunity to bring, combine, and reinvent all these flavors at our Brooklyn site.

Asian street food has always been our go-to comfort food. We miss getting pani puri with our family at the GK 1 Market in New Delhi, eating mango and sticky rice with friends on the beach in Phuket, and chowing down on chicken rice with a cold Tiger beer in the hawker stands of Singapore. While we can’t bring our customers across the Pacific to have these experiences themselves, we want to share these tastes with our customers.

Whenever we say Asian-inspired craft cocktails, we get looks of confusion. This is fair — Asian countries don’t have the same reputation of cocktail culture as many Western countries. We all know about Martinis and Aperol Spritzes from Europe, Cuba Libres and Margaritas from Latin America, and of course Old Fashioneds and our neighboring Long Island Iced Tea from America. But, what about India? China? Thailand? These places are more well known for their tea than alcoholic beverages. However, at Sama Street, we are taking the Asian flavors and ingredients that we grew up with and combining them with cocktails you already know and love to create unique drinks that fit within the Asian flavor palate.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you became a chef?

Rishi here. It’s hard to pick one. I’ve witnessed a lot of crazy stuff working in this industry. There is one thing that I recently experienced that trumps them all, though. This happened just last month, when I was working as a server in a restaurant in New York City. It was a Wednesday evening around 9pm, and a man and woman walked in and sat at the bar. From what I could notice, it seemed like their first date. Everything started smoothly, but then about 15 minutes later, I realized the man was alone at the bar. After a couple more minutes, the gentleman asked me where the bathroom was. He opened the first bathroom door and peaked in — empty. He opened the second door — no date. He asked me if there was a patio to the restaurant. There wasn’t. As he made his way back to the bar, a member of our kitchen staff grabbed me by the arm, pulled me into the kitchen, and told me, “she’s gone!”

Apparently, the lady asked the kitchen staff if she could leave from the back door of the restaurant…I guess the guy wasn’t a very good date.

The funniest part is that, as I went back into the dining room, I looked out the window and saw the guy caught his date trying to escape!

What is your definition of success?

Avi here. My dad always says, “choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” While my father certainly isn’t the only person to have said this somewhat cheesy line, this quote strongly resonates with the both of us. You could have a job that brings in more money than you could ever ask for, but it means nothing if you despise going into work every day. To us, if you love what you are doing, and can find a reason for dedicating your life towards achieving something, you’re successful. It’s even better if your job not only makes you happy, but brings happiness to others too.

Success is something that everyone wants to attain, and it should be. However, it’s something that you need to constantly redefine, so that you are always working towards something. The moment you say, “I’ve made it,” it’s over. You’re no longer striving to grow and do better.

Picture a three-legged stool, where one leg is having fun, one’s making a contribution, and one’s continuous learning. The three legs of this stool have to be equal, or you’ll slide off. It’s important to understand that, and always strive to be well-balanced.

What failures have you had along the way? How have they led you to success?

Diving into this endeavor, we had no idea what to expect. In fact, this whole thing started from that one conversation where we realized this is something that we both want to do. And off we went, without fully knowing what we’d gotten ourselves into.

To be honest, the first few months seemed like a series of failures. In those initial months, we had to redefine our concept and had trouble with the monumentally important task of finding a space. There were times when we worried our failure might be absolute and we’d have to let the dream die. What stopped us from giving up was our vision for sharing our past experiences with the world, and passion for contributing to this amazing industry.

Looking back now, we realize all the setbacks were just part of the process. These problems helped refine our ideas and ultimately create a better cocktail bar. In the grand scheme of things, we know there will always be things we have to overcome. The key is to be prepared not only to deal with each issue, but to bounce back even stronger.

Are you working on any new or exciting projects now?

Currently we are working on opening the first Sama Street cocktail bar in New York. It’s been an amazing experience so far, with lots of ups and downs, and we can’t wait to share what we’ve been working on with everyone!

What advice do you have for aspiring chefs?

Though neither of us are chefs, from our time immersing ourselves in the industry and being surrounded by role models, we feel that any aspiring chef should:

Be passionate — It’s such a tough career, so if you’re not passionate about what you do, it’ll show in your work.

Be a team player — The key to this industry is being able to work and collaborate with others, whether it’s with your kitchen staff, front of house staff, or your managers and partners.

Be honest with yourself — Stay true to who you are and hold that with confidence. Just like other artists, chefs have to bring their own uniqueness to the table and be proud of it.

Stay humble — Like in any other job, leave your ego at the door — your ego is the biggest obstacle to growth and positive collaboration.

Work hard, listen, and learn — No matter how successful or accomplished you are, there’s always room for improvement. We’ve noticed some of the most ‘successful’ people still seek out opportunities to learn from others. Maybe that’s what makes them so successful.

Don’t give up — Nothing great is achieved without blood (especially when they’re chef’s knives around), sweat, and tears.

What is the key to creating the perfect dish?

First, the obvious. The dish has to be delicious. But, the “perfect” dish doesn’t need to be the most beautiful one out there. That’s something that we feel people are forgetting in our #foodporn obsessed era. There may be a dish that’s not very visually appealing, but tastes amazing and has incredible history to the recipe. Take for example the mutton curry that you get in Nizamuddin in Delhi, where we both visited growing up. It follows the same recipe used for generations and is served to you on a Styrofoam plate by a grandmother, but it still is delicious. At Sama Street, we have New York City health codes that we need to abide by, so you won’t ever get that exact experience. But, just like that grandma, we believe in the superiority of the flavor and the story that accompanies a dish, not only the Instagramability of the presentation.

Still, you have to know your audience and be realistic. While staying true to the roots of the dish is extremely important, you have to be able to cater specifically to whom you are serving the dish. Everyone has different tastes and preferences, and it’s important to recognize and cater to that as well.

It is said that food is a common ground that brings people together. As someone who makes food for a living, what does this saying mean to you?

Sama Street has been created on the foundation that drinking and eating is an act of sharing, where conversations, flavors, and settings provide a vehicle for exchange.

Growing up there were a few standard rituals that both of us had to follow. One was dinner (at the table, not in front of the TV) every night, and the other was Sunday family lunch. No matter what we had going on, how much homework we had, or which friend was over at the house, we all had to be at the table by 8:30pm for dinner, and every Sunday we had lunch at our grandparents’ house with all our relatives. These traditions brought the family together and allowed us to share and hear about each other’s lives. In fact, we both remember having fights with our respective siblings, and then being ‘forced’ to eat with the entire family at the dinner table. Suddenly, all of the (then) drama, towards our older siblings was out the window — for the time being at least!

It’s crazy to think about it now, but growing up, having to be home by a certain time for dinner or ditching our friends to spend Sunday lunch at the grandparents’ seemed like total chores. Looking back, we miss being able to spend our time with our families like that, and are grateful that our parents put so much emphasis on these rituals. That’s why it’s only natural for us to want others to be able to create memories like this with their friends and family at our establishment.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became a Restaurateur” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Pressure test your concept — don’t be afraid to change it along the way

There are several ways to reach your vision. Your first idea usually isn’t the best one. Allow yourself and others to question the existence of your establishment. Chances are that the more you question your concept, the stronger your concept will become.

We thought we had the most unique and thought out concept for about two months. After sharing it with others, we realized that we really weren’t happy with it. As we thought about it more, and started questioning the true reason for the existence of the place we envisioned, our concept changed significantly. In fact, looking forward, while the overall concept of our establishment will remain constant, there are always factors to consider that may alter bits and pieces of it.

2. Get as much advice as possible, but don’t use all of it

Always seek advice; it never hurts. More importantly, know what advice to use and what not to. While people are only trying to be helpful when they provide advice on how you should modify your vision, no one knows your vision better than yourself. You need to decide when to listen to others and when just to believe in yourself.

Coming into this industry with little to no experience, we tried to use every opportunity to seek out advice. That’s when we realized people really love giving out advice, but more importantly, want to see their advice being followed. We tried to use everyone’s advice in the beginning, not because we necessarily agreed with it, but because we thought it would be disrespectful not to follow it. While it’s important to seek out different opinions and perspectives, only you know what’s best for your business at the end of the day. As long as you are respectful with your disagreement towards others, no one gets hurt.

3. You don’t need to be an experienced chef or bartender to open a successful restaurant or bar

We had a different approach. We knew we were at a disadvantage coming into this industry. Without any prior experience, we felt like we needed to completely immerse ourselves to understand the ins and outs of running a successful bar and restaurant. Between the two of us, we decided to work at a restaurant, learn how to bartend, complete F&B management courses, and learn from as many success (and more importantly, failure) stories as possible — just to build a foundation to work up from.

We’ve also looked back on our past experiences (both professional and personal), and used the skills we’ve learned along the way to propel us forward.

At the end of the day, life is all about taking chances and risks to pursue what you really believe in. Having no experience or knowledge of something shouldn’t deter you to follow your dreams. It should motivate you to work harder in order to achieve them!

4. There’s always something that you can be doing

While there are times you may feel like your progress is dependent on others, it doesn’t mean you should sit idly waiting for them. As we started our journey of opening a cocktail bar, we were under the impression that it’s a step-by-step, linear process. In reality, opening a bar or restaurant involves lots of moving parts, many of which can be worked on simultaneously.

There were times we found ourselves waiting on people like our brokers, lawyers, and landlords to get back to us in order to move forward. We later realized there’s always planning ahead and working on the softer aspects of the business such as branding, PR, and ideation. We had thought it was too early to start working on some of these pieces, but it really never is. We heard a quote from a friend that really changed the way we look at this whole process; he said, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”

5. Make sure to laugh once in a while

There will be days, weeks, or even months where you feel like nothing is going as planned. Make sure you take a step back and realize that some things are out of your control, and the only thing you can be sure to control is your attitude. If something doesn’t go your way, you can either be upset about it, or you can try and find the positives and take it in your stride.

Whenever we’ve felt discouraged, we’ve tried to reflect and remember why we’re doing this and the privilege we have for being able to do so — not everyone is able to follow their passion.

Sometimes you have to just laugh and enjoy the ride!

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

Growing up around Asia, and us being South Asian ourselves, we witnessed many of our peers having what seemed like a predestined lifeplan. Whether it’s what college to go to, what job to get, who to marry, or how to raise your kids, everything was already thought out by parents or society. Thankfully, we’ve been given the opportunity to discover what we’re passionate about, which has allowed us to follow our dreams. While this culture of life predetermination is definitely improving across Asia, many of our peers haven’t been given the same freedom as us. We believe it is incredibly important for parents and society as a whole to encourage children to explore and experience a variety of different paths.

One movement we would like to support and encourage, that may result in a positive change, is for chefs and restaurateurs to introduce and teach children the culinary arts. You don’t know what you like until you try it, and we believe that inviting kids to shadow you as a restaurateur or chef may spark a passion for something amazing. We know if we were given an opportunity like this as a kid, we’d have loved it!

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to cook for and why?

Being South Asian, and living in the United States, we feel like we have a lot in common with Kumail Nanjiani. He’s always been someone we look up to, especially for the pride he holds as a South Asian. Whether it was the cultural blend portrayed through his relationship with his parents, his unconventional profession for an Indian, or his love for mutton biryani (with potatoes). Kumail Nanjiani is paving the path for South Asians globally, and we’d love to welcome him to our cocktail bar whenever he’s back in New York!

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