For Mumbai-born American chef and restaurateur Jehangir Mehta, a good meal blends the elements of taste, health and sustainability.
Jehangir Mehta became known to millions of people around the world as the runner-up on Food Network’s “The Next Iron Chef.” But, when asked about his star turn on the televised culinary competition, he responds with a bashful smile. “Everyone asks about it,” says the chef, “but there’s so much more to talk about!”
Indeed, in addition to making TV appearances, Mehta runs multiple renowned restaurants in New York City, is the author of an acclaimed pastry cookbook, “Mantra, The Rules of Indulgence,” and advocates for sustainability, both inside and outside the kitchen.
Sitting with him in a coffee shop in midtown Manhattan, the reasons for his widespread success become quickly apparent, as Mehta seems to be brimming with energy, ideas and inspiration.
Mehta’s culinary creativity is on display at his restaurants, which include Me and You, an eatery that guests book far in advance for private, customized meals. “We write stories with food,” he says. “We start by sending you a questionnaire. ‘What’s your favorite meal?’ ‘What movies do you like?’ ‘What books do you read?’ We formulate every course based on the answers that the guest gives.”
In practice, Mehta might include Polish and Spanish culinary elements in a meal prepared for a couple with roots in both countries. If tap dancing is mentioned in the questionnaire, he might even include Pop Rocks, a type of candy that translates into small, explosive bursts when placed in the mouth. “The idea is to use something that will help you relive memories through food,” he says.
While Mehta does not describe his cooking at Me and You, Graffiti Food & Wine Bar and Graffiti Earth as tasting overtly of Indian influences, the Mumbai-born chef does credit his heritage with instilling in him a love for culinary complexity.
“I don’t like bland,” he asserts. “Even if something isn’t spicy, I want to give everything I cook a flavor profile, herbs to give it an aroma and use different umami components. Food should always have a big bang to it. When it comes to my own cooking, that’s a part of me that cannot be taken out.”
Beyond the kitchen, Mehta has a fascination with not just what people eat, but how they eat. In particular, how small changes in the eating experience can improve both personal health and environmental sustainability.
“A lot of research has been done by Stanford University and other colleges around the world that have proven that, if you eat dessert off of a red plate, for example, it will actually taste sweeter than if you eat it off of a plate of a different color,” he says. “I want to start seeing ice cream made with less sugar being served in red cups or red-colored cones. Nobody will feel the change and it will help make people eat less sugar.”
When it comes to sustainability, Mehta attributes his interest to his early years in India, where “not being wasteful is something you learn,” he says. It’s a principle that he applies every day at his restaurants.
“Since Graffiti began, not once have we purchased a notebook or placemat,” he says. “We use old newspapers as placemats and reuse paper for everything. If there’s a dirty spot on a menu that we can’t clean, we burn the spot out. People thought it was us trying to get a certain style, a certain look,” Mehta continues, laughing, “but it was a necessity. If anything can be stretched and reused, why not stretch it?”
The sustainable practices ingrained in his restaurants don’t stop there. All crockery and silverware are hand-me-downs, he says, and napkins are small squares of other cloth napkins that were salvaged as scrap material from New York’s nearby Garment District. “The smaller napkins take less water and electricity to clean and iron,” he adds.
Mehta’s sustainability efforts go beyond the walls of his restaurants. As a sustainability consultant for the University of Massachusetts Amherst, he works on reducing food waste and increasing the use of locally- and sustainably-sourced ingredients. He also works with the university to promote student wellness and social responsibility.
Mehta’s efforts at the university could be as seemingly minor as placing salad dressings in bottles, rather than small individual plastic containers, so less plastic and food end up being discarded. For him, every step, no matter how small, counts. He says, “Wherever we can save resources, reduce waste or lower energy usage, that’s where I come in.”
Michael Gallant is the founder and chief executive officer of Gallant Music. He lives in New York City.