Mumbai-born with Persian roots, Jehangir cooks French and American cuisine, while offering up subtle hints of his cultural heritage. His restaurants Graffiti, as well as the latest Graffiti Earth, are extremely tiny in size but well known for amazing dishes like the Graffiti burger—which is made from 15 or so kinds of vegetables as well as aromatic braised pork buns with apricot chutney.
Did you express an interest in cooking at a young age?
Jehangir Mehta: Not so much cooking. However, I became interested in the reason how and why we eat, from my grandfather. He would tell us things like to eat two spoons less every meal (or if you're Indian, you may be familiar with the expression "always leave room for 1 more roti"), and the health benefits of turmeric. It's more the philosophy of food that I became interested in.
When you moved to the U.S. to study at the Culinary Institute of America, what was the first "American" dish you fell in love with?
JM: Well, I did not like pizza first. But it grew on me. I did not like ketchup but my palate began to adapt. As they say, it takes about 20 tries for your brain to start liking something that it previously did not. I like dishes where pizza is being elevated, for example dressed with salad greens.
You took an interest in pastry when you were studying at the CIA. Tell us more about that, and why you went into savory?
JM: I was interested in pastry making, but was convinced to study at the CIA and just take pastry classes while I was there. When I got my first job, the pastry position was not available. I was later moved to pastry and met pastry chef Eric who took me to Jean-Georges. I was working as a pastry chef up until I started my own restaurant. But my pastry always had a savory touch. I made things with tomato, carrot and fennel. These are more common now but 15 years ago it surprised people.
Do you see your dishes as showcasing your cultural background?
JM: I want to keep the base of my food French and American. It is the food I like to eat and reflects cuisines of the restaurants I worked at. I was never trained in Indian cooking. I am actually Persian by race. I do use fresh chili, herbs and Indian spices, but the dishes still pay respect to French and American cuisines.
You mentioned turmeric earlier. It's becoming the new matcha. 1-2 years ago the average American had never heard of it, now it's served prominently in restaurant dishes, flavors beverages in the supermarket, and is even its own latte in certain popular coffee shops. What do you think about its burgeoning popularity in mainstream American food culture?
JM: Sometimes you have to give a food to people in a certain medium so they will accept it. For example, someone may not like cucumbers in general, but if you take them to a fancy bar in a beautiful hotel and serve them a mixologist-designed cucumber mojito that is a favorite of food critics and celebrities, they may end up liking it. It's about finding a medium to serve food to influence people's thinking and taste, and it's totally OK.
Let's talk about your experience on Iron Chef. Did you enjoy it?
JM: I actually had never seen Iron Chef before they contacted me. I don't like culinary shows, I don't even like sitting in a restaurant with an open kitchen. It puts me back in work mode and I want to relax in my spare time. But I like Iron Chef and will still go back to it. For me, it's part of work, it's part of showcasing my business and my food.
Why did you choose such a small and intimate size for your new restaurant Graffiti Earth?
JM: My other restaurant Graffiti is even smaller! The intimate size attracts me because to me, connecting with the audience is important. I like talking to customers that dine at my restaurants, I feed on that energy.
Graffiti Earth focuses on sustainability. Why is that important to you?
JM: Growing up in a third world country it was always "how can we use something for a bit longer? How can we reuse this?" Both the rich and the poor did it. This upbringing is reflected in my practice at my restaurants. We've been using old newspaper as placemats for 10 years now. The plates at Graffiti Earth are handmade, or taken from my family.
Do you cook at home? And what cooking advice do you have for college students?
JM: I do actually. I think one-pot dishes are the best for college cooking. You can do it in your dorm with a rice cooker. It's amazing how many great dishes you can make in a rice cooker. You can even make soup, just pick your favorite vegetables and add chicken or vegetable stock. Add some rice noodles at the end if you want more carbs. I do a lot of one-pot dishes at home.
A few days ago we had a party and I had lots of lemons and limes on hand. So I made a roasted chicken dish where I squeezed the citrus on legs of chicken, and added some garlic, olive oil, threw it all in a tray into the oven with some potatoes.
I tried out a few dishes on Graffiti Earth's menu. The mushroom savory panna cotta with long green peppers and octopus was divine. The cool panna cotta contrasted with the piping hot octopus and offered relief from the heat of the peppers. The pork buns were aromatic, full of spices like star anise and the apricot chutney cut perfectly through the richness of the pork. The scallop brulée was delightful, and used broken scallops, again, reflecting the restaurant's commitment to sustainability. It went so well with the ginger breadcrumbs and the roasted cauliflower.
I'm already making plans to go back with friends—because the tapas style dishes are perfect for sharing—and you should too.