When Nevielle Panthaky, the VP of Culinary and Menu Development at Chipotle, arrived at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), he wasn’t just new to the school; he was recently emigrated to the U.S. after a life of world exploration. Born in India, his family left their homeland when he was seven, and before he arrived at the CIA, he had lived in England, Africa and the Middle East. Maneet Chauhan, Chef/Owner of four restaurants in Nashville and a regular on several Food Network shows, was an upperclassman at the time, and took Panthaky under her wing to help support him as he found his footing in his new school and his new country.
NRN reunited the longtime friends for a frank conversation about what it means to innovate with global flavors and techniques for an American market.
MC: I still remember you arriving at school and thinking that we had to connect.
NP: You were so kind to me when I got to CIA. You understood so much of my path. You were one of my early and important mentors when I arrived at CIA.
MC: And then you were at Tabla.
NP: Yes, I interned at Tabla which was run by Floyd Cardoz at the time, who was my second great mentor. My father had worked with him many years before and had trained him, so there was something poetic and serendipitous about that experience.
MC: I knew from experience how hard an adjustment it could be. I did my undergrad in hotel management in India, and then I came here to go to the CIA, which was really an incredible wake-up call. I came from the best hotel administration school in India, top of my class, and then there is this dose of reality because I had the toughest time getting anybody to sponsor my paperwork.
NP: That had to be hard.
MC: In hindsight, I think that was a really fortunate moment for me, because I had to take a job in an Indian restaurant, which was owned by my uncle and aunt. Before that, I had only trained to be a pastry chef. But, after that experience, I realized what a gross misconception the world had of Indian food, and I think that's where my entire journey shifted. That's where the choice was made to get more into savory as opposed to staying in baking and pastry.
NP: It is interesting what makes you find your path. For me, I made a conscientious effort with two small kids to make a jump into the corporate world about 12 years ago now, because I felt like the startups and other concepts I had been working in were not going to be right for my family life. I wanted to be present for my family.
MC: Was it a hard transition?
NP: There was a learning curve. But I am glad I made the shift. I think one of the best lessons I have been learning being on the corporate side is that I report into the marketing function. So, everything I do in Culinary is connected intrinsically to Marketing, which is fascinating. You get the ability to understand and think through what our C-level leaders are looking at in the business for today and tomorrow. That as much as the food is important, and the menu innovation is important — the context under which you develop those products, and how you build the story to grow the business, is something that is very inspiring.
MC: Oh, that sounds amazing. I think looking at the intersection of marketing and culinary is so important these days. For me, media has been a huge part of building my business. A lot more opportunities are coming up only because people are at home. They're watching television, they are scrolling Instagram, so more content is required. I think it's very, very critical. It's like the Hindi saying which is translated into, “If the peacock dances in the middle of the forest and nobody sees it, why does the peacock dance?” People need to know what you are doing. You might have the most incredible concept, the best food, but if people don't know it, what's the use?
NP: Does any of that exposure make it harder for you?
MC: Yes. You've got to make sure that every member of the team knows that we do not have much room to slip. I keep telling my team, people will see me on “Tournament of Champions” or “Chopped” or a recipe video on Instagram, and they'll come into the restaurant because of that. But if we don't follow through, or if we don't deliver, that's it. We have lost them. So, the balance between delivery and follow-through is very important. I do think that the media has played a huge part in at least getting people in for the first time. And then it's the rest of the team who's got to make sure that there is an experience that they keep on coming back over and over again.
NP: I mean that's such an interesting element, right? Because regardless of your scale or size, everything you need said is so accurate, for all of us. Now we have a team that is focusing on where the consumer is today. Who are our target customers? Who is coming in? Why are they coming in? How often are they coming in? What are they buying? When are they buying it? What's their mindset when they're buying it?
MC: It is so true that you have to really understand your consumer. The reason why I am so active on social is to constantly engage my audience, to avoid that entire thing of “out of sight, out of mind.”
NP: And to be able to use the platform to amplify other issues, right? For example, unfortunately, sometimes the food quality becomes one of the areas that goes against profitability, and you start asking questions. Hey, what if I do this to this product? Will the consumer notice? And my fundamental belief is that people don't always notice outright, but more often than not, people will feel it at some point, and they'll never come back, or they'll say it wasn't as special and you can quantify that.
MC: I agree. There are challenges for me as a smaller restaurant group in terms of sourcing the quality of food, keeping things at this standard, but also maintaining a price point that my consumers can handle. But also, how I as the chef control so much of that. I don't know if you remember this, but in school at CIA we were told that chefs make the worst restaurant operators because they're cooking for themselves and they're not cooking for the audience. I think that was something which was a very big thing that implanted itself in my mind. We are a local restaurant group, the majority of our clientele is local, so we need to do what is right for the community that we are in, and my ego can’t drive that.
NP: Because you're providing experiences and you're providing diversity, and you're probably more sought out than a convenience meal option. And there's an emotional tie to the community. And you are doing it with Indian food and Asian food, and Southern food. How do you balance that? When it comes to looking at your menu items, how do you stay innovative and keep pushing things forward, but recognize who your audience is and what their needs are?
MC: I think what was really interesting was when we moved to Nashville, we had this struggle of not knowing what they knew. Does the audience know anything beyond meat and three? Is it going to be expectations of chicken tikka masala? I think to us what was important was that when we started Chauhan, we started with striking a balance of having a section of traditional Indian dishes, but then we made a conscientious effort to have words in the menu that people can relate to who walk into our restaurant. For example, there is a chicken tikka poutine or we have our keema nachos. People are like, “oh, nachos, I get that.” We were doing dishes which were recognizable to people with our own signature flavors on it.
NP: That is true for us as well. I mean if you think about carne asada, which we launched, you could say carne asada is ubiquitous. It's at any taqueria or most Mexican places. To me it was about the unique spices, and it was about simplicity, and we told a great story. It was the freshness of fresh-squeezed lime and fresh cilantro, and you'd be surprised that at a lot of big companies, rarely do you get fresh cilantro, rarely do you get fresh-squeezed lime juice. It’s usually bottle squeezed, frozen pasteurized, all sorts of stuff, and you can taste the difference.
MC: Your innovation in terms of menu is more about the ingredients and the sourcing and telling that story to your audience so that they're aware of it. Whereas a lot of what I’m doing is training my customers in new flavors and getting them comfortable enough to get a little adventurous with us, while still giving those authentic flavors to the diners who know the food. But for both, quality is paramount.
NP: Two sides of the same coin. It comes at a different level. You are sourcing locally; you have those relationships. Only 5% of the meat that's produced in this country is applicable for Chipotle’s animal welfare standards — our position on no hormones and no antibiotics. Same thing with our dairy, right? So we use 100% pasture-raised dairy for our sour cream and for our cheese. Our food cost is higher than most companies of a similar scale because we are willing to pay more for those ingredients.
MC: And that's where the innovation comes in. Gives us all hope! Because we need to think ahead.
NP: You know, I think at the end of the day, if you can create something that's delicious and memorable and serves the community and the farmers and serves multiple stakeholders, the story becomes just so much easier to tell and it becomes much more than just what’s for dinner.
MC: It becomes much more real at the end of the day. I think it is so interesting how what we both have ended up doing is starting from that same place. Even though the scale is so different.
NP: I think it started with that foundation. I learned from you, I learned from Floyd, always be empathetic. Everything begins there.
MC: And also, I would say, think big, start small.
NP: That is such good advice, and really, the same for us both. Every new idea we have ultimately starts really small, and we go forward from there.