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Meherwan Irani is the 2024 MenuMasters Innovator

Meherwan Irani named MenuMasters Innovator

The founder of Chai Pani Restaurant Group will be honored at a celebration in Chicago on May 18

Meherwan Irani, co-founder and chef of the Chai Pani Restaurant Group based in Asheville, N.C., has been named the 2024 MenuMasters Innovator.

The Innovator award identifies and recognizes an individual who has made a significant contribution and impact in the foodservice industry through commitment to raise the standard for menu and concept development.

Irani has done that by helping to change the perception of Indian food in the United States with his restaurants Chai Pani in Asheville, N.C., and Decatur, Ga., Botiwalla in West Asheville, Atlanta, and Charlotte, N.C., and his spice brand Spicewalla, with locations in Asheville and Atlanta.

He got his start working at his parents’ and grandmother’s bed-and-breakfast in Ahmednagar in the Indian state of Maharashtra, where he learned to adapt Indian food to the tastes of Western tourists without dumbing down the flavors.

He took that knowledge to his first Chai Pani location, which he opened with his wife and business partner Molly in Asheville in 2009, when he changed careers from sales and marketing to hospitality.

His focus has been on snack foods similar to what you could get on the streets of India and meals that you would have in people’s homes, and it has been greeted with enthusiastic acclaim. His original restaurant won the 2022 James Beard Foundation Restaurant and Chef Award for Outstanding Restaurant. Time magazine named him one of “31 People Changing the South” in 2018, and in 2023 he was named a Food & Wine magazine “Game Changer.”

Irani has also been involved in amplifying the voices of those less frequently heard from, and in 2018 started a quarterly collaborative dinner series called “Brown in the South,” in which he and other Indian chefs in the South cooked and shared ideas of identity and belonging. That year Southern Living magazine named the group “Southerners of the Year.”

Within their own company, Meherwan and Molly Irani have created Chai Pani University, providing training in leadership and management to employees. They also launched an initiative in 2018 to send eight employees to India for cultural immersion and volunteer work.

Irani will be honored along with other MenuMasters Awards winners at a celebration sponsored by Ventura Foods on May 18 at a new location, at Morgan MFG in Chicago’s West Loop.

Learn more about the event at

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