One early spring afternoon I sit tucked away in a booth at the newly-redesigned downtown Indian street food eatery Chai Pani. Across from me sits the easy-going yet highly revered three-time James Beard Award nominated chef and founder Meherwan Irani. He’s sharing memories of how he met his wife (and restaurant co-founder) Molly while waiting tables on summer break at her parent’s Myrtle Beach restaurant as he studied to obtain his masters degree. It was in that bustling southern town that a lack of worthy dining options pushed him to begin experimenting in the kitchen, calling his mom for advice on how she made the dishes he loved when he was small. “I’d call her up and say, ‘Hey, I’m trying to make this thing I’ve seen you make a million times but it’s not even close’. She’d say, ‘Yeah because you didn’t do this, this and this.’ As the gregarious southern chef, sets out on his sixth business venture, Spicewalla, he’s bringing it all back to those little details that make all the difference in the success or failure of any meal, the spices.
“I realized after talking with other chefs and distributors that spices are stuck in the same place coffee was 20 years ago,” Meherwan shares as I pluck a grilled block of paneer from the Desi salad in front of me. “Like most people’s idea of coffee was Folgers and the orange handle brew pot with the coffee sitting there all day, many people’s idea of spices is a big thing of garlic powder or something from Sam’s Club just sitting there for a couple of years getting stale, not having any flavor.”
He and his team at Spicewalla hope to change that. “We’re on a spice mission,” he shares wholeheartedly. One lap around their Riverside Drive headquarters, nestled in-between Cheap Joe’s Art Stuff and Ginger’s Revenge, confirms. Director of Product Development and Production James Grogan walks through the distribution process, staring out over a sea of large paper sacks filled with coriander, cumin, black pepper, cardamom and more–both traditional Indian spices and others from Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. The spices arrive from two separate distributors, one focused in traditional Indian and the other in non-Indian spices. Their team unloads all of them into the main storage area where they live until they’re taken into a small production room. Grogan walks over to a large machine, which he identifies as a hammer mill, pointing to tiny levers or hammers, that come out and hit the spice as they pour it in. “We process coriander, cumin, cinnamon, garam masala and a handful of other items with this machine,” he said. “We’re literally roasting and grinding to order. Smell how fresh this is,” he opens the lid to a freshly ground blend of spices.
With three people on staff and this venture being outside the realm of the Chai Pani Restaurant Group’s five other offerings–Indian street food both in Asheville and Decatur, GA, a hipster swank little cocktail bar off Wall Street, a BBQ venture alongside Chef Elliot Moss, and Indo-Persian cuisine of Botiwalla in Atlanta, GA–the Spicewalla team has opened their new manufacturing arm quietly. Over the past six months, they’ve worked with one large North Carolina based distributor, Southern Foods, to test out their new systems and rearrange their team as needed. While working to open the space and solidify those import/export processes to provide fresher, better quality spices, they’ve also been working with local chefs and restaurateurs to offer custom small batch blends.
Grogan’s eyes light up as he waves his hand over a sea of jars in their apothecary, where they’ve kept a small sample of each spice after it comes in. As one of the original members of the Chai Pani kitchen crew over eight years ago, he says this is one of the most fun parts of his new shift in roles. “Chefs will send me a little packet of one of their spice blends and I’ll reverse engineer it and get back to them with something, then we’ll workshop it and get it to where they want it.”
Have no fear at-home chefs, the new small-batch spice ambassadors are also offering a retail line of 12 differently themed packs with a variety of blends, like Meherwan’s personal steak rub, his mother’s daal recipe and of course Chai Pani’s garam masala. In fact it was in part through garam masala that this idea was born. After Meherwan finished eating one of renowned local chef Katie Button’s dishes, he looked at her and asked if she cooked the lamb with the popular Indian spice and she nodded that she in fact did. He asked where she sourced it and she told him that they buy it from someone of course and he replied, ‘Oh no no no no, you don’t buy garam masala, you make it.’ He then showed her how he makes it, which sparked another aha moment.
I realized ‘Oh wow, there’s a major education component to this.’ One of the things that makes this very unique to distributors on the commercial side is that we’re actually treating it like these are our restaurants. So, buying whole and bulk as fresh as possible and then processing in really small amounts so that when you buy it, you know it’s really fresh, probably done in small batches with care and that someone was really thinking about it. It’s not Folgers coffee. That’s how we want someone to feel when they buy a jar of Spicewalla. We want them to open it up and say, ‘Wow, this is so fresh. This must have been done just last week’ and that will be because it was.
Pick up a copy of the spring edition of Food Life Magazine to see the full International Flavors issue, featuring stunning imagery of the Spicewalla headquarters as well as additional globally-minded chefs and eateries in western North Carolina.